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Contributed by Tori Black
“How can you convince somebody that has never met you and the only thing they’ve ever seen of you is that three-second clip?” Mimi Groves was a freshman in high school when she posted a video celebrating her new driver’s permit, in which she used a racial slur: “I can drive.” Followed by the “n-word.” She posted it and promptly forgot about it. But one of her classmates, Jimmy Galligan, saw it and thought it could be useful in the future, so he saved it. Jimmy had suffered from classmates’ racist behavior, and wanted Mimi to understand the severity of the language she had used. Earlier this past year, in the midst of the George Floyd protests, he shared the three-year-old video on social media.
Groves was by this point a high school senior headed to the University of Tennessee when the video went viral. “At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the word, or the history and context behind it because I was so young,” explained Groves. When Mimi made that video, she was mimicking the charged language of the music so popular among high schoolers. She adds, “It honestly disgusts me that those words would come out of my mouth.” Outrage followed: alumni, students, and donors, among others, demanded that the University of Tennessee revoke its offer, and Groves withdrew under pressure. Jimmy Galligan had taught his lesson. Mimi was “canceled.”
The public prosecution of “thoughtcrime”
Cancel Culture uses social media to shame individuals and eliminate support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Once reserved for high-profile individuals, the practice has spread to include everyday people. Canceling’s greatest “benefit” is as an intimidation tactic to silence heterodox thought on issues such as gender identity and conservative politics. Once upon a time, stifling speech through fear and harassment would have been considered un-American. Not so much today. Consider the following high-profile examples:
- Joe Rogan hosts a popular podcast — “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Rogan is known for his frankness and willingness to address sensitive issues. Spotify wooed Rogan away from YouTube with an exclusive licensing deal worth $100 million. Some of Spotify’s employees, however, were less than thrilled with the deal. The disgruntled employees objected to Rogan’s openness to conservative voices and issues on his podcast and insisted his show be censored. Some of Rogan’s choice of guests has led to listeners canceling their Spotify accounts in protest. Rogan is fortunate. Money talks, and his show is so popular that Spotify has withstood calls to censor Rogan.
- Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has been accused of transphobia and labeled a TERF— trans-exclusionary radical feminist. She supports the rights of transgender individuals to live as they choose, but has also stood her ground in defending the reality of biological sex and highlighting the harm done to women when society and governments allow biological men to categorize themselves as females. Rowling has been publicly excoriated and seen a substantial drop in the sale of her books.
- When asked about NFL players taking a knee in the midst of violent protests following the death of George Floyd, Drew Brees made the “mistake” of saying that he could “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” Twitter responded with #DrewBreesIsCanceled and fellow teammates publicly criticized him. Brees was compelled to issue an apology for the “pain” he had caused with his remark.
- Six years after the passage of California’s now-defunct Proposition 8, Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was forced to step down as CEO. Outrage erupted on social media after it was discovered that he had contributed $1000 to the passage of the measure that limited marriage to one man and one woman.
- After only six months on the job as Boeing’s communications chief, Niel Golightly resigned on July 2, 2020. He was forced from his position because an employee complained about an article Golightly had written 33 years ago. Golightly, a young naval aviator when he wrote the offending piece, believed, like many at the time, that women should not serve in combat positions in the military. The former Boeing executive had a change of heart shortly after writing the article, but that wasn’t enough to save his job.
In the past, bullying would have been considered an underhanded means of forcing compliance. Today there are actually those who frame cancel culture as a positive method to “reduce perceived harm to an individual or demographic, thereby creating social change.” One Scholastic article examined the issue from the perspectives of two high school students. One student enthusiastically advocated for canceling as an effective tool in combatting social injustice, especially in the school setting. “Offensive behavior will be condemned by students and administrators alike.”
On the other hand, the student that spoke out against cancel culture objected to the impact it could have on a person’s ability to redeem herself – “How can you apologize or show that you understand what you did wrong if you’ve been blocked on everyone’s social media and no one will talk to you anymore?” This is precisely the situation in which Mimi Groves finds herself. She cannot erase the thoughtlessly offensive use of a slur at the age of 15. The University of Tennessee certainly didn’t consider the possibility that Mimi’s imitation of the prevailing culture of the popular music she listened to might have been a case of immature, adolescent behavior, not racial malice. Galligan, with whom Groves had been friendly in school, could have had a meaningful, private talk with the popular cheerleader about hurtful speech. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose, years later, to make her a scapegoat for the racism and pain he experienced as a youth. Such a lost opportunity for them both.
Scholastic’s “anti” student rightfully identified cancel culture for what it is – public condemnation without context or humanity. But lost in the debate over the pros and cons of cancel culture is the foregone conclusion that anyone expressing an “offensive” opinion is by definition wrong. Society does not just cancel youthful indiscretions or outdated opinions. It cancels in order to stamp out the arguments of those opposed to the reordering of society by cultural elites. Proponents know the power of cancel culture to effect social change because it encourages self-censorship by you and me. We just stop sharing our thoughts out of fear. And what happens then?
Overcoming the conspiracy of fear and silence
Author Robert Henderson argues that when people are afraid to speak their minds, they begin to lie about what they do believe, which, Henderson points out, was common in Communist circles. Soon “honesty becomes unfashionable,” and people begin to “operate under the assumption that others hold certain opinions, which, in fact, they do not.” In the end, Henderson contends, as “individuals lose jobs or prominence because of things that they have said in the past, we will all become more adept at expressing falsehoods. It is likely that such a system will select for individuals predisposed to being comfortable with deception. Over time, only liars will speak openly.”
In a 1999 address at Harvard Law School, the late Charlton Heston described what we are experiencing as a “new McCarthyism.” He said, “I believe that we are again engaged in a great civil war, a cultural war that’s about to hijack your birthright to think and say what lives in your heart… Now, what does all of this mean? Among other things, it means that telling us what to think has evolved into telling us what to say, so telling us what to do can’t be far behind.”
Heston also gave us the antidote to this conspiracy of silence – a willingness to “disavow cultural correctness with massive disobedience of rogue authority, social directives, and onerous laws that weaken personal freedom.” That means speaking up and taking action – in civil and peaceful ways – when we see or hear that which is harmful. It is risky, and it takes courage, but it is the only way for us to resist this tyranny of political correctness. Heston reminded his Harvard audience, “If you talk about race, it does not make you a racist. If you see distinctions between the genders, it does not make you sexist. If you think critically about a denomination, it…does not make you anti-religion. If you accept but don’t celebrate homosexuality, it does not make you a homophobe.” He admonished his listeners to “re-connect…with your own sense of liberty, your own freedom of thought, your own compass for what is right,” and urged them to be unafraid. “If Americans believed in political correctness, we’d still be King George’s boys—subjects bound to the British crown.”
It has been said that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We begin a new year with new possibilities. If fear of being canceled has constrained you in the past, let 2021 be the year you find your courage, make your voice heard, and defy the modern-day McCarthyites who would silence you. Remember the great heritage of bravery that is ours. Speak up about the important issues that impact our society and our families and speak out against this assault on decency and freedom of thought.