‘Cancel culture’ shuts down necessary dialogue

in Contributors/Terry Manning/Voices by

I sat down last year and started combing the Internet looking for all the columns I wrote during my journalism career, mostly from college, but also from my tenure as a technology columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper. 

The tech columns were pretty generic. I wrote about the newspaper’s website, its reader forums, reader complaints, the usual. My college work was more problematic. 

As editor-in-chief, I wrote a column at least every other week. I covered a lot of issues from a pro-student perspective, but on one occasion I wrote a terrible column about Black identity and how I felt I was misperceived by other Black students. I used racially insensitive imagery in describing some of my perceived detractors. I was angry and used the power of my position to try to inflict hurt and embarrassment. 

Classmates with cooler heads patiently discussed with me the ramifications of what I had done, and all these years later I’m still embarrassed by the column – but I kept it in my collection. Why? Because I wrote it. Because it represented my thoughts at that moment in time, with my bad judgment and bitterness displayed in all their ignominy. 

Should I be canceled now for what I wrote 30 years ago? Should that column be removed from the university’s online archives? Why not every other thing I wrote? 

Some, myself included, would argue history demands the record be preserved intact for the sake of completeness. Should I be fired from my current job? Would justice be served? What individual could file claim to being most offended?

So no, I am not comfortable with the idea everything bad from the past must be excised from existence, and not just because of my own example. 

Let me clear, though: I am completely opposed to conservative intransigence on an issue they have mischaracterized and weaponized. By definition, conservatives want things to stay as they are or were, but that is not a defensible position when tradition and “owning the libs” are the only justifications. 

For example, how does one make an argument for Confederate monuments when most were installed by power structures invested in promoting the false Lost Cause narrative surrounding the Civil War or later as a thumbing of the nose to the Civil Rights Movement? With everything we know about the war and the rights movement, why are people still defending these relics, which number in the hundreds and exist in states that were never even part of the Confederacy? 

These are fair questions, I think, but Republicans have weaponized the notion of reappraising historical and social matters using the catch-all label of “wokeness,”a term they use pejoratively as a knee-jerk reaction to any inquiry of which they don’t approve. 

I admit there are progressives who have pushed hard in seeking correctives to a culture that for too long deemed one perspective – white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant – as the only one worth honoring, but that’s how negotiations work: Ask for a lot upfront, but accept a lesser amount. It’s called compromise. Deeming any efforts at offering broader context to historical events (The 1619 Project), being more inclusive (LGBTQ), addressing racial disparities (take your pick) or addressing police brutality as “wokeness” and therefore bad is disingenuous at best and simple-minded at the very least. 

Some of the loudest voices don’t even seem to know what “woke” means. NBC News surveyed Congressional Republicans, and their definitions were all over the place. Some admitted they couldn’t define it. A Republican Senate aide said, “It’s … about a particular worldview of racial, social hierarchies and social leveling and things like that.” Equality. Who would want that? 

But as the aide added later, calling something “woke” stirs the base. Like calling someone a “social justice warrior” (as opposed to being a warrior for injustice?), saying someone is “virtue signaling” (is it better to identify as a vice character?), or calling BLM “Burn Loot Murder” because it’s unthinkable to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” 

“Cancel culture” seems to apply only when conservatives want to defend things. Not because those things deserve to be defended, but because a liberal might have raised the initial question. When conservatives target people or institutions, they call it “freedom of speech” or “the market at work.” 

The Republican Party has sent its base on a cultural snipe hunt, but party leaders don’t seem to be in on the joke. 

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.