If anything unifies the increasingly divided Democratic party, it’s support for former President Barack Obama, who still holds approval among 97 percent of Democrats. However, Obama’s recent comments regarding “call-out culture” and social media activism sparked rare controversy among the left, and were condemned by some as taking a “boomer view” of the world and “scolding” younger generations.
“This idea of purity and ‘you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke’ and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly,” Obama said in a speech at Illinois Institute of Technology.
Although younger Democrats may not agree completely with Obama, dismissing his opinion out of hand would be a mistake. At Emory and across the country, liberal activists must focus on collaboration, not just confrontation, as a means to achieve meaningful social and political change.
Obama’s criticism was aimed in part at “cancel culture,” an increasingly popular trend where individuals refuse to engage, or “cancel,” those they disagree with. For example, students at the University of Pennsylvania used social media to push for the cancellation of a former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement administrator’s speech on campus. Other prominent figures have been “canceled” by social media boycott campaigns, ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Kanye West. As one New York Times op-ed succinctly put it, “Everyone Is Canceled” in our society because all people have moral failings to some degree.
Cancellation can be effective in limited circumstances, particularly in punishing actions that clearly violate societal standards. Few would argue that Harvey Weinstein deserves to be producing movies or that Kevin Spacey should still be on “House of Cards,” following their involvement in sexual harassment scandals. However, as a singular tool for achieving progress on many other issues, “cancel culture” inevitably fails. President Donald J. Trump remains the president of the United States despite his continuous stream of racist, sexist and xenophobic remarks. The 46 percent of 2016 voters who supported Trump could very easily re-elect him in 2020. Does anyone seriously think that the president or his base can be simply “canceled” from our society without any serious debate or discussion?
The truth of the matter is that cancellation serves as a convenient strategy for us to sidestep answering difficult questions like why Trump won in the first place. All the anger in the world will not reverse the results of the 2016 election, nor will it deliver Democrats the White House in 2020. As Obama said himself, “Passion is vital, but you have to have a strategy.” While raw emotion alone is a powerful driver of change, it is not enough for a substantive impact without a thoughtful plan. Ultimately, the solutions to the myriad problems we face as a society won’t just come from slogans or hashtags. They need to be derived from good faith efforts to engage with others, particularly those with whom we disagree.
Throughout our country’s history, there have been countless examples of activists willing to work with imperfect figures and institutions to achieve change. Perhaps the most compelling illustration is former President Abraham Lincoln’s effort to end slavery. At the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln refused to commit to abolition and instead sought to keep the slave-holding border states in the Union. It was this action, however, which likely allowed the Union to win the Civil War and Congress to finally erase slavery from our country with the 13th Amendment. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated after Lincoln’s death, “Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.”
A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. also worked within a deeply flawed system to achieve greater racial equality. While King and other activists risked their lives to pursue racial equality, they did so with a clear purpose: to convince the federal government to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation. Ultimately, it was former President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Southerner with some arguably racist views, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, ending most forms of government-sanctioned discrimination.
Obama’s unity message during his 2008 campaign serves as a more modern case, delivering Democrats a sweeping electoral victory which allowed them to enact consequential reforms on our financial and health-care systems, among numerous other accomplishments. Many of his votes came from people who supported Trump in 2016, and those individuals could swing their votes again in 2020. Reaching out to these voters is critical if Democrats hope to defeat Trump next year.
These precedents underscore the general nature of societal change throughout American history. It rarely comes in nicely bundled packages or occurs in a completely linear fashion. Instead, durable change takes place mostly through incremental steps, rarely satisfying anyone’s ultimate goals immediately. And this progress almost never occurs without some effort to win over those holding opposing viewpoints, rather than simply attacking or ignoring them.
Certainly, social movements in the present such as #MeToo or Black Lives Matter have had great success in attracting attention to, and in some cases effecting change on, pressing issues. However, the lasting impact of these movements will be measured in large part by their ability to win over Americans who may currently disagree with some of their aspects. Hashtags and social media campaigns must be viewed as a means to this end, rather than ends in and of themselves.
With this in mind, the next time you feel the urge to “cancel” someone you disagree with, sit on it for a while. Maybe even consider engaging with them or making an effort to understand their viewpoint. You’ll likely be surprised by what you learn.
Andrew Kliewer (20C) is from Dallas.