Wissot: Cancel culture has its silly and serious sides
The road to hell is lined with good intentions. That’s the way I feel about the cancel culture.
A movement intended to combat bigotry, challenge racism, counter sexism, lost its moorings and wound up promoting draconian measures to enforce political correctness.
The worst excesses of PC are occurring on college campuses. That’s what happens when you allow the student inmates to run the academic asylum. When the adults in their ivory towers are afraid to come down and tell the kiddie corps running amok on campus that enough is enough, bad things happen.
What do I mean? Here are some examples: An MIT chaplain was fired for saying that it wasn’t clear that Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd was racially motivated. A professor at the University of Chicago was relieved of important posts because he criticized Black Lives Matter. A university instructor was punished for using a Chinese word that some students thought “sounded” like the n-word.
College campuses aren’t the real world in which most of us live. They are more like noisy monasteries that serve beer. Life on a college campus is detached from the reality students will encounter once they graduate from an ethereal world of ideas and ideals and join the rest of us in the earthier depths of money and power, infants and diapers, technology and tribalism, old age and death.
The “flower power,” “make love not war” hippies in the 1960s devolved into the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” yuppies of the 1980s. Once the kids on college campuses leave their Frisbee playground and assume adult responsibilities, they will become more concerned about canceled checks than the cancel culture.
There is a serious side, as well as a silly side, to political correctness. The silly side empowers a bunch of college students to reverse roles and give failing grades to the professors who don’t pass their test on politically correct responses to racism. The serious side takes into consideration the objections raised by members of a particular racial or cultural group to words and images which negatively stereotype them.
Political correctness is the liberal antidote to the political incorrectness of ultra-right conservatives. What chafes these conservatives is that nobody appointed liberals to police politically incorrect speech and derogatory descriptions of ethnic minorities, women and gays, were for the longest time widely accepted and used by white Americans.
The politically incorrect would like to know why that changed. The answer is that public opinion regarding the expression of racist speech changed. You might say many, though certainly not all, white people evolved ethically and the roadkill from that evolution were the N-word, the C-word and gay slurs.
Canceling the N-word wasn’t meant to silence freedom of speech. It was intended to condemn the overt expression of racist language in public. It put racists on notice; let them know their racism would be met with harsh criticism. The cancel culture came along because the country, after fighting a Civil War to end slavery and a second World War to defeat Nazism. looked inward and decided to end its own home-grown bigotry.
The cancel culture lacks the legal authority to stifle freedom of speech. The courts have made it clear that no one has a constitutional right to not be offended by speech. A racist can’t be legally stopped from standing on a public park bench and spewing racial hate.
I can candidly assure any white man reading this that he won’t be arrested if he walks up to a Black man tomorrow and calls him the N-word. He may get his face pummeled, but a cop isn’t going to come along, cuff him, and haul him off to jail.
That constitutionally-protected right to be as racist as we wish to be in public and private ends in our employer’s office at the desk of the person who signs our paychecks. The company or corporation that hired us doesn’t wish to have their image sullied by employee racism. They impose their own version of the cancel culture with the words, “You’re fired.”
Similarly, the cancel culture asserts its influence when it comes to racist images which damage a company’s brand. That’s why you don’t see Uncle Ben gracing the labels of rice cartons or Aunt Jemima represented on syrup bottles anymore.
It’s also why children will no longer be able to read several Dr. Seuss books featuring slant-eyed Asians or Africans depicted as monkeys.The foundation entrusted with guarding the legacy of Dr. Seuss recently discontinued the publication of those books.
To those who mourn the demise of six Dr. Seuss books, it is worth noting that they are just the latest casualties in cancel culture history. Before they were considered politically incorrect, white folks went to minstrel shows, wore blackface to frat parties, placed black jockey ornaments on their lawns, and dressed in Little Black Sambo costumes for Halloween.
Let me make the suggestion to those who worry that the cancel culture is jeopardizing freedom of speech that they shift their attention to a much greater concern: the cancellation of truth.
I believe the cancellation of truth, by way of scientific misinformation and political disinformation, abuses freedom of speech far more than the cancel culture threatens it.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.