Is Free Speech in Jeopardy?
What does it mean to “cancel” someone? No, it’s not to cancel a transaction you did online. Today it means to diminish someone’s significance as an influencer by personal boycott, public shaming, or simply shunning them. We call it the “cancel culture,” or” call-out culture.”
Last week President Obama said, “One danger I see among young people, particularly on college campuses…is the way [they make change] is to be as judgmental as possible about other people…If I tweet or hashtag something about how you didn’t do something right…That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change?”
President Obama has it right. The cancel culture is dangerous when one tweet or insensitive remark gets you condemned on social media rather than beginning a dialogue about why it is wrong…insensitive to the feelings of others.
The rapper J. Cole was interviewed by XXL magazine about the politically correct movement that calls for the public to denounce controversial celebrities – specifically those who have been accused of racist, sexist or abusive behavior. Cole argued that the idea of “canceling” an individual for their wrongful words or deed is counterproductive. He went so far as to say he feels compassion and empathy for artists caught up in the cancel culture. This is an enlightened view but one that is in the minority.
Millennials live their lives online and it’s the primary way for them to voice their concerns about the objectionable behaviors of others. However, they go too far sometimes when it’s in response to a relatively benign position such as when Kanye West was called out for supporting President Trump. Moreover, it’s one thing to cancel someone like Harvey Weinstein but quite another to cancel someone for an ill-conceived tweet.
I understand the temptation to lash out at another party and also why it happens on college campuses. The increased focus on microaggressions has fueled this behavior and safe spaces have created an environment where those with points of view different than the majority on campus get segregated from the debate.
Accountability for one’s words and actions is essential if we are to become responsible citizens and students realize it. This is one reason for the popularity of the cancel culture. That’s a good thing but can be dangerous taken to an extreme because forgiveness for a mistake is a big part of a democratic society too.
The underlying cause of our cancel culture is intolerance. Colleges should be teaching tolerance, not segregating out those with views different as occurs through groupthink. We need to establish a more open environment to debate the issues even when we disagree vehemently with the viewpoints of another person.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects certain rights including speech no matter how offensive its content. The stifling of speech to push one’s agenda harms society because it loses the opportunity to hear speakers with opposing views and openly debate the issues. The way we communicate and exchange ideas speaks volumes about the ethics of a society – how we view right and wrong.
The cancel culture is an anathema to free speech that should be promoted on college campuses. Colleges need to teach students how to disagree with others respectfully; disagree without being disagreeable. Many colleges develop new courses for just about anything when they want to promote the prevailing viewpoint on campus. Why not do so for civility, civic discourse and to promote responsible speech, not cancel someone out?
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 14, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.