The Real Source of Cancel Culture: We're Seeking Justice for Old Wounds | Opinion

In a year​ of worsts, ​cancel culture may now be the frontrunner for worst scapegoater​. Writers, journalists, celebrities, and movie stars have all faced public shaming for old tweets, or bad tweets, or unearthed comments, or misconstrued ones, and many of these cases have resulted in firing and ignominy. In the latest example, an online mob came for Ellie Kemper, the star of ​show "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," who was viciously dragged for having been crowned the beauty queen of an organization with racist historical origins. Kemper apologized profusely—even after it was revealed that the organization had reformed a year before she was born.

Where does this viciousness come from? Why are we so eager to see our colleagues and celebrities excised from the public sphere, even when their alleged crimes are small or non existent?

Though cancelations often involve allegations of racism, I believe that cancel culture is far more psychological and spiritual than it is about race, politics or celebrity scandal. The truth is, w​hen it comes to cancel culture, the enemy is us.​

The "us" in particular is the part of us that was never made whole. The part of us that bears a wound, or trauma. The part of us that rears its head when someone cut us off on the road as we travel to work or when the customer in line ahead of us raises their voice for some perceived slight. Our wounds fester within us, within all of us. And they wait.

That's what cancel culture stems from: unresolved wounds, unresolved pain. And the desire to see justice for someone, which quickly becomes anyone.

From a theosophical perspective, I believe cancel culture is actually about what I've come to define as "fast food closure." It's about a momentary resolution to lingering personal grievances through action or reaction to controversial issues on social media. We seek immediate gratification from our call for accountability like we seek a text response from someone after being left on "read."

Put simply, we are using social media to achieve some feeling of retribution. We say to ourselves, "I was wounded once, and unlike last time, someone is finally going to get caught today. Someone is going to pay for what they did"—to me, is the hidden truth.

Ellie Kemper apologizes for Veiled Prophet participation
Ellie Kemper attends the 2019 Ad Council Dinner on December 05, 2019 in New York City. The actress has issued an apology for participating in the Fair St. Louis—previously known as the Veiled Prophet Ball—in 1999, when she was aged 19. Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Of course, this doesn't truly heal our wounds. Even after momentary justice is "achieved" and there is perceived closure, the emptiness within us remains because that reaction to scandal is not the true closure we really want—for ourselves.

So the wound continues to fester and our appetite for "justice" becomes even stronger. We wait again, for another scandal to spring up on social media, so we can try again to "right the wrongs" or "balance the scales" of justice in our lives because it hurts to think that the world is a troubling place to be in at times.

And just like trauma exists in the now and transcends the timeline of our everyday lives, so does cancel culture. A comment from decades ago, a beauty pageant from 1999, a costume from adolescence forty years ago—like the trauma of childhood, these exist in the here and now for the online mob seeking to allay its own suffering through the exercise of fast food closure.

Of course, very few see it this way. Many on the Left deny the existence of any such thing called "cancel culture." They call it "accountability." For people on the Right, cancel culture is about an angry rush to judgment or the irresponsible demonization of a targeted person. And for people in the middle, it's all very confusing.

Cancel culture is the illusion of microwave justice. It is our fleeting reaction to micro-sufferings from the daily injury of slights we incur in a push-button society.

We need to spend more time humanizing each other before we end up canceling the concept of closure. This is not a call for blind forgiveness, but a prayer for the once-valued aspiration of having a good conscience.

You can't get justice for your own suffering by demanding it from a stranger. If we all acknowledged this—that our suffering is real, that we deserve redress, and that canceling someone else is not the way—our society would be a lot healthier.

James C. Onwuachi is a theologian, an Upper School Dean at The Kinkaid School in Texas, and a doctoral candidate.

The views in this article are the author's own.