“You cannot not communicate,” he informed me.
It was the second time we’d talked one-on-one. And now, without warning, I found myself in an unwanted debate with him over why I’d just crossed my arms.
My answer of, “I don’t know … just because,” wasn’t convincing enough for this tall, lanky and — dare I say — cocky man.
It turns out that, like me, he’d studied communication in grad school. “All body language has meaning,” he reminded me. So those crossed arms of mine? Well, typically, they conveyed defensiveness and discomfort.
As I walked away from that unexpected inquisition, I thought, What a jerk! If I wasn’t feeling defensive before, I am now. I’ll show him what crossed arms mean!
Well … about that. That jerk’s name was Ted, and he’s now my husband of more than 18 years.
Here’s the thing, though. There’s a chance that if we’d had that same conversation today rather than almost two decades ago, I wouldn’t have dated him, let alone married him.
Welcome to dating in an age of “cancel culture.”
Living in a culture that cancels
Most of us have witnessed someone get “canceled.” Maybe it’s an actor, athlete, politician, or even a well-known pastor. Perhaps it’s someone who wasn’t previously in the public eye. It might be the college applicant who posted something questionable to social media five years ago, and someone somewhere saved their momentary lack of good judgment for exactly this cultural moment. After all, as they say, online is forever.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel as if we’re living in an era of groupthink gone wild. With groupthink, there’s intense pressure to, as one psychology site explains, put aside our personal beliefs and “adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.” Or, at the very least if we do disagree, to keep quiet.
Yet, while groupthink causes people to stifle their opinions to “go along to get along,” cancel culture takes it further.
Cancel culture doesn’t target what we say or do over time, but instead it shames who we are in one solitary moment — with the goal to silence us. As Abdu Murray explains, “In cancel culture, a single mistake is perpetually unforgiveable because it’s not simply a guilty act. Rather, the mistake defines the individual’s identity, turning them into a shameful person — someone who can be ‘canceled.’”
More and more, it seems that this toxic act of publicly ostracizing an individual has become a private one, too, seeping into our interpersonal relationships. Maybe during the last election, a friend decided to “cancel” you over a different policy view. I had it happen. Or perhaps you’re the one who did the canceling.
From the public figures we follow to the friendships we cultivate, it’s safe to say that we’ve all been impacted either directly or indirectly by cancel culture. But have you ever stopped to consider how cancel culture may be reshaping your perspective on dating and how you determine whether someone’s “marriage material” or not?
When cancel culture meets dating culture
Stick with me here. I know you may be thinking that for the audience I’m talking to, I’m grasping at straws. After all, you’re reading this on a website dedicated to helping you navigate your dating choices with biblical wisdom and intention. You wouldn’t be reading articles here, including this one, if you were easily swayed by cancel culture.
Hear me out, though. Because sometimes cancel culture whispers to us rather than screams at us. Its influence isn’t always loud and clear and easily identifiable.
Consider the following three ways cancel culture influences dating. See if you recognize any of your attitudes, behaviors or decisions in them.
And if you do, don’t worry. You’ll also find some practical takeaways to help you decipher whether those attitudes, behaviors or decisions are due to cancel culture or not.
1. Cancel culture identifies everything as a red flag.
When Ted and I started dating, we both watched for red flags. As we considered our future together, we didn’t want to overlook any clear signals warning us that the other had a consistent sin-based character flaw. We took time to carefully consider character and respond accordingly.
But that’s not what cancel culture promotes and enforces. In its call for us to react rather than respond to isolated words and actions, we’re encouraged to see everything as a glaring red flag — even those things that may not be.
What about that impatience your date shows when the waiter messes up their dinner order? Red flag! How about their differing view on the best way to be missionally-minded? Red flag!
So, how can you tell whether the red flags you’re seeing are a result of biblical, Spirit-led discernment or whether they’re prompted by cancel culture’s overly-sensitive and judgmental voice?
In grad school, I took an intro class to film production. Learning about close-ups wasn’t anything new; but understanding the difference between a close-up and an extreme close-up was. While a close-up frames the actor’s face, an extreme close-up focuses on a specific part of the face, such as the eyes.
Cancel culture wants you to use an extreme close-up to look at others. It encourages you to see the impatience or the difference in your opinions without the context of character. But biblical, Spirit-led discernment takes a close-up approach. It looks at the eyes within the face, so to speak — not apart from it. So, if you’re not sure whether something is a red flag or not, look at it in context. Consider overall character, not just what appears to be an isolated character flaw.
2. Cancel culture rejects room for personal growth.
When Ted and I had our infamous debate, the term “cancel” wasn’t yet being actively applied to people. It was more of an “I want to cancel my order” or, “Oh no! My favorite TV show was just canceled!” Even so, there was part of me that in the moment wanted to freeze-frame him and determine our relational fate based on it.
Have you ever wanted to do this, too? Maybe you have found yourself doing this at your date’s first sign of imperfection or immaturity. If so, cancel culture would approve.
Cancel culture rejects the potential for personal growth. It says that who someone is in that moment when they mess up or fail to impress is who they are and always will be. There’s not much, if any, room for change or even the imagination to envision it.
But as Carolyn McCulley writes, you won’t marry someone flawless and unwaveringly mature. She explains, “While you are called to be discerning about the characters of [those] … you befriend or date, you also have a part in growing with [them] … toward Christ.”
If that’s the case, then how can you tell if there’s potential for the two of you to grow together toward Christ, or if this moment really is a red flag indicating a pattern of immaturity that you need to walk away from?
Ask your mutual “village.”
Talk to individuals who know both of you and, even better, chat with those who have known the person you’re dating longer than you have. Confidentially share your concerns in a respectful manner and see what they have to say. This is not an opportunity to gossip or vent, but a time to gain clarity. Chances are, they can give you some insight that may provide you with more context.
3. Cancel culture runs at the first indication of conflict.
I’ve been known to say that conflict is an adventure. That’s because I tend to define adventures as Bilbo Baggins did, as “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner!” Kidding … well, kind of.
As Merriam-Webster points out, adventures are “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.” And isn’t that what conflict is too? Just like adventures challenge and stretch us in ways that force us to change, so does conflict. When we face a disagreement with someone else, our ideas and attitudes risk having to change.
But it’s precisely for those reasons that conflict, when navigated well, can be a tool that God uses in our relationships to help us be iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17) to each other.
The problem is that cancel culture seems to view potential conflict as a cue to write someone off completely. Differing opinions and contrasting ideas aren’t engaged. They’re silenced at the first indication of potential conflict. As I mentioned, it’s groupthink gone wild.
But all healthy relationships will include some conflict. In fact, if you’re engaged to be married and tell me that you and your fiancé never experience any conflict, I’d be concerned. I’d wonder if you’re authentic and genuine with one another and sincerely ready for marriage.
That said, if you tell me you’re constantly experiencing conflict, I’d say you might want to consider whether that’s a red flag. Maybe spend some time together with a trusted pastor, mentor or counselor and determine the root cause.
The God of Second Chance
Let’s get back to Ted and my debate over crossed arms. Why did I give this tall, lanky and cocky man a second chance? It wasn’t merely because I didn’t live in today’s cancel culture — although that no doubt helped.
Instead, it goes back to the God of Second Chance, as Bebo Norman calls Him in the song, “A Page Is Turned.” He’s the God who sees me in context and loves me anyway. The One who knows just how much personal growth I need and patiently encourages me to keep growing. He’s the God who doesn’t fear my hard questions.
Well, it was this God of Second Chance’s grace toward me that inspired me to show grace toward Ted. And I’m so glad I did.
If I had walked away from that conversation and canceled Ted based on it, I would have missed out on so much. This includes the man he’s become — the teachable and curious guy whose cockiness has been tempered by the gospel — and continues to be.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, he’s also the man who’s determined it’s wiser for him not to question the crossing of my arms … ever again.
Copyright 2021 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.