Former President Barack Obama recently made waves online when he critiqued “woke” activism, a part of what has become known as “cancel culture.”
Obama spoke to a crowd gathered at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago and said that he sees college students and other young people thinking they can only bring about change by being “as judgmental as possible about other people…”
“That’s not activism,” Obama said. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
Cancel culture is about taking the easy route of shutting down your opponents instead of engaging them in a debate. But what does it mean to “cancel” someone?
What does it mean to be “canceled”?
Writing for City Journal, Robert Henderson describes the act of “canceling” as “an entertaining hobby—an indulgent, dopamine-feeding activity practiced on social media until its cruel practitioners, ultimately bored, follow the algorithms elsewhere.”
But as Fred Bauer argues at National Review, “canceling” goes far beyond social media. He writes that canceling “is often about translating this digital criticism into real personal pain.” This could mean anything from causing a person’s media platform to be shut down all the way to causing someone to be fired from their job.
“Canceling” is found all over on social media—from Twitter to YouTube and beyond—affecting celebrities and politicians of all varieties. Young people “cancel” their peers.
The practice of “canceling” is sometimes used to de-platform powerful individuals who have been convicted or credibly accused of horrendous crimes (think Harvey Weinstein). But that’s certainly not where it ends.
While some believe cancel culture is simply ordinary people voicing their disfavor of other ordinary people on social media, in reality it is much more than that. Cancel culture is the emerging tactic far-left activists employ to silence those who say things or hold positions with which they disagree.
When you think of cancel culture, any number of campus mobs or public shaming incidents on Twitter probably come to mind. But there is one group of far-left activists that has been using these tactics for over two decades.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is the cancel-culture vanguard of the left.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a powerful and well-funded organization that “cancels” groups and individuals on a regular basis.
The SPLC attacks people that disagree with its far-left agenda, labeling individuals and organizations as “extremists” or “hate groups.” They’ve made millions while impoverishing the public square of civil discourse. Long before there were Twitter mobs, the SPLC began tracking groups they considered “hateful” in 1990.
The SPLC slanders peaceful Christian organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom as “hate groups” for promoting views on human sexuality and the nature of marriage that diverse people of faith—including Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have held throughout millennia.
The far-left propaganda machine uses its vast wealth to pressure corporations into discontinuing business with so-called “hate groups,” while also pushing sympathetic politicians to push those groups out of the public square.
Isn’t there a better way forward?
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 15 to 20 years ago, individuals and groups would debate, not seek to silence, people with which they disagreed. Recent trends are a “departure from democratic tradition,” according to President Ronald Reagan’s speech writer Peggy Noonan.
In 2015, then President Obama had something to say about the hostility shown to conservative speakers on college campuses: “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’”
Both conservatives and liberals recognize that debate is better than canceling. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The answer to our problems is not to silence others’ speech. The answer is more speech. Freedom of speech fosters a vibrant civil society. Ideas are freely exchanged, even ones that may offend you or me.
Cancel culture shouts down unpopular speech. A society that embraces cancel culture is mere steps away from using government power to shut down speech. Surely both sides of the aisle can agree this is not the solution.
People from across the political spectrum are prepared to do away with cancel culture. There is a better way forward. But the question is, will we take it?
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