What Nick Cannon’s response to his anti-Semitic comments can teach us about cancel culture

Nick Cannon says he’s on a journey of repentance (forward.com).

TV personality Nick Cannon recently spoke to ABC’s Soul of a Nation about repentance. It was Cannon’s first televised interview since last summer’s anti-Semitism scandal and offered some insight into Cannon’s current thinking, as well as anti-Semitism scandals more generally.

To recap the underlying incident, Cannon hosted Professor Griff, who was ejected from rap group Public Enemy in 1989 over anti-Semitic comments, on his podcast last July. During that 90-minute discussion, as one outlet summarizes it, Cannon said that “black people are the ‘true Hebrews’ … referenced antisemitic conspiracy theories, slammed Jews for criticizing Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and questioned the birthright of Jewish people.” 

The reaction to that discussion, especially from American Jews, was negative. Cannon saw that and felt “real shock,” according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “He was truly surprised he had hurt people,” Cooper told me. Since then, Cannon has worked to educate himself and build relationships in the Jewish community with people such as Cooper, away from the spotlight. And that brings us to this recent interview.

Cannon told interviewer Linsey Davis that he’s not interested in forgiveness but rather “for-growth.” Unsure what that meant, I asked Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, who has joinedCannon’s podcast, for his take. Marans said in an email, “I understand Nick’s statement that he is not looking for forgiveness to mean that he is not satisfied with a check-the-box apology and moving on, but rather an ongoing process of learning and evolving. He has, in essence, engaged the process of Teshuvah by assuring that it is a vital, dynamic evolution.”

Perhaps the most interesting idea to come out of Cannon’s interview was his comment that we need “counsel culture” rather than cancel culture. And there, Cannon may be on to something.

Celebrity anti-Semitism scandals have become seemingly ubiquitous. They all tend to be classified identically, but there are several factors worth considering independently.

First, the details of these recent scandals vary. Beyond Cannon, a partial list might start with actor John Cusack, who tweeted a cartoon with a white nationalist’s quote about societal control that’s been falsely attributed to Voltaire. Jay Electronica rapped about “the synagogue of Satan” on his latest album. Pop singer Dua Lipa called Israelis “fake Jews” and shared a post on Instagram claiming, “The #IDF thoroughly enjoy beating and shooting children.” NFL player DeSean Jackson posted faux Hitler quotes on Instagram. Also on Instagram, The Mandalorian actress Gina Carano compared being a contemporary conservative to being a Jew during the Holocaust. And most recently, NBA player Meyers Leonard used an anti-Semitic slur while livestreaming a video game.

These scandals attracted differing degrees of media coverage, and only some of these stars suffered repercussions. Earlier this month, for example, Dua Lipa performed at the Grammys, while Jay Electronica’s album contended for “best rap album.”

Second, it’s important to understand the person at the center of the media storm. Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, who has “spent many hours talking” to Cannon since last summer, told me: “We have to be careful about the terminology we use [e.g., ‘anti-Semite’] to avoid boxing people in.” He added that we need to “find out: Is it ignorance? Is it misinformation? Is it a systemic pattern?” It’s important to differentiate between those who speak out of malice and those who simply don’t know better yet because they merit different reactions.

Third, deterrence matters. As Cooper told me when I asked about Meyers Leonard, “There have to be consequences for this kind of speech, or it’ll continue.” Cooper also sees an important place for personal diplomacy, like the Shabbat dinner invitation New England Patriot Julian Edelman messaged to Leonard, but he sees both strategies working best in tandem.

Fourth, as Holocaust analogies and false quotes proliferate, it’s clear more education is needed about the Holocaust specifically and about Jews and anti-Semitism more generally. Last spring, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the Never Again Education Act to increase Holocaust education in schools. Organizations such as Blue Card, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, the Simon Wiesenthal CenterChabad, and others could help educate adults.

Finally, society would be better off if we maintained fundamental concepts such as mercy, grace, repentance, and forgiveness. The idea that someone’s life or career should be completely upended over a single mistake is too severe. It also disregards that humans are capable of spiritual and emotional growth. We should all welcome such transformation.

As Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, said in an email, “If someone who has expressed ignorant or bigoted views is willing to put in the work to learn about systemic Jew hatred and change their behavior, then we should welcome their willingness to grow instead of simply canceling them.”

This article appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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