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The moral heretics of the woke revolution

Carl R. Trueman | The employee revolt at Netflix carries lessons for Christian leaders


Activists protest outside the Netflix building in Hollywood. Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

The moral heretics of the woke revolution

The current brouhaha surrounding Dave Chapelle, Netflix, and his alleged transphobic jokes is a likely bellwether for things to come, not simply in the secular world but also in the church. The power struggle it represents will be played out in the church and Christian organizations in the near future. And it is a reminder that strange times create strange allies. What Christian five years ago would have looked with qualified admiration on stands taken by the likes of Dave Chapelle and Bill Maher? Yet, in our opposition to the lunacies of our day, that is where many of us now find ourselves.

As of the moment of writing, Netflix is standing firm in its support of Chapelle, and the comedian himself is refusing to be intimidated into any kind of retreat. Presumably, he has seen enough of cancel culture to know that retreat, even total retreat, is never atonement enough. In a world where forgiveness is now a dirty word, acts of repentance, however sincere, are merely the juiciest part of the spectacle of punishment. At least the guillotine was swift. In our present revolutionary times, death by social media is long, messy, and lurid.

That it is employees driving the demands for cancelation is a new twist on the call for workers of the world to unite. In today’s world, it is not their chains to the wage slavery of capitalism that they stand to lose. Rather, it is their guilt-by-association with a moral heretic. The Netflix workforce is now apparently the moral arbiter of what the rest of the population is to be allowed to see. It is the entertainment industry’s equivalent of the kind of censorship by a workforce that has been seen elsewhere, from newspapers to universities. Whatever the merits of Mr. Chapelle’s stand-up routine, this is not the way organizations should be run, and if Netflix fails to stand firm on this, it will be that much harder for the next company targeted by such activism to hold its ground.

Will Christian leaders be prepared for this? Or will they engage in the time-honored practice of finding a dozen righteous reasons for not doing the right thing?

Like the news media and institutions of higher education, Netflix is part of the most potent network of culture-shaping organizations in American society today. The apparent trivia of its productions should not blind us to this fact. Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that the poets (i.e., the members of the creative class) are the unacknowledged legislators of society. In stating this, he was pointing to an important truth: artists shape how societies think. To update his claim, the movie makers, the comedians, the actors, the singers, the “internet influencers,” are the key people in shaping the moral imagination of our world.

That’s why those who decide what the creative class is permitted to produce exert remarkable social power. They are key to shaping how people think about the world in which we live—how we should behave, what society should look like, who should belong, and who should be expelled. And if artists are themselves mere functionaries of belligerent lobby groups, permitted only to create that which the woke deem legitimate, then the implications for us all are obvious. That is why the Netflix leadership needs to stay strong. Failure on this point will simply confirm what many of us fear: the entertainment industry is emerging as merely a puppet, or, perhaps better, the most effective tool, of the emerging totalitarian progressivism.

There are lessons here for Christians, particularly Christian leaders, concerning our own subculture and its institutions. The next five years will involve many Chapelle-style conflicts and not just in secular society. A generation of radicalized younger Christians is emerging for whom the simplistic and unforgiving pieties of the social justice movement are proving irresistible. Intersectionality will not allow a clear separation of racial and sexual matters. To be woke on one will require being woke on all.

What will be needed then is strong leadership that will, Chapelle-like, eschew the approval of hashtag-wielding Twitter in favor of doing the right thing, always and in all circumstances. That will come at a cost, as standing behind Chapelle will come with a hefty price tag for the executives at Netflix. Will our leaders be prepared for this? Or will they engage in the time-honored practice of finding a dozen righteous reasons for not doing the right thing? The current passion in some elite quarters for regular recitation of the liturgy of evangelical self-loathing on everything from race to sexuality looks worryingly like preparation for the latter. That strategy will not be an option.

It is a strange time indeed when Dave Chapelle and Bill Maher can be admired by Christians. My fear is that in the days to come, as flawed as they are, they might yet prove more admirable than some of our Christian leaders.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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