“Cancel Culture” and the Law of Karma

Photo credit: Jamie Marich

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     Where do I even begin? So many thoughts and feelings have swirled in me as I’ve read the myriad posts and articles commenting on so-called “cancel culture.” Because unhealed and activated trauma can impact the way that the brain organizes information, I am admittedly having difficulty putting coherent sentences together these days. And so many of the issues around “cancel culture” rub up against remnants of my trauma narrative that are still healing works in process. Let’s face it, the last four-plus years in the United States have been powerfully revelatory. And revelations come in many forms. I’ve seen the true colors of many individuals revealed in our nation’s upheaval. I’ve also had a light shone on my own blind spots that I’ve needed to address. Interestingly, the fusion of the two states—seeing what other people really believe and knowing that I need to toe the middle line less and make a little more trouble in working towards seeing the change I believe in—has resulted in many relationships in my life coming to an end. Friendships, family relationships, and working connections… 

      As these debates rage, the words of the Bhagavad Gita keep coming up for me (don’t worry, certain kinds of Christians in my life ‘cancelled’ me years ago for even reading this sacred text of India). One of the most frequently-cited teachings in the Bhagavad Gita (2.47) is: “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions.” A cursory Google search reveals some variation of this ancient teaching in over 100 forms. Many conservative sites and pundits are even known to quote the variation commonly attributed to Ezra Taft Benson, “You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequence of that choice.” 

     Could it be that many of us are finally setting good boundaries and enforcing some of these consequences? Or finally holding people responsible for horrible behaviors and belief systems that they thought they got away with? Perhaps we’re finally learning that false unity and explaining hatred and dismissiveness of abuse as “difference of opinions” are pathways to disaster?

     Personally and professionally, I am all for this shift. Most of the voices that I hear complaining about “cancel culture” are members of the white, traditionally dominant culture who are feeling a certain kind of way because it’s becoming less acceptable to articulate hateful or even status quo rhetoric that keeps marginalized populations oppressed. I get even angrier when such people claim that their “religious freedom” is being impinged upon because you will never theologically convince me that cancelling queer or trans folks is necessary to practicing any religious faith. 

     Being a therapist, I do earnestly try to practice empathy and step into the other’s shoes. I know that some of these folks have their issues around belonging or getting kicked out of certain circles being activated. Having grown up conservative I also know that it is a real paradigm shift to see the world from a perspective other than your own. Your own pain may be very legitimate, yet so much of how we deal with this pain as a species is to fend for ourselves—it’s the law of survival. Being raised with or inundated with media influences that demonizes empathy and praises the survival of the fittest mentality can make it difficult to accept any invitations to see the world differently. I was there at one point in my life, and it took a great deal of hard work and healing myself to choose differently. For my own mental health, the consequences have been positive, even if it means I no longer belong in certain spaces. 

     I also try to be empathetic knowing that if someone doesn’t like me—a professional adversary, a jaded lover, or a someone who didn’t mesh with my leadership style—a false accusation or report of a different perspective on a situation could be put out there and that may lead to me being “cancelled.” Something stupid that I did in my ignorant past can be brought up to discredit me; and believe me, I’ve done plenty of stupid things and said many things I regret from an emotionally reactionary place throughout my life. I always do my best to learn from these experiences and make amends, yet my past still lives in the memory of many people I may have hurt or offended. I am even more aware that persons of color run an even greater risk of being discredited by one piece of bad press, a single accusation, or revelation of a past indiscretion. 

     Thus, when an accusation is issued or a behavior is called out, I do try to allow the individual in question due process, and I’ve long believed in the power of restorative amends. Especially if the report is about something the individual did in the past; I look to see if there is real evidence of changed behavior. I do believe that people who face consequences for unethical, illegal, or immoral behaviors ought to be given some grace to learn, to make amends, and to transform how they behave in the world. Yet in my experience, the people who go on to engage in this transformation are those who can accept their consequences, not fight them. These consequences can open the door for a person to re-educate themselves, making amends or restoration whenever possible, and then going on to hopefully make a constructive difference. And I don’t just mean for PR lip service! I am an individual in long-term recovery and I see miracles happen every day when people embrace real change. So I am not fully pessimistic about the state of our country and the great shift that a wider culture of justifiable consequence can facilitate. 

     Keeping it simple, I’ve been cancelled, and I’ve also been the one who had to do some cancelling. My ex-husband would likely say that I cancelled him—I contend that I held a boundary and protected myself. Other members of my family might offer similar assessments of me—that I can’t leave the past in the past and move on for the sake of family unity. That’s what many politicians are asking me to do these days and I cry foul. My own mental health and integrity is more important. People who feel that the business I run and the public presence I project is hostile to conservative voices—I maintain that there are certain values that I stand for as a public figure and as a business owner. The more I let those values inform how I show up in the world, the more effective I can be. Our relationships with truth and how that relationship translates into behaviors may not be compatible anymore. 

     The teaching I cited from The Bhagavad Gita is one of many ways that scripture challenges us to embrace the universal law of karma, which can simply be described as cause and effect. No, despite the Western misunderstandings about the term, karma is not about revenge. At its core, karma gives us the chance to do our work, to keep circling around until we get it right so that suffering can eventually end. And these teachings are not unique to Eastern thought—Christians call it law of the harvest, often presented as “you reap what you sow.” So perhaps you’re not getting cancelled after all because none of this is about revenge or petty punishment. You are being given an opportunity to heal what no longer serves you or the world around you. You are being given the opportunity to plant new seeds, tend to their care, and watch them grow into something new. Hopefully, something that will contribute to real healing and unity in our country and in the world entirely. 

2 Responses

  1. Love this. It really helped clarify something for me!

    As I read, it occurred to me that there has always been an implicit demand in power hierarchies that the person who is less powerful protects the person who is more powerful. If the vulnerable person is hurt, it’s somehow their job to swallow it and not make the offender “feel bad.” (As we know, fear is a powerful motivator to silence.) What this has done is create a universe where “feeling bad” or bearing the natural or logical consequences for one’s behavior is perceived as aggressive.

    No more. Just, no.

    When we don’t stay silent, but instead, hold up a mirror and let the facts and the filth bounce right back on the person spewing it, we don’t have to wait long for the howls of rage. ‘How dare we’ not contain that filth for them so that they never have to experience it? The only way to break through this is to prevent (as best we can) all that avoidance, and boy is it loud and messy.

  2. Setting healthy boundaries is about love of self and others. “Cancel culture “ comes from a very different mental space. People who set boundaries and challenge injustice do so from a space of love. We can lovingly disengage with energies that are not healthy for us and still send those people and places love and light. We can stand up for love and acceptance in all the spaces we move in and we won’t always be liked for it. But then again it’s not about that is it. All those before us that have stood up, spoke up and taken action in loving ways have always faced persecution and hate. We do it anyway because we can’t do anything else if we are following the wisdom and guidance of our hearts and souls.

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