I inadvertently took last week off. I have been engrossed in a book project and on Thursday of last week realized that I hadn’t written my weekly blog, which I have always posted on Wednesdays. Nobody noticed so I guess we all (make that all three of us) needed a week off.
We have lost the opportunity to be spontaneous and misinformed, to learn and grow, to become kinder and gentler as we age and, ultimately, to improve with age as we absorb the lessons of life. People are losing their careers, reputations, friends and a lifetime of continuing accomplishments entitling them to well-deserved respect. Social media trumpets the most trivial observations made with little deliberation to define people who are much more than a passing comment or an emotional response.
What I did and said in the 1970’s when I was a young husband and father, veteran and recent college graduate learning the trade as a reporter for a metropolitan newspaper may not accurately denote the person I am today. That was back in the 20th Century, and I probably said or wrote things that would be regarded as politically incorrect now. In fact, the whole concept of political correctness was not even on the social or political landscape at that time.
Political correctness is one thing, but the penalty that has emerged from it is worse, the phenomenon of cancel culture.
One kind of cancel culture is particularly unforgiving. It’s about subjecting 21st Century values to what I may have said, did or wrote in the sixties, seventies and eighties. It goes back much further than that, with the likes of previously honored people, from war heroes to industrialists, who are now proclaimed as villains by condescending critics. There was even an attempt to remove the name of Abraham Lincoln from an elementary school because of some remarks that might be deemed racist if uttered today. We’re talking about the Great Emancipator here, not some Confederate general who led soldiers into battle, slaying their countrymen from the north in defense of slavery. Do we recognize Henry Ford for his positive impact on industrializing America or for espousing support for the Fascist government of Germany before all hell broke loose with the Nazi invasion of Poland?
In short, it’s a re-evaluation of history.
For instance, Woodrow Wilson, regarded as Godlike in Europe and the United States after World War I, is regarded by many today as a racist and unworthy of homage. I suppose he was, when judged by today’s standards, based on his admiration for the privately screened racist movie, “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted black men as despoilers of white womanhood. “It’s like writing history with lightning!” proclaimed the awed president, who once described black people as “an ignorant and inferior race.”
Oh, yes, and it was Wilson who was President during that other pandemic that claimed as many American lives as our Civil War. Not only didn’t he try to do anything about it. He never accepted it as his responsibility, hoping it would go away. There may be similarities to our previous president on that issue at least, but Wilson makes Trump look diligent in comparison.
Come to think of it, Woodrow Wilson probably was a racist then, too, so maybe he may not be the best example of cancel culture. The lesson is that even people with a dark side or questionable character can accomplish good stuff and respond humanely.
I wrote about cancel culture a few weeks back. I was having some fun with now ostracized cartoon characters who got laughs from speech defects, body shaming, sexual misconduct and even glorifying violence. Even though I can understand why they might not continue similar animation humor today, especially any targeting children, it can get a little silly when you go back in the past— and even in my lifetime— to denounce behavior and attitudes accepted at the time with little reflection. Ignorance was bliss, but that doesn’t salve the pain of discrimination and ridicule for those who were targets of that ignorance.
I was thinking about how irresponsible we’ve become in protecting our own children and forsaking personal responsibility after the blowup over a piece of exercising equipment— a Peloton treadmill— which was declared dangerous to people with young children and pets. It resulted in a recent recall of this equipment. It was another kind of canceling, but it seems to me that we are once again taking parents off the hook from watching their own kids. These machines have powerful moving parts, and if you’re allowing little ones to crawl around and explore a powered-on treadmill, elliptical or stepper while you are working out, you might want to recognize the dangers in that.
Even Comics Are Curbing Insult Humor
There’s a difference between saying something stupid, racist, inappropriate or mean-spirited on social media or other public forum as has happened with various authors, celebrities, entertainers and politicians, ranging from Jimmy Fallon to J.K. Rowling; Morgan Wallen to Travis Scott, and Ellen Degeneres to Louis C. K., actually threatening their careers and livelihood with or without apologies. That person is essentially cancelled, sometimes permanently, for saying or doing something offensive about another person or group. Roseanne lost a television show and perhaps her career way back in May of 2018 because of a racist Tweet. She still insists she it was political humor, not racism, adding that she didn’t know the Obama aide she compared to an ape was black. That’s a variation of the-sun-got-in-my-eyes excuse after dropping a fly ball, but is, at the very least, ignorance. More like you didn’t realize it was a fly ball until it bounced off your glove.
With the exception of Roseanne, comics have a better chance of surviving such gaffes, because they tend to make raw observations in the quest of laughs. They’re in a position of going too far, and they might be able to ride out the storm with an apology.
Maybe you should know better than to do what you did, but should you lose everything due to a display of insensitivity or ignorance?
The case or Morgan Wallen, a rising young star in country music caught on camera drunkenly spewing a racist remark in Nashville is instructive. Many radio stations immediately stopped playing his songs. He lost his record contract. He was disqualified by the Country Music Association for an award this year. He was excluded from song lists on major streaming apps. He announced a month ago that he was taking time away from music and will not be touring this summer. And, yes, he did apologize and take ownership of what he did.
The flip side is that a lot of his fans don’t care. His music is still selling well and he shouldn’t have to declare bankruptcy in the near future. In. another year he’ll be back on track and doing interviews about the lessons he learned.
Again, people with a public forum should know better, and although some of the repercussions may be warranted, it can be excessive and perhaps unfair. It is a matter of taking responsibility for something you know you shouldn’t have said, but the spontaneity allowed by social media is like walking a tightrope without a net. As for canceling historical figures, who have been glorified for singular accomplishments and behavior, we need to pause and consider all dimensions of that person and the times in which they lived. History is mostly about human behavior, and we need to contemplate its lessons now more than ever.
It works both ways. Hitler was reportedly kind and affectionate to little kids and dogs, but that doesn’t excuse him for presiding over the systematic extermination of millions of people he regarded as his inferiors, including little kids.