February 2021

In an age of cancel culture can I find room in my heart for empathy?

Beyond outrage, indignation and justified critique, in an age of cancel culture can I find room in my heart for any empathy for those who feel aggrieved, asks Patty Fawkner. 

On January 6 this year, like millions of people throughout the world, I could not drag myself away from the television as supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. 

Of all the images of that day, the one that haunts me most is that of a young female protestor. She was about 20 years old and petite compared to the hairy beefy protestors around her. She wore a star-spangled beanie and was one of the whipped-to-a-frenzy mob on the steps of the Capitol chanting, or rather screaming, “USA! USA! USA!” It was the depth of rage, hatred and venom etched on her face that disturbed me. I felt dismay and outrage. 

My outrage stemmed from the realisation that her outrage was built on the lie that the US presidential election was stolen. Lies, “lies told for power and for profit” as Joe Biden said in his inaugural address, had fuelled this insurrection. Outrage has become the currency of the day.

But I need to press the pause button and examine my own response, particularly since listening to an ABC Big Ideas podcast, titled The Age of Online Outrage

Ashley “Dotty” Charles was the witty, thought-provoking speaker. As female, black and gay, she believes that there is much that could legitimately fuel her outrage but, as she explained in the podcast and in her recent book, Outrage – Why Everyone is Shouting and No One is Talking, she believes she needs to be selective about any activism born of outrage. If we jump on the outrage bandwagon for all and sundry, she says, we can miss what matters most, we can be confused about what we really stand for and what deserves our considered, rather than violent, response.

Dotty Charles explores the public shaming and tribalism that is endemic on social media, the playground of “purveyors of hate”. Much of our outrage, she claims, is driven by a lot of unconscious ego and self-righteousness.

I am offended and, therefore, I must be the principled one; look at me and see how noble, morally superior and virtuous I am.

Actor Rowan Atkinson concurs. In a recent interview with UK outlet the Radio Times,  Atkinson says that the online cancel culture is like a ‘‘medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn’’. 

The star of Mr Bean and Blackadder says that online witch hunts create a simplistic, binary view of society, of the good and the bad and the worthy and unworthy. The internet is awash with ridicule, name-calling and unfounded accusation. Online users serve as prosecutor, trial and jury of complete strangers. They presume to know and subsequently judge, with spiked venom, the intentions and hearts of those whose views differ from their own. 

I am not active on social media, but it occurred to me that the dynamic is the same when much of my outrage, much of my critique is fed by unconscious ego and a self-righteous moral superiority.  

It’s tricky discussing religion within my family but, oh, what a wonderful feeling of camaraderie when we start talking politics! We bond by having a common political enemy to dissect and demonise and Donald J Trump was a godsend. We bond and feel better about ourselves by condemning another.

Sociologists tell us that we create community by scapegoating. It is “easier to form community against something rather than around something, and to define ourselves more by what we are against than by what we are for,” says spiritual author Ronald Rolheiser in Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity (p159).

And psychologists tell us that we all carry some inherent feelings of shame and we seek ways of ridding ourselves of such unconscious negative feelings.

If I feel put down, put upon or humiliated, I can reduce these feelings by criticising and blaming someone else.

This can be highly addictive, and we witness how this is amplified on social media where outrage has become, Dotty Charles says, the default setting.

I am not immune and at times, I catch myself sounding like a “grumpy old woman”, quite at home within the 21st Century’s culture of complaint. So, what to do? 

Even though outrage is subjective, there are truly unjust things that I am and must be outraged about – hate crime, domestic violence, our government’s treatment of asylum seekers, deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for starters.

Gospel values need to be both the measure of the “what” of my outrage and the “how” of my response in some form of action and intent. 

Dotty Charles pleads for engagement and dialogue as healthy antidotes to toxic outrage. Beyond outrage, indignation and justified critique, can I find room in my heart for any empathy for those who feel aggrieved? Can I try to understand their outrage?

It is Lent so a good time to “watch my language” and give up harsh words rather than sugar and sweets. I pray for the grace to be more mindful of the urge to judge and blame; to realise that gossip is rarely harmless, and that “detraction”, defined by the Webster Dictionary as “belittling or disparagement, a lessening of reputation or esteem especially by envious, malicious, or petty criticism”, is alive and well. 

As I reflect on the Gospel readings for the coming 40 days, especially the passion narratives of Holy Week, I wish to learn from Jesus’ response to the outrage of the “mob” who, in similar vein to the angry protestors on the steps of the Capitol Building, chanted and screamed, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Ronald Rolheiser writes:

Jesus takes away the tensions and sins of the community by absorbing them, carrying them, transforming them, and not giving back in kind.  Jesus took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessings; and he took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. 

As uncomfortable as it may be, I need to remind myself that all of us, including hate-filled mobsters, terrorists, and leaders who fuel insurrection, all of us are made in the image and likeness of God. This Lent I will pray for victims of outrage and those who are fuelled by outrage, especially one petite young woman wearing a star-spangled beanie.   



Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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