The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘cancel culture’ as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”
This is nothing new; we see numerous examples of what we now call cancel culture in history. Society cancelled people it disapproved of during witch hunts. The aristocracy was brutally cancelled during the French Revolution. During the Cold War, many were unjustly accused of being communists.
It’s difficult to find a time in history when cancelling didn’t happen.
In the age of social media, we’ve seen a new era of cancel culture emerge. We still use one-word definitions to confine those we disagree with, no matter where we lie on the political spectrum, but the most stinging and damning accusations today seem to come from the far-left.
This topic has been studied thoroughly by John McWhorter of Columbia University, who has published the book Woke Racism. He uses the example of Leslie Neal-Boylan, the former head of nursing at the University of Massachusetts, to illustrate his point. She stated that not only do black lives matter, all lives matter in healthcare. She wasn’t against the Black Lives Matter movement; she was pointing out the importance of equality for all in her field, regardless of race. She was trying to acknowledge the frequent mistreatment of blacks in the healthcare system, but that didn’t seem to matter to her accusers. Neal-Boylan’s career was derailed and she was cancelled.
This is a case where cancel culture not only resulted in a competent person being fired from their job but did nothing to improve the healthcare system in the United States. It can even be argued that it made things worse by stifling honest dialogue.
There’s an alternative to being cancelled, but it has a price. Beginning in 2016, Jordan Peterson, a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, was met with protests wherever he went because he expressed concern over the impact of Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code with regard to gender expression and gender identity. He was labelled a misogynist and a sexist; he was called transphobic and even a Nazi.
Peterson refused to be defined by these terms and sought opportunities to debate and argue his perspectives in a respectful manner.
It turns out that Peterson isn’t a right-wing extremist nor a hatemonger: He’s an intellectual who values free speech and honest dialogue. He demonstrates that we can respectfully disagree with one another.
This is precisely the type of discourse that’s needed to solve the complex problems faced by the world in 2022.
We all benefit from honest discourse. The challenge is that these discussions require a certain amount of patience and humility. There’s not a person who walks the Earth who has a complete understanding of the truth. Acknowledging that one may be wrong is not a sign of weakness; it’s a demonstration of wisdom.
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By engaging in discourse, we’re able to move forward as a society in the best way possible. When challenged in an honest debate, those who embrace hateful, dishonest and overly simplistic views will either be debunked or begin trying to intimidate those who disagree with them.
Cancel culture plays right into the wheelhouse of angry, fearful, manipulative and insecure people by shutting down honest discussion. This is a truth that we who consume media must be mindful of.
We live in an imperfect world inhabited by imperfect beings. If we’re accountable to ourselves in seeking truth, if we’re honest and humble with one another, we will find the answers to the problems we face.
No one needs to be cancelled, and those who reject this ideal will end up cancelling themselves.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.
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