In keeping with the tradition of American presidents who have left office, former President Barack Obama has chosen to almost entirely avoid commenting on American politics, instead choosing to focus his time and energy on the Obama Foundation, a charitable organization that recently held its third annual summit. At this event, Obama spoke about a number of issues, but his comment that generated the most attention concerned “cancel culture,” or the widespread attitude of criticizing a person online who was caught engaging in improper behavior in an attempt to end their public presence.
Though it is arguably now widespread, cancel culture is a phenomenon that has emerged only recently, in the wake of the hyper-awareness of people’s lives and the unprecedented speed of the spread of information afforded by social media. It is a fiercely controversial phenomenon, as some claim that it is an unfair form of mob justice whereas others posit that it enables just retribution when other aspects of the culture fail to appropriately punish bad behavior.
Obama came out in favor of the former argument, characterizing the attitudes of people who engage in cancel culture as self-indulgent and unhelpful. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically “woke,” he said, “you should get over that quickly.“ While not referring to the phenomenon by name, Obama made his thoughts on the matter clear, asserting that “the world is messy, there are ambiguities,” and that “people who do really good stuff have flaws.” From Obama’s point of view, the form of mob justice aimed at ending the careers of public figures through social media attacks is injudicious, as it doesn’t allow for nuance or mutual understanding.
Obama implicitly compared cancel culture to “slacktivism,” a derogatory term describing people who purport to be activists but constrain their political speech and behavior to often-anonymous comments on the Internet, accomplishing nothing except engendering in themselves a sense of self-righteousness. Obama specifically called out young people on college campuses, whom he feels in recent years have normalized and encouraged attitudes of judgmentalism over forgiveness when they should instead be focused on trying to bring about more meaningful change. Obama may have been thinking of Justin Trudeau, whom he endorsed for Canadian Prime Minister despite revelations of Trudeau’s past wearing of blackface and brownface costumes.
Though Obama didn’t specifically mention any examples of the phenomenon, stories of people affected by cancel culture have been widespread in recent years. Most recently, Ellen DeGeneres had to defend her decision to sit next to former President George W. Bush at a baseball game, explaining that despite their political difference, she considered Bush a close friend, and adding that becoming friends with people you disagree with is essential, particularly in the current hyper-partisan political landscape. Non-celebrities are also prone to being punished by cancel culture; for instance, a school security guard was recently fired for telling a student not to call him the n-word, in a case that was widely considered to be the result of an excessively strict zero-tolerance policy that fails to take into account context, even when that context is exculpatory.
Other celebrities have also come out against cancel culture. Dave Chapelle, a comedian famous for his unapologetic takes on social commentary and political issues, took Obama’s side in the debate, asserting that “the First Amendment is first for a reason,” and stating that he doesn’t get mad at comedians whom he knows to be racist. Taylor Swift has also complained about cancel culture; during an interview with Vogue, the singer who herself has been a target of cancel culture described the experience as “isolating,” adding that she doesn’t “think there are that many people who can actually understand what it’s like to have millions of people hate you very loudly.”