William Barbee '22
Why is the first amendment the first amendment? Why were freedom of religion, speech, press, and peaceful assemblage the founding fathers’ first additions to the Constitution? Why are those freedoms so highly valued by those who have it and so longingly coveted by those who don’t? The answer is simple: without the ability to freely discuss ideas, freely share and publish those ideas, and freely protest those ideas, the entire fabric of a modern, enlightened society would vanish in the blink of an eye. And yet, even in our highly advanced civilization, our pinnacle of human achievement, there are still those among us who feel that the only way to preserve their idea of a ‘perfect world’ is to take away this fundamental right. These restrictive ideas are manifesting themselves in one of the great threats to freedom: cancel culture.
Let me be clear about what I am saying. I am not saying that people who have done terrible deeds and committed heinous crimes should be hailed as victims. People like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are not a product of ‘cancel culture;’ rather, they are long-overdue examples of corruption within a system that has allowed them to get away with their horrible deeds for decades. I will be the first to say that Roman Polanski should be put in jail for his acts of child rape. This has nothing to do with him being ‘cancelled’ or not. All three of these men are criminals who have been abusing their power for years and were rightly called out on it.
The problem that I have with cancel culture is in its intent. It was created by the ‘virtuous elite’ as a tool to silence people considered to be ‘morally inferior.’ It is the byproduct of a hyper-politically correct movement that aims to punish those who do not follow critics’ agendas of morality. If you can claim that you are on the side of morality while those with dissenting views are not, you can justify any and all means to stop their ‘immoral’ behavior. If you can claim your opponent is a Nazi, hates or oppresses minorities, and that their ideas are corrosive to the foundation of society, then you can convince people why your opposer should have their platform taken away from them, be forced to issue a public apology, and be scrutinized the rest of their life all because of a petty disagreement.
By altering the standards of acceptable speech ever so slightly, you are forcing people to choose between buckling under pressure to change and having their life’s work come crashing down and enduring eternal public scrutiny. Despite what the makers of these fluctuating rules tell you, you are not a hateful person. Almost no one is. And the few that remain viewed as hateful are ostracized in every way possible, being forced to lead hidden lives in the shadows of our society. Yet, every time you turn on the news or look at social media, you hear of another victim of cancel culture, another forced into silence. Hate speech is, legally, an undefined term. There is no way for somebody to objectively measure hate, especially in speech. When you add the fact that the line of what speech is hateful includes everything from Nazi propaganda to misgendering a transgender person, you reach a slippery slope that can lead people to be viewed criminally for simply expressing their viewpoint. This leads to an example from the UK in which a man was arrested for singing the song “Kung Fu Fighting” at a karaoke bar. The only crime this man committed was singing a song, yet he and his band will forever face the stigma of being racist and prejudiced.
There is no path to redemption for so many victims of cancel culture. No matter what they do, their image and reputation will always be haunted by one mistake, even if the mistake never happened in the first place. Jimmy Donaldson, better known by his username “MrBeast” is a YouTuber who specializes in philanthropy. Recently, there have been major attempts to cancel MrBeast for a video from 2016, in which he can be heard making an “attack helicopter joke” (essentially, a joke mocking gender identity). Whether you find the joke funny or not, there is no reason he should be slandered, as he should not be punished for speaking freely. A joke is, by definition, meant to poke fun at real world problems through a shaded, humorous perspective. Donaldson is not expressing a factual opinion; all he did was try, as he always does, to spread laughter and joy to people, and a small group of offended individuals should not be able to undermine the work of a genuine, good natured philanthropist.
As I sat down to write this article, a chilling revelation came upon me. This very piece, this expression of my beliefs on a culture I feel is so harmful to society, could have the reverse effects on me. I could be cancelled for writing a paper sharing my true feelings about this movement, this ideology. That terrifies me. It terrifies me to think that we have reached a point where expressing controversial viewpoints on divisive issues in society has become close to criminal, and that one small mistake can affect you forever. Cancel culture should serve as a wakeup call for all those who value freedom of speech and who refuse to let themselves be silenced by an angry swarm. We should all strive to be more open minded, allowing ourselves to think based not on emotion, but on analytical principles of truth, in order to understand the problems we face today.