Eric Goldin | It’s Time to Bring an End to Cancel Culture

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In 1633, the Catholic Church placed the brilliant astronomer Galileo Galilei under house arrest because of his bold assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun. The church ruled that Galileo’s views were so absurd, insidious and insane that it called for his imprisonment. The church staunchly held to the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe and everything revolves around it. They zealously repressed any notion to the contrary and forbade scientists from saying anything that went against church orthodoxy. They were wrong, and it took the church hundreds of years to apologize for its actions against Galileo.

Even before Galileo’s generation, scientists knew the church’s stance was erroneous, but were afraid of challenging the church. In the early 1500s, Nicolaus Copernicus discovered the Earth orbits the sun. Copernicus was initially hesitant to showcase it. He believed the church couldn’t handle the truth. Shortly before his death, he took a risk and published his work.

Theologians didn’t take kindly to Copernicus and condemned him. In 1610, their smear campaign against him was successful: The Catholic Church officially deemed Copernican Heliocentrism as “heresy.” When Galileo, with his own research, further validated Copernicus’ theory, it led to his downfall. Galileo spent the rest of his life in confinement and had to rescind his support of Copernican Heliocentrism. He had been cancelled!

Cancel culture is a real thing, but it’s not new or unique to our modern society. This abhorrent practice has always been with humankind, but the forms it takes have changed over time. Society used to dish out ghastly, brutal punishments — often resulting in death — to people who dared to think differently.  

As society became less inhumane, the preferred form of cancellation changed. In the late 1940s, McCarthyism took root in America. Many alleged communists lost their jobs because of their political beliefs. Their careers and reputations were ruined, and they were treated like pariahs. They weren’t literally killed, but it had a devastating effect on their well-being.

The modern form of McCarthyism goes something like this: A person will make a controversial statement that elicits some group’s ire. The angered group, who can’t manifest their feelings in a reasonable way, will then go on a tirade on social media and attempt to ruin the person’s reputation and overall welfare. The outrage mob will demand that the person either get fired from their job; get blacklisted from an entire industry; be banished from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc.; be denied from speaking at a university; or a combination of these things.

People are terrified of offering a counterview to mainstream opinion, in fear that they’ll lose their livelihood and be entrenched in a world that hates them. This mindset is counterproductive to a healthy society. It makes everybody paranoid and less likely to engage in debates — even when they have immense knowledge of the subject.

One hideous example of cancel culture was Maajid Nawaz’s run-in with the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016. Nawaz is a liberal Muslim activist who encourages other Muslims to have a liberal interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. Nawaz was, as a young man, a religious fundamentalist who wanted to force a radical version of Islam on society. After spending many years as an Islamist, he realized that his vision was wrong. Nawaz then adapted a liberal form of Islam as his personal beliefs, and he now advocates for a compassionate version of Islam. 

Some groups don’t like him and are trying to deceptively bring him down. The SPLC falsely labeled him an “anti-Muslim extremist.” This was ridiculous: Nawaz is a Muslim, and he’s spoken out many times against bigotry toward Muslims! What the SPLC did to Nawaz was akin to labeling a rabbi as “a Nazi,” or calling a Black civil rights leader “a member of the KKK.” Nawaz is the opposite of an “anti-Muslim extremist.”  

The SPLC is influential, and their false labeling of Nawaz almost ruined his activism. Many people still think Nawaz is a racist because of the SPLC’s attack against him. Nawaz sued the SPLC, and after he put their back up against the wall, he got over $3 million and received a public apology from them.       

Another example of cancel culture was in 2003 when Phil Donahue was fired from his hosting gig at MSNBC because he vehemently displayed his opposition to the Iraq War. At the time, expressing dissent to the Iraq War was seen as unpatriotic. This narrative has changed, and more people have condemned the actions of the George W. Bush administration after learning about the falsehoods that were given as justification for the war. However, in 2003, it wasn’t as safe to have anti-war sentiments, and unfortunately, Donahue was unfairly dismissed. 

I highly suspect his firing deterred other voices from speaking out against the Iraq War, and many people were forced to stay silent on the issue. Whatever opinions you might hold on the Iraq War, we must all agree that nobody should be muzzled from speaking their minds about it. Trillions of taxpayer dollars were spent funding this war, so everybody should have the right to say their thoughts about it, and nobody should feel threatened that their opinions will get them punished.

With all this said, it’s important to distinguish real examples of cancel culture from ones that are misconstrued as “cancelling.” Last month, New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss resigned because she felt her co-workers acted nastily toward her. Some of her co-workers criticized her political views and written material. Perhaps their remarks were overly harsh, but I can’t see how this would be grounds to claim Weiss was “cancelled” — especially considering she quit of her own accord. 

With all due respect to Weiss, quitting your job is not the same as getting fired or being forced out. We should all embrace rigorous criticism (especially when you work for one of the most influential newspapers in the country) and not be afraid to have our ideas challenged thoughtfully. We should all be cordial with each other, but even when we’re on the receiving end of fiery rhetoric, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being “cancelled” (as long as it’s honest scrutiny and not slander).

Cancel culture is a dangerous problem we all need to help fix. In early July, a group of public intellectuals, authors, philosophers and political pundits, including Noam Chomsky, David Frum and Fareed Zakaria, signed an open letter to end cancel culture. It received 150 signatures, and many liberals and conservatives supported it. People disagree with each other all the time, but I hope we can all agree that cancel culture should die. 

Eric Goldin is a Santa Clarita resident.  

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