Barack Obama made some remarks about so-called “cancel culture” last night, which has sent reactionary centrists and right wing political correctness grifters everywhere into spasms of ecstasy. Here’s Chris Cillizza, in case you’re too busy poking your eyes out with a fork to read him yourself:
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff [Obama said]. 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.”
Obama went on to note that he is bothered by a trend he sees “among young people particularly on college campuses” where “there is this sense that ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.'” Added Obama: “That’s not activism. 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.”
It would be easy to see Obama’s comments as a shot at President Donald Trump. Because, well, Trump’s entire presidency is about sending tweets and casting stones.
But I think Obama is up to something much more complex — and important here. The rise of “cancel” culture — particularly on the left and particularly on social media — is one of the defining hallmarks of our culture in the post-Obama presidency. Say something wrong, tweet something people disagree with, express an opinion that is surprising or contradicts the established view people have of you, and the demands for you to be fired, de-friended or otherwise driven from the realms of men quickly follow.
The goal of many of these cancel culture acolytes appears to be simply to move from outrage to outrage — pointing fingers and yelling “here is the bad person. RIGHT HERE.” Left unsaid — but without question present in the underpinnings of this worldview — is that there are only good people (aka people who agree with me on all things) and bad people (those who don’t agree with me on everything.) There is no gray area. It’s black or it’s white.
The point Obama is making is that politics — and life — are rarely that cut and dry. No one, including you, is all good or all bad. “People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
This is especially true when it comes to the political realm and the 2020 campaign. At the moment, the fight within the Democratic Party is between the liberal, “no compromise” wing (represented by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) and the establishment, pragmatic wing (represented by Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden.)
Obama’s bromides are remarkably unhelpful at this particular historical moment. This is all the more so given his choice to say almost nothing about the Republican party becoming a fascist cult of personality, which some people might consider a slightly more troubling development than “cancel culture,” which, as this TNR essay made clear last month, is an almost completely phony concept:
Since their piece on “cancel culture” last year, writers at the Times alone have referenced the concept in at least 14 articles on subjects ranging from Joe Biden’s age to a revival of Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway. This count doesn’t include references to “call-out culture,” a close synonym invoked by David Brooks earlier this year in a column about a woman “cancelled” or “called out” online after it was discovered she had engaged in cyberbullying during high school. Her saga, featured in the podcast Invisibilia, troubled Brooks deeply. “I’m older, so all sorts of historical alarm bells were going off,” he wrote. “The way students denounced and effectively murdered their elders for incorrect thought during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and in Stalin’s Russia.” Later in the column, he described call-outs as “a step towards the Rwandan genocide.”
Statements like this are routine in cancel culture discourse—any particular cancellation, no matter how trivial or narrow it may seem to the casual observer, evidently carries within it the seeds of something much more grave. In a March column, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan also made reference to torture and indoctrination under Mao. “I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned,” she declared. “Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence. The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter.”
Being cancelled on Twitter, then, is an event that belongs to an alarming lineage of severe intolerance, cruel persecution, official condemnation, and vindictive upheavals. The list of weighty precedents is endless. Nelson Mandela was cancelled. Martin Luther King Jr. was cancelled. The Beatles were cancelled. Lenny Bruce, of course, was cancelled. Vladimir Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were all cancelled. Alfred Dreyfus was cancelled and, famously, uncancelled. Robespierre, like fellow canceller par excellence Joseph McCarthy, eventually got himself cancelled. Twenty unlucky Puritans were cancelled at Salem. Galileo was cancelled. Martin Luther was cancelled. Joan of Arc was cancelled. At least half a dozen popes have been cancelled. Jesus was cancelled. Socrates was cancelled. The pharaoh Akhenaten, reviled and stricken from official records for introducing monotheism to Egypt, was cancelled quite thoroughly in the fourteenth century BC. In the twenty-fourth, Lugalzagesi, uniter of Sumer, was cancelled by Sargon of Akkad and a cheering public as he was marched in a neck stock through the city of his coronation and executed. Et cetera.
Yet it seems at least possible that tweets are just tweets—that as difficult as criticism in the social media age may be to contend with at times, it bears no meaningful resemblance to genocides, excommunications, executions, assassinations, political imprisonments, and official bans past. Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane: ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms.
But many of those troubled by cancel culture insist it should trouble the rest of us even so. “Whatever you call it—public shaming, call-out culture, or cancellation—what’s happening now is in no way a new phenomenon,” The Stranger’s Katie Herzog wrote last week. “But what is new is the scale of it all. This isn’t just happening to public figures; it’s happening everywhere that social media exists, and you no longer have to be powerful, or even notable, to get canceled. And sometimes the offense was committed when the guilty party was just a kid.”
The “guilty party” Herzog references with a link here is Kyler Murray, a football player who made an apology after winning the Heisman Trophy last year when it was discovered he had written homophobic tweets as a teen. Those curious about how low cancellation has brought Murray should tune into Fox next Sunday afternoon. He’s now the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.
In conclusion, Twitter is a land of contrasts, and I wish somebody would pay me $47 million this year to complain about how I’ve been victimized by cancel culture, but that seems like a bit of a long shot.