COVID-19 is giving cancel culture a whole new meaning.
Barely a month ago, it meant political agitators pressing institutions to call off public appearances by speakers who agitated them.
Enter the pandemic, and it means cancellation e-mails or social media messages informing us that yet another gathering of two or more has been kyboshed by this infernal invisible virus.
Yesterday, for example, my Cardus colleague Milton Friesen planned to be in Montreal for an event sponsored by the English Speaking Catholic Council, speaking on the topic of social isolation.
Milton’s day, like that of millions of Canadians, turned into social isolation at home with his family for the sake of physical distancing.
Likewise, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall planned to be with her team putting the finishing touches to the 55th annual National Prayer Breakfast scheduled for May 7 in Ottawa, which she is chairing this year.
“We’ve been hoping and praying it could take place, which is why we held off as long as we could before making the decision,” Wagantall told Convivium from her Saskatchewan riding.
“This will be the first time in (the Prayer Breakfast’s) history it’s been cancelled. It’s the longest running single event on (Parliament) Hill so, yes, it’s very disappointing. There’s a huge team that works very hard organizing it. But the reality of the times makes it impossible for people to travel across the country to come together.”
Instead, Wagantall has turned her efforts to helping promote tomorrow’s online National Day of Prayer organized by TheCRY ecumenical movement. She and her team are also planning a necessarily pared-down online version of the Prayer Breakfast. Those who join in from home will have to supply their own scrambled eggs.
Wagantall accepts the need to scramble for alternatives at a time of COVID-19 as essentially a test of faith. Viral cancellations might bug us when they pop up in our newsfeeds or inboxes, but they also call us back to the basics of faithful patience, courage and witness.
“Scripture says when “two or three are gathered together.” Obviously, when that was written, no one had any concept of being able to virtually connect as we do now. So, I thank God that we have this opportunity, in the midst of this very difficult situation, to still do that as a body of believers (whose) spirits are connected whether we’re in a church building or (physically) at a prayer breakfast or online.”
For my colleague Milton Friesen, as for English Speaking Catholic Council executive director Anna Farrow, a discussion of social isolation being scrubbed because of an imperative for social isolation is a paradoxical golden opportunity to reflect on what the Church and the faithful have to offer during times of crises, whether individual predicament or pandemic catastrophe.
“When I sent out the notice that the event was cancelled for now, I got a lot of people writing back saying ‘how ironic is that?’ and wanting to do it remotely,” said Farrow. “But we hope to postpone it until the fall, which would be interesting timing because by then it’s going to be a different story. We’ll certainly have a different lens with which to look at it.”
The current “lens” on social isolation, she noted, has largely been one in which the State looms large, looks down on lonely, solitary people, and – Hey! Presto! – comes up with a bureaucratically-approved program to solve the problem. But COVID-19 largely cancels that view of the world.
It reveals, instead, that while the State has enormous powers to marshal financial assistance, to persuade, cajole and command the populace, it can’t fit its way into the real-world nooks and crannies where individual human beings live. It takes nimble, personally motivated non-State actors to effectively interact at that level. For example, exactly the kind of people you’d find in a faith community moved less by grand political abstractions of the common good than by the singular truth of seeing the Imago Dei – the image of God – in each of us.
“It’s something that can’t be offered or mimicked by the State,” said Farrow. “There are existing communities that are places of welcoming refuge, whether for recent immigrants of people who live alone and struggle against loneliness, and they’re not looking at the ‘big problem’ of social isolation. They’re saying ‘there’s this person down the street who might need my help, my presence, and my time. Because of my faith, I love that person and I’m going to something about helping them.’”
Or as Milton Friesen puts it, loneliness is not a government project. That doesn’t mean, he stresses, that social isolation isn’t a suitable subject for social science study, or even State assistance. As director of Cardus’ Social Cities project, he has reams of data on his hard drive about ways in which isolation afflicts the health of our living spaces and our lives. But the aggregate, by its nature, overlooks the individual, which the lonely can only be.
“The system, as a large-scale response, can’t actually adequately address (social isolation) because it can’t get to the personal. It can’t know, never mind deliver, exactly what a particular person needs. It’s got to be somebody nearby them.
“So, for example, you have an English-speaking Catholic community in Montreal made up of organizations and institutions, structures and processes that can meet dozens, maybe hundreds of different needs. There’s a place in that for (State-level) resources and scale. But the mistake is thinking that by having a big structure in place, it will automatically lead to the needed level of particularity.”
It won’t, said Friesen, because it can’t. Large-scale systems might be able to deliver pre-ordered dinners to the housebound at specific times of the day. They can’t know whether we like our scrambled eggs runny or overcooked. They can’t know when even the lonely might just need to be left alone.
Enter a renewal of the Gospel culture of community that sees alienation as the cancellation of spiritual life, not a logistical problem to be solved by algorithms and bureaucratic planning.
“There’s an embodied reality (in Christian tradition) that means we have a different way of conceiving what social isolation means,” Friesen said. “We have a way of explaining alienation that’s not in the common culture. We have a long trajectory of talking about why we feel disconnected from the cosmos, from the from each other. We actually know we have thing to say about that, things that aren’t thinly sociological. They’re deeply embedded in a big story, and we’re part of that story.”
Maybe, he suggests, the society-wide social isolation brought on by COVID-19 is part of an opportunity to bring new life to Christianity’s “living tradition” of going out into the world not to cancel the ills of the current culture but to offer a spiritual supplement that is richer, deeper, more human and humane. In turn, if that prompts Christians to ask vital questions of themselves, it might give new meaning to the broader culture’s disdain for Christian life.
“It’s back to the missiological idea. If we make adjustments out of the strength of our tradition, not just as a kind of political calculation to concede to or attack those around us, it might wake us up, respond to the cultural prompt by going back and asking, ‘how are we off track with the very living tradition we’re supposed to be part of?’”