By Jim Norman
I’d like to focus on what I consider to be an unsettling phenomenon permeating many aspects of life in our increasingly disunited United States–what has become known as “cancel culture.”
As I approach my 80th birthday, it occurs to me that I have dedicated great effort during my life to the aphorism that “to get along, you have to go along.” I have made great and discomfiting compromises–as a lawyer who sometimes found myself assigned to represent unsavory clients and as a journalist who was often expected to check my rights as an American citizen at the door as the price of admission to the profession.
As a journalist who entered the field during the great upheavals of the civil rights and anti-war movements, I have experienced increasingly tight restrictions on what working journalists are permitted to do, as media managers have grown increasingly sensitive to complaints from increasingly vocal interested parties.
A restriction I rejected
I was even told in no uncertain terms by a former colleague who had moved on to establish himself as an academic authority in journalism ethics that as far as he was concerned, a journalist should understand that to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, he or she should refrain from voting for a political candidate! That was a restriction that I rejected and was never tempted to apply to my professional life.
When, shortly after becoming a member of our Bergen Society, I became active in the fight against gun insanity and led a drive to get the Teaneck municipal council to approve a sharply worded resolution favoring tighter gun restrictions, a local proponent of unrestricted Second Amendment rights tried to get me fired from the newspaper I was working for.
I was told I could keep my job as a reporter if I completely severed any ties with the organization that has since evolved into the local Coalition Against Gun Violence. I complied, but that was not enough. “About that Ethical Culture organization,” a top-ranking editor said during one of the disciplinary meetings I was required to attend, “I have my doubts about that, too.” (She walked back that objection when I advised her that we are a religious organization.)
Never again would I need to muzzle myself
When at the age of 75 I was offered the “opportunity” to leave the tragically shrinking field of journalism, I felt a sense of immense and immediate liberation. Never again would I feel the need to muzzle myself for the sake of appearance.
Imagine the unwelcome sense of déjà vu I felt when I was advised by more than one person after I accepted the proposal that I become president of our Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County that I might have to pull back on some of my outspokenly public expressions of political opinion and focus more on effectively representing all of our members instead.
All this is by way of what is perhaps a lengthy introduction to what has become a common practice: if you don’t like what someone has said or done, loudly and indignantly demand that he or she be forced to retract it, or even that he or she be fired and prevented from further work in his or her chosen profession. In other words, “cancel culture.”
At first, inclined to be sympathetic
I began to think of this over the last week or so as I began to read of the growing sense of indignation and pain expressed by members of the LGBTQ community following the comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent “Closer” show, streaming on Netflix. Without having seen the show, and knowing how offensive Chappelle’s language can be, I was inclined to be sympathetic with the expressions of outrage.
Then a funny thing happened: I decided to watch the show in its entirety. To be sure, Chappelle was just as free with profane and offensive language as he has always been. But the objections went way deeper, and never even took note of gratuitously profane language. After watching the show, I found myself believing that the objections were based on a selective and narrow view, ignoring a wider context that I found to be funny, perceptive, and socially conscious. I found myself questioning the motives, and indeed the honesty, of those who had objected.
You may agree or disagree with me, but the point is that I think we ought to be careful before we jump aboard any cancel-culture bandwagon. It may be completely justifiable, or it may not. It may be most convenient to simply say nothing, or even to ignore the question. And it may be difficult to get into the weeds of such issues, but I think that as ethical people we need to do just that.
Why not watch Chappelle’s “Closer” show, the whole thing, and tell me what you think?
Jim Norman is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.