Humans Are Monsters. And That's Why I Love Them.
Cancel culture + human nature + Judaism.
The deeper I go into living Jewishly, the more I see a divide between the Jewish view of human nature and the modern progressive view of it. Namely: Jews see humans as fundamentally flawed, naturally imperfect, always striving to be better selves, always stumbling.
Progressives see humans as something close to perfect. Modern secular liberal society has been cast as pessimistic, but it is very much not. It’s deeply optimistic. The anger — the screeching dive bombing known as cancel culture — comes from shock that humans aren’t behaving in the beautiful ways that are supposed to be so natural to them.
The only way to earnestly argue for police abolition is if you believe that the human heart is good and pure, that we naturally want to adhere to rules and not commit crimes. Greed, cheating, violence, cruelty are all perversions forced on us by a toxic society, a perverted economy, and repressive institutions. Fix those problems and our flaws disappear. Abolish the police. Lions will lay with lambs.
You have to see something like cancel culture (a term I’ve worked to avoid for years but here it is) in that way. The people who believe a single social error — dumb tweets sent as a teenager, let’s say — should destroy a life and make a woman unemployable, socially ostracized and ideally unbanked . . . those people may seem like jerks. But look at it through this lens, and perhaps their impulse comes from an idyllic view of human nature. If you are willing to ruin a person over a mistake, you must think that mistakes are wild aberrations.
The optimism is the danger.
Me, I think we’re animals.
I think we’re mostly disgusting. I’m by nature jealous and rough, greedy and lascivious, proud and vain (so vain) — every day that I don’t steal from the honesty market of life is a win. If I manage to look in a mirror and not say out loud, “hot,” well that’s a win.
I’ve yet to be effectively en masse cancelled (just a few minor efforts), but I have enough thoughts before breakfast that could do the trick. If you think you don’t, I wonder how loud your music’s on. For my own long-term social safety, and because I have seen myself (hot), I try to keep my life more and more populated with others who see humans as flawed. Humor is a good sign of who’s part of that tribe. Basically any level of religiosity is too.
I don’t feel bad about my nature. But I come to Judaism wanting guardrails for it and feeling grateful that there are paths of forgiveness built into the system. In secular progressive culture, how often have you seen someone who was slammed hard for a social error, made a public apology, and been forgiven by that community? Can you think of many? There is no path for forgiveness within because in this worldview the person who errs must be inhuman, irredeemable, monstrous.
We on the dark side . . . we see that person’s errors as the most human part about them.
This week we have a lovely guest essay by Elizabeth Emery that touches on the topic. Our writer sees this punishing ethos a little differently from me — she sees it as a new religious movement unto itself. You’ll have to forgive that it’s coming a few weeks after Passover despite being Passover-themed — that’s my fault. She turned it in right on time, but I’ve been slow and disorganized. Because, well, I’m human.
Elizabeth Emery is a freelance writer. She is finishing her conversion with Congregation K.I.N.S. of Chicago and immersing in the mikvah in about two weeks. As she wrote by email: “After a year and a half, I can’t believe it’s finally over! Wowza.”
And then: “I’m immediately moving to Israel and getting married.”
One of the defining aspects of Passover happens before the holidays begins – when Jews rid their homes entirely of chametz, or foods with leavening agents, to commemorate their ancestors who fled Egypt with only matzah. Jews are commanded not to own, eat, or even see any other leavened grain products in their home during the week of Passover.
So before Passover, Jews do a shakedown of their entire home, hunting for chametz with a candle to see it and a feather to sweep it up. It is done at night, in the dark, which lends the hunt an exciting thrill, especially for kids.
Because I’m a convert, my bookshelf is saturated with esoteric tomes about Jewish law, and this year, as I read “The Book of Our Heritage” chapter on Chametz and Matzah, I came across a symbolism that seemed particularly meaningful for our day and age.
One way of finding meaning in the hunt for chametz in a clean home is to view it as a reminder of the need to search for sin in ourselves, even – especially – in places where we consider ourselves morally clean.
The term “cancel culture” is fraught -- some people insist it is everywhere, and some people argue it doesn’t exist at all. But you can’t deny that an increasing number of people have suffered the impact of having done or said something deemed incorrect by an online mob who demands justice be meted out to the perpetrator. Those involved in this behavior will say, ‘yes, people are losing their jobs and getting socially shamed into oblivion – but all actions have consequences, and the internet pile-on that results in job loss or public humiliation is a natural consequence of saying or doing something offensive.’
As with all religious and moral crusades from Catholicism to McCarthyism, those casting stones from their mobile phones are convinced of the righteousness of their actions. Yet, to borrow a lesson from a prominent Jew, the process of righteously judging others’ wrongdoings means that he without sin should cast the first stone.
Who among those in the Twitterverse or on college campuses are perfect? Have these people ever told an off-color joke or taken advantage of someone? Have they, even once, not quite told the full truth? Broken the speed limit on the way to work, or stolen something small from a grocery store? Gotten the wrong change and not said anything?
Of course they have. You can smell their sense of guilt and apprehension from the way they so forcefully point at others. The thinking is: If everyone is looking at so-and-so, then they won’t be looking at me. This reminds me in some ways of Passover – protecting oneself from the Angel of Reputational Death by painting your doorstep with someone else’s sacrificial blood. I’m too busy keeping others from committing sin – nothing to see here!’
None of us are truly clean, because none of us are perfect. As “The Book of Our Heritage” says: “. . . even if a person has cleansed himself from sin and iniquity, as far as lies within his power, he should not boast, ‘I am purged of all sins,’ for if he were to continue his search, he would surely find some more chametz, which is the symbol of pride.” The Bible in Ecclesiastes 7:20 supports this: “For there is no man so righteous in this world who does only good and never sins.”
Those of us who choose to be Jews by choice have a unique opportunity to embed these values into our lives in a meaningful way, regardless of the level of observance we ultimately choose. Judging others with wisdom and restraint requires no existential religious impulse. This year, as we yearn for carbs and crave cheese pizza, maybe we ought to do a little more hunting for moral chametz in our own clean homes and grant others the grace we hope to be given.
Thank you to our Chosen by Choice supporters. Because of you, all guest essays are paid. And we’re even kicking it up — we now pay essayists $300 for their time and effort. We’ll be increasing it as I rustle up more cousins to support this scheme.
And writer, please do pitch me! firstname.lastname@example.org
Wrapping this week with a very thoughtful response from a reader, Stephen Saperstein Frug, a graphic novelist. He pushed back on my argument last week and added complexity, and I’m glad he did.
(Below his email is just a fun video.)
I agree that the history has been forgotten, and I agree that it is in large part (not entirely) due to politics; but I think the politics are a bit more complex than you describe here, although you have certainly captured part of it.
I would add:
First, the history has been forgotten because Americans forget history very quickly. That’s the non-political aspect. It’s not at all unusual in that respect. In fact, the better way to say it might be that things are remembered for a political reason; the default is forgetting.
Second, I don’t know how much this story was ever known beyond Jews. (Not saying it wasn’t; saying I generally don’t know.) I mean sure, the right would use it as a propaganda piece in the 70s. But was it widely known? I’m skeptical but open to evidence.
Third, I think the politics has a lot to do with Israel. The movement for Soviet Jewery was often framed in a Zionist way; once the USSR, on the verge of crumbling, opened, a great many Jews went to Israel. In short, the situation of Soviet Jews, and its resolution, were both understood as a Zionist argument. Well, in the early 70s this was a uniting thing for American Jewery. But starting in c. 1976, a series of events (the election victory of Likud, rise of settlements, the Lebanon war, Jonathan Pollard, and all that was before the first Intifada) began to drive a wedge between American Jewery and Israeli Jewery — or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, to drive a wedge within American Jewery, right and left. This made it a trickier and less attractive bit of historical memory, and was another political motive for forgetting it.
Finally, while I agree with you that the broad abandonment of liberal values (of which the right-wing coding of “both sides” is but an example) is a disaster, both morally and strategically, for American liberalism, I would push the desire for complexity a bit further and say that saying bad things about the USSR is itself a complex topic. Not because the USSR wasn’t horrible—it really, really was—but because the American right used that fact to suppress progress for decades.
The idea that communists supported integration was one of the central anti-Civil Rights arguments in the 50s and early 60s. And rather than thinking this said something good about communists, as we might now, it simply made most people think badly of civil right; anti-communism nearly led us to nuclear war on several occasions, of which the Cuban Missile Crisis was only the most famous; the fact that the Soviet Union had just collapsed was used by Newt Gingrich and others in the 1990s as a broad argument against any regulation and any welfare state—which, among other things, helped delay action on what was at the time a bipartisan consensus on climate change, which is to say, may end up playing a role in dooming human civilization.
All of which is not, again, to say that the USSR was anything but horrific; it is simply to say that there is nuance below nuance, and those who most loudly decry the USSR’s crimes in the US have done so most often to commit their own. Like turtles, it’s nuance all the way down.
Nellie--this is a beautiful and thought provoking post. It is an example of the kind of things I wish we talked about more (here: are we essentially good or very broken?). It feels like some previous era when philosophy was important. I am also glad that you attribute being religious in some way as being part of making this question part of your life.
In my own case I can't help but see us a impossibly wonderful (the mirror included) and capable, as well as everything from blandly conventional to cruel and ignorant. How, when, where and why? I don't know. And I'd like to think there is more good but it seems to depend on surroundings so I don't know this either.
My biggest concern about modern life is whether or not people can find their own kindness, virtue, and peace of mind without religion and some background culture (I think I have said this already--sorry if repeating).
As for cancel culture, I have to part with you here. I do not think this is excessive optimism, it is merely excessive. The problem with a small mistake then is not that it betrays imperfection, but that it violates the rules of the cancel-er. It is the other and their beliefs that then become intolerable and worthy of any punishment. There are many historical examples so it isn't necessary to list the major ones. The beliefs and background philosophy of the cancelers are not a problem. Rather the life they take on as extreme, inviolate, us vs them, and absolute in their importance (especially in a pluralistic society but not necessarily).
This is one of the most original and thoughtful takes on cancel culture I've read (and there's been no shortage of late). Thank you, Nellie, for your perspective on human failings, forgiveness, and finding that balance.