My mother often tells me about the woman who lived above her childhood apartment: She was the wife of a school principal during the Cultural Revolution in China. Once, while making newspaper cutouts of a sole for a new shoe, she cut through an image of Chairman Mao Zedong. As a result, she was apprehended by the neighborhood committee and publicly shamed, forced to walk through the streets clad in propaganda statements as people reprimanded her. Ultimately, her husband was forced to leave his job.
Now, read this story for me about a man named James: he was a news editor in America during the 21st century. Once, he chose to publish a piece from an unexpected perspective which posed an idea that even he strongly opposed. As a result, he was publicly shamed by staff and readers spewing statements of disapproval. Ultimately, he was forced to resign.
For anyone who values the liberties that define our country––the same liberties that have enabled the ongoing nationwide protests––the fact that these stories have even a hint of resemblance should sound an alarm. As I mentioned, the first anecdote is a memory from my mother’s childhood––a symbol of her youth during and after the Cultural Revolution; the “James” in the second story is James Bennet, the former New York Times opinion editor. After issuing an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton in favor of using federal troops to stop violent riots, many Times staff members took to Twitter opposing the piece’s publication. Bennet resigned from The Times on June 7th.
I believe that diversity and representation of identities are necessarily worth fighting for––but equally worthy and equally overlooked is the diversity of ideas, thoughts, and opinions. I staunchly support the protests, the BLM movement, and calls to defund the police, but when all is said and done, I don’t believe that purging noxious ideas is an effective way to create change. We have to do better.
The Cultural Revolution was an attempted erasure of dangerous thoughts—Mao’s attempt to regain control through an ideological purification and the formulation of a mob mentality, in my mother’s own words. Today, many free speech proponents fear that America is undergoing a different kind of purge, one which shows future generations that cries of danger, mass shaming, and yes, a mob mentality, are all you need to stand against unwelcome viewpoints. Clearly, the U.S. is unlike 1960s China in many ways, one of these differences being the rights we have as citizens, most prominently the freedom of speech and of the press. These rights are in jeopardy and the results could be detrimental to us all––protesters and dissidents alike.
The demonstrations around the country have shown us one way the First Amendment is under assault: in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, protesters and journalists have been assaulted and arrested, effectively abridging their First Amendment rights. These actions are reprehensible on part of the government, police, and military forces––there’s no doubt about that. But we have to look at this problem both ways. Across the spectrum, people are being deprived of their right to free speech. James Bennet was abdicated over an article that voiced a sentiment shared by 42% of U.S. adults. An accounting professor at UCLA was recently placed on leave for sending an email refusing preferential grading for black students. The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned on June 8th over an article titled “Buildings Matter, Too.” Even the cartoon show Paw Patrol is under fire for its portrayal of Chase the dog cop. While it’s important to hold people (and dogs?) accountable for their actions, I don’t believe silencing them is the right way to do so. Is the so-called cancellation of these individuals really doing anything for the movement? Have we really devolved to public shaming and coerced resignations of anyone who does something disagreeable? What are the implications when we expose the free speech and press violations of some but effectively violate those same rights of those who hold ideas we don’t like?
Another thing to consider: in protests across the country, American flags are being burned or otherwise destroyed as a statement against the current state of the nation. Much to Trump’s dismay, this action is constitutionally protected because of the Texas v. Johnson (1989) decision. When Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest against Reagan’s administration, it was “profoundly offensive to many.” Nevertheless, SCOTUS protected Johnson’s right to political protest, citing the underlying principle of the First Amendment to “not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Without these protections, the demonstrations happening today wouldn’t be the same.
The free speech debacle has been going on for years, and anything else I have to say on the topic has probably already been articulated. What I can do, though, is speak frankly to my peers. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of getting riled up over menial situations like a university professor’s private emails, a single article from a news organization that publishes upwards of 150 pieces per day, or a fictional TV show made for toddlers. It’s exhausting, and I would rather allocate my time and energy to examining the root of the problem: racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
The only people who have directly benefited from the New York Times ordeal are Tom Cotton and President Trump. Cotton has gained a great deal of publicity, and according to some sources, his fundraising has nearly quintupled since the whole debacle. Trump, unsurprisingly, has used the situation to condemn The New York Times as fake news. This situation only goes to show that cancel culture isn’t effectively doing anything but aiding the very people initially “canceled.”
Let’s refocus our attention on the movement. Let’s continue working to create, for the first time in our country’s history, “a reality in which black people aren’t routinely robbed of their livelihoods and lives by armed government agents.” Let’s stop agonizing over the condescending email of a bitter professor or the words of a bastard senator from Arkansas. Let’s be remembered as the generation which prompted a legitimate fight against glaring injustices in the world, not for recreating a reality that people like my parents came to America to elude. If we want a revolution, let’s act in accordance with the principles that facilitate grassroots change. Let’s cancel cancel culture, once and for all.
By Karen Cheng
Illustration by Eloise Magoncelli