You know things have gone wrong in the culture of America when former President Barack Obama manages to offend the far-left, ultra-woke crowd. After the former president gave a speech at an Obama Foundation event in which he made some surprising comments about cancel culture, many on the far left took him to task.
The New York Times published a piece by journalist Ernest Owens titled: “Obama’s Very Boomer View of ‘Cancel Culture.’” In this article, Owens outlined the reasons the former president was off base. After a closer look, however, Owens’ arguments don’t quite stand up to scrutiny.
Obama Blasts Cancel Culture
When Obama gave his speech, he made some pointed remarks about cancel culture – the phenomenon in which social media mobs target certain people for comments the progressive left deems offensive. It has become a social media two-for-one deal: You can punish people you don’t like while showing your friends and followers how virtuous you are.
Obama cautioned the young audience against embracing cancel culture: “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” he said. “You should get over that quickly.”
The former president then explained that people who become targets of cancel culture aren’t necessarily evil. “The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he said. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”
He then gave a fictional scenario in which cancel culture plays a part. “Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself ‘cause ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
“That’s not activism,” he continued. “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.”
Obama’s comments were lauded by people on both the left and the right, but, as usual, the “woke” crowd didn’t appreciate his remarks.
Obama’s “Boomer View” of Cancel Culture
In his article, Owens starts by claiming Obama’s criticism of cancel culture was “misguided” but, interestingly, he begins to lay out a definition for the term that might not be all that accurate:
“But the former president’s disdain for the kind of criticism that has become popular to dismiss as ‘cancel culture’ (which is a term that, as Osita Nwanevu wrote for the New Republic, ‘seems to describe the phenomenon of being criticized by multiple people — often but not exclusively on the internet. Neither the number of critics, the severity of the criticism, nor the extent of the actual fallout from it seem particularly important’) is misguided.”
By defining cancel culture as something that merely involves a bunch of people criticizing an individual online, Owens and others are making this phenomenon appear to be benign – merely a way to express one’s views. Maybe even a way to affect positive change. However, there is far more to cancel culture than Owens is letting on.
The author later describes his experience with and motivations for engaging in cancel culture. “As a millennial who has participated in using digital platforms to critique powerful people for promoting bigotry or harming others, I can assure you it wasn’t because they had ‘different opinions,’” Owens writes. “It was because they were spreading the kinds of ideas that contribute to the marginalization of people like me and those I care about.”
Owens has gone after various figures on social media. In the piece, he mentions a few of the people he believed to be worth canceling:
“The R&B singer R. Kelly deserved to be ‘muted’ after decades of sexual abuse allegations against him. Similarly, harsh scrutiny of Hollywood heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski is appropriate. The National Football League doesn’t deserve my viewership after blackballing former player Colin Kaepernick for standing up against racist police brutality. Dave Chappelle should be ridiculed for making transphobic jokes, especially at a time when black transgender women continue to be murdered. It’s not rude or intolerant to say Kevin Hart’s homophobia isn’t funny.”
It is interesting to note that in this passage, he lumps comedian Dave Chappelle in with people like Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Roman Polanski, who are alleged to have committed some pretty heinous acts. One could easily make a case for canceling people like Weinstein, Polanski, and Kelly, but should Chappelle get the same treatment for making jokes about transgender people? Does it truly make sense to include comedians in the same category as alleged sex criminals?
Owens goes on to assert that the online activities of left-leaning activists are similar to those who fought against injustice in the past: “Students at the University of Pennsylvania using social media to push for the cancellation of a campus event,” writes Owens, “including a former Trump administration Immigration and Customs Enforcement director is not totally unlike college students using bullhorns to criticize apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MuteRKelly, #MeToo and others that were created by black women online aren’t all that different from the picket signs and petitions our parents used to demand racial and gender justice.”
It is almost as if Owens realizes that the behavior of those embracing cancel culture might be easily seen as social media bullying to observers when he writes:
“What people of Obama’s generation don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — about the ways in which younger people use the internet to make our values known, is that we’re not bullies going after people with “different opinions” for sport. Rather, we’re trying to push back against the bullies — influential people who have real potential to cause harm, or have already caused it.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s not true. Yes, cancel culture has drawn attention to people alleged to have engaged in horrific behavior and both progressives and conservatives have condemned these individuals – but people on the far left have used this movement for malicious purposes.
Only a few months ago, The Des Moines Register tried to get an ordinary citizen, raising money for charity with Anheuser-Busch, canceled for offensive social media posts he made in high school. The attempt backfired and resulted in the firing of the journalist who published the information.
Earlier this year, Oberlin College targeted a nearby bakery whose owners apprehended black students attempting to steal from their store. Members of the student class and faculty-led demonstrators attempted to smear the bakery’s reputation. This also backfired.
But these cancelation attempts do not always fail and the subject of the hard left’s ire is often punished. It is abundantly clear that cancel culture is not as altruistic as its defenders would have us believe; it has simply become another weapon with which to enforce the progressive form of cultural totalitarianism. Moreover, it is designed to send a stark message to those why may transgress the precepts of social justice leftism: Don’t step out of line, or we’ll come for you too.