At the third annual Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago this week, former President Barack Obama made a forceful statement about “cancel culture.”
“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, which prompted some gentle heckling noises from the audience. He went on: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. . . One danger I see among young people particularly on college campuses (Malia and I talk about this) . . but I do get a sense sometimes among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people. And that’s enough. I mean, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. . . You see how woke I was? I called you out. . .. that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not gonna get that far.”
It’s been a fairly consistent message from Obama over the years, although it’s interesting that in this most recent expression of it, he stopped himself before saying “wrong pronoun” and instead said “wrong verb”—a nod to the fact that the progressive left has made pronoun choice a call-out culture hobby horse.
But the fact that Obama’s remarks were notable is also evidence of how much further to the left the Democratic Party has moved on issues of identity politics and woke-ness. With the exception of Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, who has also spoken critically of cancel culture, Obama’s is a rare intervention from the left these days.
And while many on the right and the left praised him for taking on “toxic” cancel culture, that praise shouldn’t obscure a larger challenge: the left remains in a state of deep confusion about the meaning and monitoring of speech and on the appropriate consequences when someone says something with which the left disagrees.
Consider a recent piece in the Washington Post by Richard Stengel, a former journalist who worked in Obama’s State Department and who is now arguing for bans on hate speech. “Yes, the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another,” he wrote. “In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.” He summed up his argument in decidedly Orwellian terms: “All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails.”
But as the “guardrails” already in place on college campuses show, speech codes and bans on hate speech remain a contentious issue for a reason. As the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson argued, “When Establishment figures declare that they’ve changed their mind on free speech and now think there should be less of it, know that they expect the speech that gets throttled to be yours, not theirs.”
The trends are not heartening for defenders of the First Amendment. A 2015 Pew Research study found that younger generations of Americans are far more willing to censor speech if it targets minority groups than previous generations. For every celebrity like Obama (or Dave Chappelle), there are hordes of leftist Twitter users and campus activists poised to demolish anyone who deploys the wrong pronoun or challenges any aspect of progressive orthodoxy.