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Obama Criticizes Cancel Culture

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.

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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.

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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.” 

Cancel Culture

‘Cancel Culture’ Creates A Gray Area Of Accountability

Cancel culture has become a new wave in the realm of social media, and has been just as beneficial as it has harmful. To “cancel” literally means to destroy, whether that means the effectiveness, validity, or physical form of something, either way there’s a removal of authenticity. When celebrities get “cancelled” it’s referring to general society, and social media users alike, deciding to strip you of your platform due to personal reasons or a public shaming. For example, Kevin Spacey no longer being offered any acting roles and termination from any current acting roles he had at the time that his sexual assault cases came to light. The whole idea of cancelling people was born with the #MeToo movement and originally started with making sure men were held accountable, publicly scrutinized for their crimes, and taken out of any sort of spotlight, unless it was coverage of their court cases. 

We saw it happen to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., etc. and rightfully so, no one should get away with using their power to intimidate and coerce others into doing something they don’t want to do. However, the cancel culture movement has begun to take a turn that has left many social media users confused on who they’re allowed to publicly support or not. People attempt to “cancel” singers and actors when they say one comment that maybe their fans don’t agree with, and from that point on the individual is branded with the scarlet letter of their mis-wordings. Many individuals attempted to cancel Taylor Swift, for her lack of political involvement when she has such a large conservative following, and more traditional first wave feminist lyrics. However, Swift took a turn within the past year, being very outspoken about her discontent with Trump and advocacy for the LGBT+ community. So it becomes a weird grey area that gets complex especially when social media is involved and personal vendetta against specific celebrities snowball into a multitude of reasoning’s behind stripping someone of their platform. 

“Cancelling” also doesn’t always work. Jenna Wortham, a culture writer for the New York Times, contemplated this phenomenon in regards to individuals who have been “cancelled” for serious crimes but still went on to gain success within their industry, such as Micheal Jackson and Chris Brown. She says “…Jackson is still everywhere. His songs influenced generations of musicians. It simply isn’t possible to totally cancel him. So it (cancel culture) doesn’t really work, you can’t just cut problematic people and problematic cultural properties or entities out because it’s whack-a-mole, right? You’re dealing with the symptoms of a sick society rather than actually treating the disease.”

Within the past year we’ve mainly seen “cancelling” in the form of old social media posts from celebrities that would now be considered offensive and insensitive. However, more times than not these celebrities were young teenagers when they tweeted whatever they get exposed for, we also need to remember how different humor was even just ten years ago. Humor was rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia, basically stereotyping in general was high at the time in regards to what was considered “comedy.” That doesn’t excuse any of the behaviour or content that’s come to light, but it does, yet again, create a tricky grey area. It seems that “cancelling” someone is less about holding someone accountable for a real consistent wrongdoing, and more gaslighting of one mistake made many years ago to distract from bigger issues. When a celebrity gets outed for something they said, or did, years ago that is deemed as inappropriate, offensive, or just straight up illegal, they should be held accountable, but we also shouldn’t let it tarnish complete careers/reputations. Obviously, every case is subjective and different, so we really can’t generalize when it comes to who should be cancelled and who shouldn’t, but we should make sure we’re paying attention, and engaging in discussions.

Comedian Billy Eichner took to Twitter a few months ago amid old homophobic tweets from Kevin Hart resurfacing which lead to his termination from hosting the Oscars. “I’m not into people being permanently ‘cancelled’ over something like this. To me, ‘cancellation’ is childish. I’m into conversation, not cancellation. I’m into owning up to past mistakes, acknowledging blindspots and hurtful remarks, talking through it, discussing it, learning, moving past it and making progress together. To cancel someone immediately, is denying them that opportunity to learn and grow.”

Eichner is making a lot of valid points and while this is commentating specifically on the aspect of cancelling culture that is scrutiny over past offensive tweets, jokes, etc. it speaks volumes to how quickly we as a society are ready to change our thoughts on an individual based on public perception. It needs to be more about a discussion around what was deemed offensive, why it’s offensive, and how the person plans to make up and grow from it. 

While cancel culture isn’t always valid, sometimes is over reactive, and is basically all based around grey areas of accountability, it does, at least, do just that; hold individuals accountable.