I saw a tweet on the 4th of July advocating for canceling Frederick Douglass because of how he treated his first wife, Anna Murray.
At the moment, I had nothing but instinctual outrage at the tweet. Now we’re trying to cancel Frederick Douglass? Frederick Douglass, the hero who fought slavery and changed the world?
If there was an example of cancel culture going too far, that was it for me. But then I caught myself — I realized that hero-worship is just as dangerous as cancel culture.
Here is a list of people we have commonly hero-worshipped: the Pope, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, and in my case, Frederick Douglass.
It’s not like the tweet was wrong about the fact that Frederick Douglass was unfaithful to his first wife, but so what, I asked? It’s Frederick Douglass. The point is that yes, Anna Murray deserves much more attention in history for her efforts to help Frederick Douglass escape slavery and support him, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of turning the tide on Frederick Douglass.
But I had to catch myself again. Frederick Douglass did a lot of good things, but that doesn’t mean that he never did anything bad. Neither did George Washington, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Harriet Tubman. These people, for all that we worship them, were all human beings, and they made a lot of mistakes.
People who were really powerful, like Mandela, Washington, and Lincoln, were responsible for the deaths of a lot of people. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi is a complicit apologist in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
The truth is that no one can stand up to the purity standard of moral perfection. For all that Christians have done wrong, the faith acknowledges that people are all sinners as human beings with a lot of blind spots.
Putting any historical figure, politician, celebrity, or anyone else on a pedestal of sainthood is limiting for two reasons. It disallows them the perception of being human who makes mistakes as solely a saint. And it hero-worship is always unsustainable because a human being becomes an idea and a symbol of mythology over an actual human being who had to do whatever it took to accomplish their goals.
If you were looking at my resume on paper, you might perceive me as someone who sought out sainthood. I teach special education in a tough inner-city environment. I have volunteered close to a thousand hours on the Crisis Text Line and similar suicide and mental health hotlines. I donate a lot (although I don’t like to talk about it).
But I am a very flawed human being. I have done terrible things. I have said terrible things. I have lashed out at people more than once. I have not treated my students with respect all the time. I lock my door a couple more times than I reasonably should when I’m in a high crime neighborhood. I have been impatient and indulged in my own sense of self-righteousness when my family says things I don’t agree with.
All of this isn’t to say I’m a God awful person who deserves to be put into purgatory, but as a Calvinist, I’m a sinner saved by grace. All the good things I’ve done are only possible through the luck of God’s grace and the bad things are because of my own sin.
Look, even if you’re not religious, you, like me, fall somewhere in the middle where you’re a messy and complicated person who has done a lot of good things, as well as a lot of pretty bad things. And that’s very natural because you, too, are a human being.
Our current culture in social media, Twitter in particular, and cancel culture as a whole, completely neglects the nuance and ambiguity that exists within all human beings. Cancel culture and Twitter have molded people into mere symbols — symbols of either pure evil or pure good, but no area in between.
None of us are saints. All of us are sinners, but we’re not so debased that we deserve to bear the brunt of the world and be the worst human beings in the world. Calling out and canceling are replacements for introspection. No one wants to acknowledge that they can be a part of the problem, but as long as we exist in the system, we are all part of a problem — and yet our good deeds and sacrifices make us part of the solution, too.
An unpopular opinion I have is that everyone deserves to be canceled. No one can stand up to social media’s purity standard. Take a look through my old Facebook posts at 10-years-old in 2008, and you can pretty easily cancel me if you wanted to.
I have gone back and forth with how I feel about cancel culture, but Frederick Douglass was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. We are doing people, and ourselves, a serious disservice when we elevate any one person to hero-worship level purity. It’s just not possible and will always disappoint when the expectation is that high.
And if you think you’re someone who doesn’t deserve to be canceled, do some more introspection. Have you ever hurt someone? Have you ever said something horrible to someone else? If you answered no to those questions, then I don’t know what kind of Eden you live in, but everyone has done something deserving of being canceled, and no one fits the purity standard of hero-worship sainthood.
Being more comfortable with moral ambiguity in others as well as ourselves is a must. In real life, your friends and family are probably people who occupy the middle ground. You do too.
So I am not a saint, and you’re not either. One day we need to move forward acknowledging that ambiguity.
Originally published on July 7, 2020 on Frame of Reference.