Cancel culture is one of those rare topics on which Barack Obama and Donald Trump seem to agree.
In remarks last fall, Obama suggested that seeking to punish people you disagree with is no way to bring about change.
“If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far,” he said. “That’s easy to do.”
The current president offered his own take in a recent speech at Mount Rushmore.
“We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture,” he said. “We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.”
Of course, those words ring a bit hollow coming from Donald Trump. He’s not exactly a champion of tolerance.
Still, a recent survey by Politico found most folks who had an opinion on the topic thought cancel culture had gone too far. A significant number, of course, were blissfully unaware of the controversy.
So, what is cancel culture anyway?
In a December 2019 article for Vox, Aja Romano suggested the term grew out of a line in the 1991 film “New Jack City.”
In the film, the Wesley Snipes character, a gangster named Nino Brown, has a girlfriend who objects to the violence he’s causing. Nino dumps her with a profane and misogynistic suggestion that she has been cancelled.
Lil Wayne recalled the line almost two decades later in his song “I’m Single,” and it surfaced again a few years after that in the reality show “Love and Hip-Hop: New York.”
At that point, the idea of cancelling people began to spread on social media.
“As it caught on, however, the term began to evolve into a way of responding not just to friends or acquaintances, but also to celebrities or entities whose behavior offended you,” Romano wrote.
This month, more than 150 journalists, authors and academics signed onto a letter published in Harper’s Magazine.
“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” they wrote. “Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
It’s OK, they say, for debate to be robust and even caustic.
“But it is now all too common,” they write, “to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
Such an atmosphere, they argue, will ultimately harm “the most vital causes of our time.”
“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation,” they write.
Among the letter’s signers was Bari Weiss, an editor and columnist who subsequently had a very public breakup with the opinion pages of The New York Times. In her resignation letter to publisher A.G. Sulzberger, Weiss accused the newspaper of allowing itself to be cowed by the thought police.
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times,” she wrote. “But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.”
Weiss and I might not agree on much, but we agree on this. Everyone should have a chance to speak. No one, not even those whose views we find abhorrent, should be silenced.
Like it or not, that’s what freedom of speech is all about.