Why you mad, Bro?

When the phrase “cancel culture” becomes an excuse

This morning I was having a conversation with a genuinely good person, a friend of mine, about that fun little buzzword he uses almost every day, “cancel culture.” 

Its everywhere. The phrase, that is.

Today, he's upset that that Dr. Seuss has ceased printing on six of their 60 books that almost no one reads anymore because he perceives it as "cancelling." This was in spite of the fact it was an internal decision. No one made them do it; no one “canceled” them. They acted on a 2019 report on some of his books, accepting the most obvious points, and ignoring others. And the highlighted concerns appear to be legitimate, if you just slow down and think about it.

By all accounts, Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss "Ted" Geisel) “didn’t have a racist bone in his body,” but that doesn’t mean he didn’t unwittingly embrace racial or social tropes that we’ve since rejected. The same goes for any of us at any time in our lives, when we become aware of something, and change.

When I was younger, I used to say the phrase, “off the reservation“ frequently when referring to something out of place, where it doesn’t belong. A “liberal” pointed it out to me by asking me to explain what the phrase meant. They kindly didn’t preach to me how wrong it was. My conscience did the rest of the work. I was wrong. That phrase really should be cancelled.

LAUGH A LITTLE, IT’S OK
The words “cancel culture,” easy as they may be, tend to fall out of liberal and conservative mouths quite differently. Although even liberals tend to make fun of “cancel culture,” they are more empathetic to the concept of change and accountability in how we talk and treat each other. I personally see the words as intellectually lazy, an escape hatch label on a real discussion. Or an excuse for someone being unpleasant.

I proposed to my friend that each generation comes along wanting to improve upon things the previous generation did. This is a good thing. 

While debating this (sadly over text), I came to a realization that might explain all this nonsense, when he reacted to what I said with:

“WOW, what a paragraph of ideoIogical BS... I apologize for being a lesser person as well as those my age.  Let's change everything to follow the way Ed thinks it should be, cuz that's the best way... All hail King Ed!!!  and dont take it personal that my generation is lesser?  nice.”

Except I didn’t say he was “lesser.” And I didn’t say “we should change everything.” I also didn’t say it’s “the way I think it should be.” Others have told me it was wrong, I merely listened. 

Whether it’s musical taste, technological knowledge, medical science, or cultural awareness, humans evolve and improve. His generation did it with the norms of his parents’ generation as well. It’s a fact of human evolution. 

The problem appears to be that the anti-“cancel culture” crowd gets offended by any change, or accountability. They’re the real triggered ones here, in my opinion. There is some irony in the targeted flaming of someone asking you to consider a new decency. They claim changers are too sensitive… by being too sensitive to correction. Do they get offended because they feel it implies that they are in fact defending racism? Maybe. Except, that’s not what it’s saying. It’s just admitting “we now see this is wrong, here’s why.” Unless you are defending it… are you?

Without realizing it, my friend was proving my point: taking offense at what is perceived as “cancel culture” is simply its own emotionalism, personalizing it as a judgement on them. Improvement is seen as an attack. They feel targeted and judged by a “mob” challenging what they’re used to. But we wouldn’t be where we are today without the insight and growth of their generation. Where and when did that insight and growth stop? The fact is Dr Seuss had some racist undertones in several books, intentional or not. (I’d say not.) The company is ceasing printing of those books. That’s a good thing. Our kids don’t need to refer to Asians as “slant eyes,” or visualize white folks riding on their heads, with guns in our hands. Its not acceptable to joke about dark-skinned men in turbans as exotic zoo animals. My son also doesn’t need his kids book to teach him that Jewish people are stingy. That’s a false and demeaning stereotype. 

Dr Seuss’ books teach many good things, and his generation was more accepting and thoughtful than the one before. Growing up with his family‘s experience of anti-German sentiment was a part of that. But now we realize that we can be even more accepting and thoughtful. That’s not “canceling” anything. That’s growing. Dr Seuss himself would likely agree with the change because he was sensitive to inclusivity and positive growth. 

IT’S OK TO STILL GROW
If you’re offended by the renaming of Uncle Ben’s rice, the new product lines of more shapely Barbie dolls, movie intros that describe racial context, or songs that challenge our cultural norms, perhaps you’ve gotten older, but stopped growing. (See this SNL skit on some of the sensitivity about branding. It’s classic.) Just because you are not racist yourself, and are a decent person, it does not mean these things shouldn’t be evaluated. Maybe that’s the problem - he feels he’s arrived, morally and culturally. Because he personally has evolved, he no longer holds any expectations of the culture around him. But shouldn’t we?

Not all new ideas are the right ones, and some activists do overreact and go too far, but refusing to stop and listen, consider their arguments, and be willing to change, proves that something isn’t right. It’s not a personal attack. No one’s trying to take anything away, or marginalize you. It’s possible for two or more things to be right at the same time. Dr Seuss can be an invaluable educational tool, and some books or characters can be inappropriate.

Every generation has their stick-in-the-muds on one side, their champions for change on the other, and the rest of us in the middle. Resistance for the sake of it is not a virtue. Let’s be open to change. I would rather be known as teachable than yelling “get off my lawn!“ 

There’s no meme for being reasonable.... for a reason. 😉 

Happy #DrSeussBirthday 🥳🇺🇸

You can contact Ed Willing on Facebook.

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