The first time I heard the phrase “cancel culture” it came from Barack Obama.
In an interview in late 2019, Obama said, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly.
“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.
“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.
“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
The former president was standing up for classical liberal values of free speech and honest inquiry and, of course, that carried added weight because of his gravitas; because of who he is.
Eighteen months later we run the risk of having a serious problem devalued by those who have picked up the cause but who don’t have Obama’s credentials; in fact, they have just the opposite.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, beset by a growing number of credible allegations of sexual misconduct, sought to invoke cancel culture in his defense. Sorry, governor, but calls for your resignation are not cancel culture; they’re just the normal political response to a mess you appear to have created on your own. Of course, we should allow investigations to proceed before we rush to judgement, but Cuomo’s inappropriate use of the term “cancel culture” only serves to further erode a useful concept.
Then there was CPAC, the annual freak show of conservative heavy breathers. At the 2021 follies in Orlando, CPAC built its entire program around the theme of cancel culture. The program was almost totally devoid of any discussion of deficits, government overreach, national defense or any other legitimate conservative policy idea. It was all about stoking the culture wars.
For those of us who are seriously concerned about the closing down of free discourse by an ever increasing demand for purity, we don’t need the “help” from the likes of CPAC on the right or Cuomo on the left.
The examples of cancel culture’s narrowing of speech and the free flow of ideas are well documented and numerous. This week I wrote about the Harper’s Letter in which over 100 American intellectuals spoke up in defense of free speech and against self-censorship. They wrote:
“Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
The response only confirmed the problem. A much larger group of intellectuals shot back within a couple of days with a much longer letter. Significantly, their primary response was not on the merits of the argument but on the identity of the signatories of the Harper’s letter. They claimed that the Harper’s Letter signers were too old, too white and too rich. Never mind that the Harper’s Letter was initiated by a young, Black intellectual.
I recently sat in on a discussion of free speech sponsored by the UW Alumni Association. One of the presenters was retired UW Prof. Donald Downs. Downs quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that the First Amendment means nothing if it doesn’t protect speech that you hate. Down’s own book, “Free Speech and Liberal Education,” deals mostly with free speech challenges on campuses. He said that he has grown less optimistic since he wrote his book. “There’s a lot of conformity of thought,” he said. “People are afraid to speak up.” You can view the discussion here.
But in that discussion, the moderator who is a UW journalism professor, casually referred to cancel culture as an “empty phrase,” without bothering to defend her statement. I wish it were empty, but actually I find it all too well populated.
In the most recent example from Madison, two city committee members made innocuous, correct and well-intentioned comments only to face demands for their resignation because they stepped on landmines planted by the kind of woke activists that Obama warned of.
It’s the switch on the hard left from being defenders of free speech, the presumption of innocence and other classically liberal values to seeing them as mere speed bumps in the way of social justice that, more than anything else, prompted me to start this site.
Cancel culture — intolerance for ideas — is a cancer eating at the core of society and democracy. Barack Obama is a key ally in the fight against it. Andrew Cuomo and CPAC, well, not so much.