Let’s Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’
President Barack Obama isn’t much in the habit of making headlines these days, but he made a rare appearance on the collective cultural radar this past Halloween, for remarks he made at a summit hosted by the Obama Foundation.
As is typical in these kinds of situations, Obama said many, many things during an interview that lasted an hour and 20 minutes, but news coverage focused almost exclusively on one or two remarks. This time around, according to the New York Times, Obama “challenged young activists for being judgmental.”
Specifically, Obama addressed what has become known as “Cancel Culture,” which is ill-defined but—if you spend any time at all on social media—you know it when you see it. Cancel culture essentially rears its head when someone says something others feel is egregiously wrong. That person—not just their words, but the person—is then widely condemned, typically on Twitter, and is subsequently deemed “cancelled.” That means they essentially no longer exist in the minds of their critics and are never to be listened to, ever again.
In Obama’s own words: “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. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
As a member of Generation X, and therefore a late adopter of social media (which didn’t exist when I might have adopted it early), I’ve seen quite a few instances of cancel culture, and may even have participated once or twice. That’s not easy for me to admit to, publicly—my only defense is that mobs can be seductive, and when there’s a large group of angry warriors on one side of a debate and a lone target on the other, it’s not hard to pick which side you’d rather be on.
And hey, sometimes people should be cancelled. I’ll go on record to say that I’m fully supportive of the cancellation of men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. If either man never works again, that’s fine with me; there are other brilliant men out there just as capable of entertaining us without the side effect of people being raped.
But those aren’t the cancellations Obama was referencing. Do you remember, earlier this year, when a bunch of kids from a Catholic high school confronted an elderly Native American man with a drum on the National Mall? One of those children stood directly in front of the older man, and seemed to be smirking under his MAGA hat. The resulting video went viral, and there were lots of opinions to be shared about this disturbing image.
One opinion came from Karen Tumulty, a political commentator for the Washington Post. “A modest proposal,” she tweeted. “The cure for ignorance is understanding. Covington Catholic High School should organize a spring break project doing service on a Native American reservation.”
Almost instantly, her tweet was seized upon as Exhibit A of white privilege run amok. And, strictly speaking, her critics had a point. As they suggested, surely no group of Native Americans, a group that has already been severely oppressed, dehumanized, and nearly wiped out in genocidal fashion by those who colonialized the Americas from Europe, should now be forced to host a group of privileged white children who possibly hate them. Surely there are other ways for these children to learn to be better humans without forcing residents of a reservation to do the hard part.
It must have been difficult for Tumulty to even glance at her phone for the next few days. By suggesting that Native Americans are the ones responsible for ending anti-Native bigotry (which, again, was wrong), she was dragged through the Twitter swamp so severely, you’d think she was the Grand Wizard of her local Klan.
And yes, she made the white kids’ redemption arc more important than the lived experiences of the Native Americans they had confronted. But what got lost is that she wasn’t calling reservations in Kentucky to arrange such a visit. She was actually pointing to something true, something backed up by sociological research, that exposure to those who are different from you reduces stereotype threat and increases understanding.
Her hypothetical field trip might not have been the answer, but in a world full of people who commit or condone actual violence against people of color, Karen Tumulty is not the enemy. More importantly, Karen Tumulty believes in redemption, and is therefore redeemable herself.
And that’s the question I believe Barack Obama was asking us: Do you want to be right, or do you want to make a difference? The first option is easy; the second is much harder, but infinitely more important. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity & inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies.