Christian Media in a Cancel Culture World

Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible. – George Orwell, 1984

A certain strain of cancel culture I have been experiencing constitutes an attack on memory. And therefore, any of us whose work depends precisely on memory — its strengthening, cultivation, accumulation, enrichment — will be its targets. That means those who work in media are among those targets. And in a media world dominated by the digital, sending things down the Memory Hole is not only an option but indeed increasingly even expected as the right thing to do.

Since taking up the newly-woven mantle of Chief Content Officer of Ancient Faith Ministries, I’ve found this expected of me a number of times now — not from my fellow staff members, mind you, but from people who are ostensibly AFM listeners, readers and supporters. (I fully believe that those who exert this pressure are doing so in good faith.)

Some examples:

On one occasion, someone who had once been interviewed by an AFM contributor (i.e., an author, blogger or podcaster published by AFM) for a seven-minute podcast episode later went and posted something awful on social media. I received an email saying that the fact that the interview was still on our website meant that AFM was either endorsing this awful post or ignorant of it — and if we would not take it down, donations would be cut off. In other words, we are not only expected to monitor the social media posts of everyone any of our contributors has ever interviewed, but we are also responsible for what those interviewees post on their own social media platforms.

On another occasion, I announced that I was going to be interviewing a sometimes controversial writer on a podcast — someone who is not an AFM contributor but nonetheless an Orthodox Christian with interesting things to say, even if I don’t agree with all of it. I received multiple messages that by interviewing him at all I was therefore responsible for what he writes on his own blog, even though the interview was not about particular topics that those who contacted me were very concerned about. Further, I would supposedly be endorsing the evil they saw in his writing if I did not at least do the oppositional journalism thing by provoking and challenging him, even though opposition journalism is not what I do, and even though he gets provoked and challenged online pretty much all day long every day. (Really.)

On still another occasion, some actual AFM contributors were posting on their own, non-AFM social media platforms regarding a recent controversial political event. I was asked if I had a problem with their posting those posts, implying I endorsed them if I didn’t. In other words, AFM is expected not only to be constantly monitoring all the social media posts of its hundreds of contributors, but if their politics don’t align with a questioner’s politics — which supposedly ought to be the official politics of AFM — then we ought to sanction those contributors.

On another occasion, someone who was once had a brief association with AFM but who later openly expressed anti-Orthodox views was paraded online by vicious trolls as proof that AFM endorsed those views — despite our explicit repudiation of those views, lack of any ongoing association with that person, and only the slightest association in the past.

One time, an AFM contributor posted on social media the intention to vote for a particular political candidate because of Issue X. That candidate’s objectionable position on Issue Y was pointed out, ascribed to the contributor, and then ascribed to AFM — even though neither the contributor nor AFM endorsed that position on Issue Y (nor did AFM even endorse the Issue X position).

On yet another occasion, the prominent author of a third-party book (a book that AFM sells but did not publish), which contained no objectionable content and was published in the mid-1990s by a mainstream Orthodox publisher, much more recently said some objectionable things in an academic journal which AFM does not publish, endorse, distribute, etc. Someone wrote to me to let me know that he’d been reading this book (which I gather he bought from the AFM store), discovered the decades-later objectionable comments from that other publication, and concluded both that AFM was not a reliable source of Orthodox material and also that AFM owed him a refund. He also planned to throw the book in the trash.

An Attack on Memory

This is the strain of cancel culture I am talking about. (There are others.) It is an attack on memory. Why do I say that these calls are an attack on memory? It is not as though as in 1984 we are being expected to act as though an association never really happened. (Are we?) Couldn’t we say “We won’t be working with him further”?

In some cases, that would probably be enough to satisfy. But consider the case of the person who wrote to me about a recent comment made by an author whose 25+ year old work we sold as a third-party book:

He said that AFM was no longer reliable and even that he was owed a refund for the book. So for him, both the book and AFM became retroactively tainted by something that happened decades later. The memory that he had of the author, the book and the ministry that sold it to him were altered because of this comment. The possibility for saying “This author seems to have gone off the deep end lately, but his earlier stuff was fine, and I was edified by reading it and am glad AFM made it available” is just wrong. The present moment has to be read backward into the past.

Part of the irony of this is that some cancelers are not satisfied even with the retcon. They will have gotten screenshots and will post them online, proving that that content was once there. That it is now deleted was not an act of repentance, prudence or learning from mistakes but rather proof that something is being hidden. You can’t win. The taint is permanent. For this sort, any association with someone who once did something bad is forever and damning, proof that we always were reprobate.

Yet memory is foundational to humanity, and retconning is a dangerous thing to demand of someone else. We all edit our memories, of course, in that we remember things differently or reevaluate what happened in the light of new information or experience. But to allow every present infraction to collapse all perspective on good things from the past is reckless and dehumanizing both to oneself and to others. Yet it is far easier to cancel than to discern. Rather than let me be challenged by the complexities of complicated and flawed people, discerning the good from the bad, they and anyone ever associated with them must be expunged.

Let me say that in almost every case where people have contacted me with a problem they saw I actually agreed with their evaluation of that problem. Like I said above, most of what was being pointed out was something actually objectionable to the faith and/or to me personally. But where I disagree is in what that means for the AFM content that is often only tangentially connected with that problem.

The Collapse of Perspective

One of the biggest problems with the age of cancel culture is that it collapses all time into this single moment. The Orwell quote I include above is often remembered for its first absurd sentence, but the second is perhaps even more telling. If someone with whom I have had an association does something bad now, then it is not enough that I proceed cautiously with him in the future, but I have to scrub all my past with him, as well.

And what may be worse is that there is little in the way of perspective here — even trivial malefactions by persons barely associated with the ministry are interpreted as reflecting badly on the whole ministry. Every moment is now retconned. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia, and we never had any agreement with them. Everything must be evaluated maximally. There is no scale. Every stray word is proof of reprobation.

There is a difference, however, between what we choose to do going forward and what we feel is so egregious that we have to delete from our servers or from our bookstore.

There is also a difference between people whom we ask to partner with us as content contributors and those with whom we simply interact and engage via interviews or whose conference or event we cover and archive.

There is also a difference in how we treat various kinds of content from contributors — books, blogs, podcasts, videos or conference talks. They are not all of equal weight and handled with the same process.

There is also a difference between what we publish and what people whose works we’ve published do and say that we have no part in.

And there is also a difference between the way Christians should assess and handle these things — including in a media ministry responsible to Christ in His Church — and the way the world as we now have it does so. I will say here at the outset that I believe that cancel culture is anti-Christian and requires confession and repentance. It is the practice of misjudgment and principled unforgiveness.

Some might say that cancel culture is really just capitalistic market forces happening in much faster time than was possible prior to the age of social media, and I acknowledge that that argument has merit — companies have to make decisions based at least in part on what is going to keep them in business. But what I am primarily interacting with is the moral frame that canceling is operating from. And because I disagree with that moral frame, that means that the basis on which I give advice and make decisions is going to be different.

So what I aim to do here is to lay out some principles and application for what it looks like for a Christian media ministry to handle and curate content responsibly in this hyper-anxious age of cancel culture.

Things That Should Be Obvious But I Guess Aren’t

It is fundamentally unreasonable to hold someone responsible for things he does not say, encourage, publish or endorse. That means that when some guy interviewed by one of our partners posts something terrible on Twitter or Facebook, you can’t peg it on us any more than you could peg it on his employer, his wife, his parents, every teacher he’s ever had, the guy he lives next door to, etc. In other words, guilt by association is still a logically fallacious idea.

It is fundamentally unreasonable to expect a media ministry to monitor the social media posts of everyone we’ve ever interacted with publicly. Depending on how you track it, parts of AFM have been around since at least the 1980s, and AFR has been around since 2004. By this point, we’ve engaged with thousands of people. Only a relative few are partnering content contributors in a real sense, but even these number in the hundreds.

It is fundamentally unreasonable to expect even from content contributors perfect purity in all they say or do, whether on or off our platforms — on penalty of being ejected and their content repudiated for one infraction and with no opportunity for repentance. Even clergy are not held to that standard, and they actually have a sanctioned teaching ministry given by their bishops.

Someone who writes in with a complaint is thinking about the bad thing they saw from one person, but they may not realize what consistency would require to apply the principle fairly. Our ministry would collapse under the weight of the surveillance effort required.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. And even though these expectations are unreasonable, the Overton window has shifted in our culture such that a number of people now see these things as perfectly reasonable. They are not. I reject them and refuse to let these expectations determine either our policy or how we apply it.

Canceling the Possibility of Repentance

What would have happened if Israel had canceled King David after he committed murder and adultery? We would probably not have the Psalter, for one thing, because the psalms both before and after those sins would be tainted. Or what about Solomon’s fall into idolatry? No Song of Solomon or Proverbs. Almost all saints’ lives would be gone. We certainly wouldn’t have the epistles of St. Paul, who famously participated in the stoning of St. Stephen.

This does not mean that we promote the unrepentant, by the way. Nearly every modern preacher who props up unrepentant politicians or clergy by mentioning St. David forgets that repentance and humility were the conditions for God’s continued blessing on him to be king and even to become the ancestor of Christ.

And they also tend to collapse forgiveness into giving future responsibility — we should forgive that serial philanderer by leaving him in his pastoral position. No, you don’t do that. Someone can be forgiven but also not trusted with responsibility going forward.

Self-serving preachers aside, I should make the distinction here between the cancel culture that is aimed at celebrities and the kind I’ve been talking about. Celebrity cancels are aimed at powerful, influential people who may not be influenceable except by boycott. So celebrity cancels are about holding them accountable for bad behavior. And they also tend to be mob-driven. And I have noticed that in many cases, if the celebrity publicly apologizes for bad behavior, he does sometimes get forgiven by the public.

But the type of canceling I’m talking about goes a step further than simple future boycott and says that all good that had been done by such a person has to be repudiated, because the present taints even the past. The canceled have to be erased from society because their very presence threatens us.

Why the difference from celebrity cancels? Celebrity cancels are about “speaking truth to power” via boycott, while the kind I’m talking about is focused on purity, a sense that even a remote association with someone’s bad behavior or opinions has a cascading effect of responsibility.

But Ss. David, Solomon and Paul were held responsible and made accountable for their actions by God. And God even took the sinful actions of David and Paul and, through their repentance, made them result in good. And in the Scriptural memory of Israel, their works even became core parts of our liturgical and dogmatic life.

From the context of media ministry, if one of our contributors goes off the deep end, we are probably not likely to continue to partner with them. But we also have to have perspective on what actually constitutes the deep end, and we also have to have perspective about what really requires a full break with a contributor and what doesn’t. That’s not always an easy call, but it’s certainly not a call to be made by those who can’t see all the factors involved.

But Isn’t Canceling What the Church Sometimes Does?

As a counter-example to the Biblical saints I mention, you might bring up the example of Origen, who was condemned by an ecumenical council centuries after his death in both his person and his writings. Wasn’t that the Church canceling him, retconning him out of Church history?

No. The context is quite different for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the written word was far more valuable and authoritative than it is in our day. The resources needed to copy and maintain even a single book were enormous, so they had to be directed wisely. Now, the resources needed to keep a book around are almost zero. But in late antiquity, putting the time and effort into retaining the works of a heretic took away from Orthodox works.

Despite that, there was not a general purging and destruction of every single thing he ever wrote, which is why we still have some of it around today.

Also, a true “cancel” of Origen would have required retconning the works of multiple saints — Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian not least among them. These two holy fathers not only were heavily influenced by the works of Origen but even compiled a Philokalia of his works — a “best of Origen” of sorts, filtered through their saintly discernment (a discernment which allowed St. Basil even to recommend reading pagan literature).

Most of all, however, this work was done not through social media outcry but by a synod of bishops duly called together to engage in this solemn purpose.

There have been cases where AFM has had to stop selling an author’s works, whether because we found something in it outside what is really acceptable within Orthodox boundaries or because the credibility of the author was so shot that continuing would have been impossible. In one case, a book on marriage by an Orthodox priest was no longer published or sold by AFM because the priest not only divorced his wife but also left the Orthodox Church entirely. You can see how that just wouldn’t work.

So, yes, there are times when material has to be cut out, not just failed to be renewed. I’m not saying that we never look back and make decisions to remove material, but perspective and deliberation by the appropriate people are key here. I refuse to make decisions by “one strike, and you’re out and we’re going to act like you were never in to begin with.”

“Before” and “After”

When we bring a new contributing partner on board, it is always a risk. We have a process for vetting which includes getting a letter from a layman’s priest or a clergyman’s bishop blessing the particular work they want to do. We also do some research to see what a potential contributor’s reputation is like. We also read or listen to samples of their work.

But you can never be perfectly certain or predict the future. And even if someone does mess up a bit, that doesn’t mean he’ll always do that or do it enough that it really constitutes a problem. It’s like any relationship — it requires time, adjustments, negotiation and renegotiation. And forgiveness.

But the way this works before we form a new partnership and after it’s already been formed just can’t be the same. “Is it unwise to bring this person on board?” is not the same as “Are we going to take this person’s published content down?” Because in the former case, we might be saying “No thanks,” but in the latter, it’s often received (and sometimes intended) as “You’re being corrected.”

(As an aside, that is not to say that every piece of content we discontinue constitutes a correction or penalization. At the end of 2020, we did a pruning of a couple dozen podcasts and blogs, and most of that was because of dormancy and/or redundancy. We weren’t making comments on the quality or reliability of the content. In most cases, we were just moving on. My plan is to make this a routine procedure.)

That said, we would not be responsible if we didn’t sometimes have to say, “I’m sorry, but this relationship is done now.” Pastors can’t do that with parishioners (except under certain extreme circumstances), but a media ministry is not a parish and not equal to the Church. Saying that we’re done with certain content does not mean that we believe it shouldn’t exist, that the contributor is evil, etc. It just means that our resources aren’t going to go into it any more. Sometimes that’s because it doesn’t meet our standards. Sometimes that’s because it has doctrinal or credibility problems.

Levels of Responsibility and Review

One of the things that’s critical in media ministry is to have perspective about the level of responsibility that is appropriate for different kinds of media. I can’t make a perfectly linear chart here, but it should be obvious that the kind of responsibility an author of a book on soteriology has is quite different than the kind associated with someone who is interviewed for five minutes in a street encounter.

I will give some general principles for the kinds of content that AFM publishes, beyond the personal vetting of specific partners:

The highest level of review goes to books. They represent our biggest investment of time, are looked at by the most people before publication, and are our most permanent commitment. Once a book is in someone’s library, you can’t delete it. It’s there. And books also require the biggest commitment in both manpower and sunk costs for printing, etc. So we are extra careful with books. But even within that category, some books are weightier than others.

Podcasts also include review, because there is a producer who listens to them in the process of editing. A producer might not be qualified to judge everything, but we hire producers who have a knowledge of the Orthodox faith, not just anyone who can do editing.

We don’t publish too many videos yet, but their level of review depends on how much they get edited. Some are edited about as much as a podcast (e.g., homilies), while others are much more thoroughly worked through with the creator.

Conference talks for AFM events include review mainly in the choice of speakers. But the responsibility investment is also fairly low, because the audience is one-time and limited. And we might have no ongoing partnership with the speaker.

An even lower level is when we record or publish recordings from an event that we didn’t put on ourselves. While we reserve the right not to publish an event’s talks (either in whole or in part), we are certainly not endorsing everything said by every speaker at an event that we didn’t set up in the first place.

Blogs have the lowest level of active review, because the author can click “publish” without anyone else seeing what he’s written first. So we have to trust our bloggers to be wise and faithful. Most of the review process comes in the vetting before we bring a blogger on board, but we also recommend to bloggers who are talking about harder subjects to have trusted, qualified advisors to give critiques before they click that button.

In no case, though, is subsequent review by me as the CCO or other leadership considered impossible. We have in fact pulled books, deleted podcast episodes, and taken blog posts down, because when we looked at them, we made the decision that that content was not appropriate for our platforms.

Did we issue a press release every time? Even though some people would prefer that (“Why didn’t I hear anything about this?!”), no. Why? Because we’re curating content, not virtue-signaling.

Does removing content mean that we made a big mistake in partnering with those contributors? In almost every case, no. It just means that that person made a mistake, and we worked to remedy it.

Being willing to remedy mistakes and making wise decisions about whether the partnership can continue is precisely what it means to be a responsible Orthodox Christian media ministry. We on staff make mistakes ourselves. And we learn from them.

What Actually Is Reasonable to Expect?

As I mentioned above, we expect all our partnering content contributors to have a blessing from their priest or bishop. This plugs them into a network of accountability and trust. It’s not perfect, but it’s the norm within the Church.

A bishop trusts his clergy and gives them a blessing to do their work, and those who have a blessing to teach and preach do those things. Does the bishop preview every sermon or class lesson before it goes out to the faithful? No, that would be impossible. But he trains, he trusts and he corrects when needed. Likewise, AFM doesn’t preview every podcast episode or blog post before they go out — that would likewise be impossible because of the sheer volume. But we train, we trust and we correct when needed.

Further, though, we do have specific expectations that contributors have to sign on to:

1) That they would use neither AFM platforms nor their own, non-AFM platforms or public life to support anti-Orthodox content or positions (as interpreted and applied by our synods of bishops) and

2) That they would not use AFM platforms to post partisan political positions (particularly by endorsing or opposing candidates, parties or policies).

Within those boundaries, a variety of viewpoints is acceptable, because a variety in theological expression and opinions on application has always been normal within the Orthodox Church’s dogmatic boundaries.

And when we’re interviewing someone, so long as it’s not framed as This Person Is an Official Teacher of the Orthodox Faith, it’s reasonable to expect that interviewees may sometimes say things in an interview we’ll disagree with. It is not reasonable to ascribe endorsement for everything an interviewee says (whether on- or off-platform) to the interviewer or the website that hosts his work.

Obviously, judgment calls sometimes have to be made. Certain subjects have come to be associated with political positions but have their own spiritual character that precedes and is not dependent on politics (e.g., abortion) or are a matter of disagreement even among good-faith Orthodox Christians obeying their bishops (e.g., how to achieve economic justice).

Why is Canceling Now Seen as Reasonable?

As I mentioned above, the Overton window has shifted such that cancel culture is now regarded as reasonable, even in its purity-themed form that we have found sometimes aimed at AFM. Why is that?

Even while I disagree with them, I fully believe that those who engage in this behavior are doing so in good faith. And I think that it’s out of a growing sense of anxiety in the broader culture. Public life has become so frenetic, so tense, so polarized, that feeling safe means putting up walls and defending them with passion. That is what I think is happening now. If I identify as “Orthodox,” but someone else identifying as “Orthodox” says or does things I find heinous, then if I don’t demand they lose that identification or their platform, then my own “Orthodox” identity is under threat.

And the Orthodox Church in particular has for a long time had more rigoristic streaks within its ranks that emphasize purity over engagement. So the cultural anxiety and its resultant need to feel safe have hybridized with that rigorism to produce cascading chains of taint.

I believe, however, that the Orthodox Church is robust enough to handle engagement even with sinful people and even to be home to sinful people. I also believe that we need to work on understanding what constitutes healthy boundaries so that this anxiety doesn’t rule us.

So, What, Then?

I am not where the buck stops for AFM, but it is my job to advise and to help make decisions. So that being said, I refuse to participate in cancel culture of any sort. And I refuse to let it govern any of my advice or decisions. For me, the question is always whether what we are doing brings people to be faithful to Christ.

I fully expect that cancel culture pressure will continue to mount, that we will get denounced by people of all ideological persuasions (and we have, by the way), that we will receive demands about why we continue to allow this person’s name anywhere near our website or why we chose to close out a partnership, etc. And I know that that just goes with this job. I am not complaining. But I am critiquing and I am responding. I do actually want to hear from people who see problems, but I cannot promise that I will see things their way. I am much more persuadable from the position of serving the mission of the gospel than I am via threats to denounce or withdraw donations.

I also believe that the royal road of true evangelism, education and edification (the three Es from our mission statement) is not about turning the faith into an ideology made pristine by a well-defended Puritanism. And that is what this cancel culture is, by the way — it is a severe Calvinistic outlook that cannot allow any stain or blemish even within view, as evidenced by the threats that always come with it.

Rather, a robust Orthodox Christian media ministry falls into neither polemic nor compromise but is committed to engagement. Engagement means to keep our integrity, holding fast with faithfulness to Christ in the Orthodox Church while connecting with, talking to, critiquing, comparing, loving, serving, and sacrificing for the world that Christ said He came to save and not to condemn.

It requires not cancellation, but discernment.


Post Script: I’m not perfectly wedded to the frame I’ve given here, i.e., the problem is an attack on memory. Nor is my quotation from Orwell intended to import the whole Orwellian apparatus of censorship in 1984. But this is the best frame I can think of for a problem that I’m not yet totally sure how to describe. I do know, however, that I oppose this impulse to erase in every case whatever is not consistent with the moment. That is not what repentance is. It is something else.


NB: While I am speaking here as the Chief Content Officer of AFM, the above does not constitute a policy (though it does describe some policy). It is rather a statement of my philosophy for how I do part of my job and what people can expect when they interact with me in my professional capacity.

Of course, most of what I do is producing my own content, but I am honored to be able to help other people with theirs, too.

7 comments:

  1. Well stated, Father. I agree that people have come to accept such things as “cancel culture” is a major issue in our world. May God grant discernment in these hard times.

  2. Father bless! You nailed it as always! Your humble and wise approach is inspiring to me.

  3. “I refuse to participate in cancel culture of any sort.”
    One could argue that this post is a form of (negative) engagement, which is a mere half-step from participation.
    But I do appreciate the challenges you face, and will pray for the continued success of AFM.

  4. I’m just hoping that my wife lets me watch “Annie Hall” one more time before I die. Yeah, I feel yah. Well said. Still everyone is entitled to my opinions on X, Y and especially Z. Z is the ticket.

  5. “I believe, however, that the Orthodox Church is robust enough to handle engagement even with sinful people and even to be home to sinful people.” Yes, I think that includes all of us. Reminds me of something I heard long ago: “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it. You aren’t perfect so you’ll ruin it.” Don’t these people realize that they too aren’t perfect, and that their quest for such spotless purity will come back on themselves?

    If cancel culture were allowed its way, anytime someone called into a live call in show at AFR and said something disagreeable, the whole show would have to be cancelled, right? Insanity. In the end, everything gets shut down in cancel culture.

    I think Jesus put it best: “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Would that cancel culture adherents kept that rule.

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