Unable to process personal guilt, modern secular Westerners have developed a puritanical streak in cancelling others, while trying to seek personal absolution through identifying as perpetual victims.
Victimhood and cancel culture are a growing phenomenon in the modern West.
More and more minorities identify as oppressed victims of wider society — whether these minorities are gender, sexual or racial. Moreover, the moral prestige of being considered a victim is enormous.
And there is a growing intolerance toward those who step out of line with today’s sexual and gender orthodoxy, to the point where people are ‘cancelled’ for stating things considered common sense only a few years ago (just ask J.K. Rowling).
Why this growing trend?
There are many reasons why victimhood and cancel culture are on the rise. One reason might be society’s increased sensitivity toward victims: perhaps we’re more attuned to the pain faced by those in the minority. Another reason would be the rise and spread of Social Justice Theory.
But there’s another reason for this trend.
And that’s our post-Christian society’s inability to deal with guilt.
1) The Secular Attempt and Failure to Banish Guilt
Early in the 20th century, Sigmond Freud tried to redefine guilt as nothing more than internal psychic forces with no moral consequence.
Guilt, to Freud, was just a feeling, and it could be ignored. It could be denied. And we could be free of its crushing burden.
But as essayist Wilfred McClay points out in an important essay titled ‘The Strange Persistence of Guilt’:
But [banishing guilt] has not turned out to be an entirely workable solution, since it is not so easy to banish guilt by denying its reality.
Westerners are still afflicted by feelings of guilt — which is not surprising since as God’s image-bearers, even the most secular atheist has a conscience that accuses or excuses them (Romans 2:14-15).
Yet as it turns out, the secular West’s problem with guilt has only become worse as we’ve moved into a post-Christian age.
2) Technology Has Given Us More Power Over The World
This Power Leads to a Greater Sense of Responsibility — and Thus a Greater Sense of Guilt.
In the 21st century, human beings have more power to influence others and their environment than ever before. As a society and as individuals, we have power at our fingertips that our ancestors could only imagine.
As McClay points out:
[We live in] a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation… [we are] the first era in the life of the planet to be defined by the effects of the human presence and human power: effects such as nuclear fallout, plastic pollution, domesticated animals, and anthropogenic climate change.
For better and for worse, we can and are making an impact on the planet.
But with great power comes great responsibility. And more responsibility opens the door to more guilt. Again, as McClay points out:
Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap… Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.
While the idea of feeling guilty for our existence might have sounded far-fetched a while back, we’re now seeing schoolboys forced to apologise for their gender. And white people being made to feel guilty for their ‘privilege’ of being white.
But what help can our ‘enlightened’ secular society provide by way of dealing with such guilt?
Not much, it turns out:
3) In Our Secular Society, There is No Longer Any Way Of Becoming Free From Guilt
In a secular post-Christian society, we still feel guilty — in some ways more so than in previous generations — but what avenues are there for dealing with guilt?
While previous Western generations dealt with guilt through Christianity, this is no longer a path that secular Westerners are treading. And so, they’re looking for other ways to be free from guilt.
And one increasingly well-trodden path is victimhood.
4) Claiming Victimhood is One Way of Absolving Guilt
To be clear, there are genuine victims in our society. But the increased moral prestige of victimhood status requires an explanation.
And according to McClay, it’s (in part) because of secular society’s inability to deal with guilt:
With moral responsibility comes inevitable moral guilt… So if one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.
When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.
[I]n appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimised can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt — at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable.
Now just as victimhood is a method of dealing with the burden of guilt, so too is ‘cancel culture’:
5) Cancelling Perceived Oppressors is Another Way to Deal with Guilt
American Journalist Tim Grierson captured the mood of the modern secular West when he tweeted:
Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.
— Tim Grierson (@TimGrierson) June 19, 2018
Anger is the new normal in a society with no natural way of dealing with guilt. To not feel angry about various injustices feels ‘morally irresponsible’.
The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life.
They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen [disquiet] that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.
Where to Next for Our Secular Society?
A society that can’t deal with guilt is not stable. It will look for other ways of dealing with the burden of guilt — even hitherto bizarre ways like victimhood and cancel culture.
This situation, however, may open up more opportunities for the Gospel: the Gospel that deals with guilt in a full, free, and final way, through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Christ, who was the ultimate victim. The Gospel of Christ, who was cancelled. Not merely because of injustice, but to save us from guilt.
If ever a culture needed to hear the gospel of redemption from guilt, it’s our culture.