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Richard Kyte: Cancel culture comes from loss of trust

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Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

The latest entry in the annals of cancel culture features a hockey player banned from the NHL.

The Boston Bruins signed Mitchell Miller to a three-year contract and sent him to play for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. Two days later, following a storm of criticism, they cut him. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated, “Nobody should think at this point he is or may ever be NHL eligible.”

Generally, when a player is banned from professional sports it is for some kind of illegal or unethical conduct either while playing for the league or in the months leading up to a contract. But Miller’s case is different. He has been banned for something he did six years ago, when he was 14 years old.

Commissioner Bettman can’t say when or if Miller will regain eligibility to play in the NHL because Miller did not violate any explicit league rules. He violated society’s rules. He will be eligible to play only when the outrage subsides.

Miller, who is white, verbally and physically abused Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, a black classmate with developmental disabilities. He and another boy were charged with assault and sentenced to perform community service. Isaiah’s parents claim the abuse started when the boys were in elementary school together and continued until Miller’s conviction in eighth grade.

What makes this case ethically interesting is the way it so vividly illustrates the enormous difference between a society governed by institutional rule and one governed by mob rule.

Our society has experienced 30 years of consistently eroding trust in its core institutions — courts, schools, universities, laws and businesses. Because we no longer trust our institutions to handle matters like this, we elect to handle them ourselves.

To some extent, this is understandable. After all, professional sports leagues have a long track record of looking the other way when star players engage in abusive behavior. Just look at the numerous sexual assault cases Hockey Canada is accused of covering up.

Amateur sports have not done much better. After the Penn State child abuse scandal or the conviction of Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar, who can say they have confidence that even our elite institutions are sincerely invested in protecting young people?

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If we do not trust our institutions to do the right thing, we have two choices: We can fix them or we can abandon them. Many people today are choosing the second option. Instead of working to make our institutions better, they are taking matters into their own hands by going on social media and demanding punishments on a case-by-case basis.

This is what happens in a low-trust society. What that looked like in many areas of the country during the 18th and 19th centuries was vigilantism and mob rule. Those who violated community standards were subjected to all variety of shame, humiliation and torture. They were tarred-and-feathered, ridden out of town on a rail, beaten, whipped and lynched.

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Today’s mob punishments are much less violent than in the past. We don’t see crowds of people gathering in the town square with torches and pitchforks. But the motivation of the mob is no less vicious. If someone in the public eye today acts in a way that violates the community’s standards, the remedy demanded is nearly always the most extreme possible: firing, banning, excluding. To insist on something less is seen as “excusing” the offending behavior or “taking the side” of the offender.

The strength of institutions is that they can set forth explicit codes of conduct, standards and principles, along with rules of enforcement. Institutions generally have processes for determining guilt or innocence, they have evidentiary standards, they have guidelines for remedies or punishments that are proportionate to the offense committed. Mob rule has none of these things.

Everything the mob does is governed by the mood of the moment. Its standards are implicit, arbitrary and changeable. It has no due process. If a person is accused of wrongdoing, they must “show” that they are changed, but precisely what constitutes such showing is never specified. After all, behavior can be faked. One’s show of remorse might not be sincere. So, they must go through a “process of healing and forgiveness,” whatever that means.

The Mitchell Miller ban is a case in point. It is only the latest in a series of punishments doled out to those subjected to the whims of cancel culture.

I am not defending Miller’s conduct or his character. What he did was ugly and reprehensible. Like most people, I think there is way too much bullying and harassment in schools, and I think teachers and coaches have often been willing to look the other way when star athletes engage in cruel and despicable behavior.

But the answer to bad behavior is not mob rule; the answer is having our institutions set forth standards of ethical conduct and enforce them consistently and fairly.

As unsatisfying as it may seem sometimes, justice only comes through institutions. Where there is no confidence in those institutions, people will seek vengeance instead. Some will seek it in groups; others will seek it individually. Cancel culture and mass shootings are two sides of the same coin: one is public vengeance, the other is private. Both issue from loss of trust.

If we want long-term solutions to our social ills, we must work to make our institutions better at ensuring justice for all. The only way to do that is through the tedious, patient, time-consuming work of reforming them so they are more fair, transparent and responsible. In the end, it’s a choice between justice and vengeance.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

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