Is “cancel culture” a toxic online trend or a tool for social justice? Is it an effort to shut down free speech and expression, or an exercise in effective accountability? Debate on both sides has run rampant over the past year with no clear answer.
When it comes to the cancel culture debate, an important litmus test to apply when thinking about whether something—or someone—should be canceled is this: Does the punishment fit the crime? Vigorous debate, and even unpopular ideas, must be protected. Not only protected but encouraged. When people become scared to speak freely or are punished for expressing an unpopular view, American society inches closer to becoming homogenous, and where freedoms and diverse thoughts are suppressed.
The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to ensure for all Americans the right to free speech and free expression, without persecution. Everyone should feel free to exercise those rights without fear of backlash.
Problems arise when an expression of this First Amendment right is not respectful. The KKK should be canceled, even though hate speech has been held by the U.S. Supreme Court to be legally protected speech in such cases as Matal v. Tam (2017) and Virginia v. Black (2003). But beyond hate speech and other terribly unacceptable speech, while I don’t condone disrespecting the flag or the national anthem, I strongly support people being allowed to speak their mind without fear of being canceled for it.
In July 2020, 153 artists, writers, and intellectuals made the public case that cancel culture should be, well, canceled, by signing “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Among its signatories: J.K. Rowling, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, feminist Gloria Steinem, musician Wynton Marsalis, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, and Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter reads, citing “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
Naturally, the signatories caught flack for signing it.
Colin Kaepernick could be the poster boy for cancel culture. As quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, he led his team to the 2012 Super Bowl. In 2016, he kneeled instead of stood during the national anthem, to draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice. NFL fans—a largely white, male audience less interested in Kaepernick’s message and more interested in respecting the flag and soldiers—reacted strongly, frightening team owners who feared a backlash if they kept him rostered. Kaepernick never played another football game–canceled by the NFL.
In the words of his former teammate, Eric Reid, who took a knee with him, “our protest is being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. . . . it’s exactly the opposite…. the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”
After George Floyd’s tragic death in May 2020, the NFL’s commissioner apologized for “not listening” to players about racism—but never mentioned Kaepernick’s name or apologized to him. Spike Lee criticized the apology as “weak … piss poor and plain bogus.”
Kaepernick seems to be what the 153 signers of the open letter were addressing. He was canceled because he expressed his views on an important issue, in the face of strong disagreement. He didn’t hurt anyone. He did not mean to offend anyone. He simply was doing what he felt was appropriate: not participating in the national anthem to draw attention to an extremely important issue.
I believe that less cancellation, and more thoughtful consideration of context—plus appreciation for viewpoints we disagree with, particularly when communicated in a respectful, law-abiding way—would benefit all of us.
So applying the test to Colin Kaepernick: Did the punishment fit the crime? My answer: Where’s the crime?