The term “cancel culture” refers to the practice of denouncing someone, often a public figure, or cancelling them, for a comment they have made or for something they have done that has been deemed offensive. You can be cancelled for a variety of transgressions on a whole spectrum of severity. When one is cancelled, support is largely withdrawn over social media, and hateful comments about the person in question often follow en masse. Beyond a sunken reputation, the canceled party is often fired from their job and blacklisted from the industry in which they worked.
On July 7, 2020, a letter cautioning the dangers of cancel culture was published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by over 150 international public figures, including authors J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, and many distinguished thought leaders including Malcolm Gladwell, Noam Chomsky and highly regarded professors and educational leaders from across the world. The letter was entitled “A letter on justice and open debate”. The following is an excerpt from the article that articulates the dangers of overly censoring our opinions in society.
“This stifling atmosphere 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. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
Nadine Strossen is a Professor at New York Law School, has been named one of America’s “100 Most Influential Lawyers” and is a distinguished thought leader and advocate of free speech and expression. She joined The Preconceived Podcast to explain why she signed the aforementioned letter in Harper’s Magazine and to warn of the dangers that cancel culture presents.
Professor Strossen explained that when we censor free speech, the ideas we are censoring actually gain power and momentum. By limiting debate, there is less room for true understanding of the issues at hand. As a professor, she is especially concerned for her students, who she fears will be more apprehensive to ask important questions and of examining their true values and beliefs.
As an example, we spoke about neo-Nazism. As a Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors, it goes without saying that Professor Strossen is in complete opposition to the views of neo-Nazis . But it is especially important, she argues, that we uphold the values of free speech and expression, when it comes to hate-fueled topics such as these. If we suppress the conversation on anti-Semitism, or racism, for example, then there is no forum in which we can challenge the views we are so vehemently against. Furthermore, if we are expected to just blanket accept certain viewpoints such as “racism and anti-Semitism are bad”, then we miss the opportunity to learn and understand why we have these beliefs and what shapes them. If we do not each rigorously examine our own views, then our beliefs are largely inauthentic and thus susceptible to breaking down. The way to combat racism is to understand racism. The way to combat homophobia is to understand homophobia. And the only way to do this is to allow these controversial and often hateful conversations to be had.
The problem with cancel culture is that people are no longer comfortable asking important questions that breed education and understanding. People fear that their comments, however innocent they may be in intent, can be used as ammunition against them in their personal lives and careers.
There are numerous examples of people having been “cancelled” when photographs surfaced of them dressing up in Blackface. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, was involved not too long ago in a scandal in which one such picture surfaced of him. During my conversation with professor Strossen, I reluctantly admitted my own prior ignorance to the issue of Blackface. I had not realized that Blackface was actually considered offensive to Black people and the historical context which made it so. Professor Strossen eased my discomfort when she too expressed that she had not been fully aware of the controversy of Blackface until its recently garnered attention in the media. As Professor Strossen explains, it could be very easy for one to think that dressing up in Blackface is actually a complement to the person you are dressing up as. We often dress up as people who we admire, a sign of adoration and respect.
I personally would never have learned about the history of Blackface if this had not become an issue in the media. I am now better educated and informed because this issue was brought to light. But these learning moments will be few and far between if people continue to get cancelled for making mistakes or expressing their opinions.
A few months ago, Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints in the National Football League (NFL), faced harsh criticism when he explained why he stands for the national anthem and does not kneel alongside some other players in the NFL. The national anthem, he explained, reminded him of his grandfathers who fought in past wars for America, so that American people could have the liberties that they do today. He was accused of being racist by many, for failing to understand that many Blacks who fought in the war returned to a country that did not value their liberties, freedoms and rights.
Conversely, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who is no longer in the NFL, was himself “cancelled” several years ago, when he decided to kneel during the national anthem, to raise awareness for racial injustice in the United States. He was accused of being un-American and disrespectful to those who fought for the liberties of the United States.
Neither Brees nor Kapernick is wrong in the views they expressed. Each of them has decided how to conduct themselves for reasons that are fully valid to them. Brees can view the anthem as an homage to his grandparents, while Kaepernick can just as equally shun the anthem as a symbol of racial injustice. The problem arises when both of them are discouraged from expressing their opinions for fear of cancellation. While Brees escaped the scandal mostly unscathed, Kaepernick was blackballed by the National Football League, and no team has been willing to sign him for several years. But imagine if Kaepernick had not been shunned by the NFL. Would it not have been more advantageous to society if his action of kneeling had led to a healthy debate where both sides could try and understand the other? Would this not have nurtured greater racial sensitivity, and perhaps even an enhanced sense of American pride?
Professor Strossen was very clear in her message – her intent is not to force people to think a certain way. Every citizen is entitled to their beliefs and their right to express those beliefs. In fact, those who wish to lambaste someone over twitter for a comment that was made should be entitled to do so, even if she discourages it. But she urges people not to be so quick in categorically shaming people. For if society continues on this current path, people will no longer feel comfortable in expressing any opinions or asking the meaningful and important questions. And if we truly want to fight what we view as a hateful opinion, we must foster a society that allows those hateful opinions to be expressed and to stimulate conversation and debate.