“Cancel Culture,” History, and Memory

It may seem counterintuitive, but during the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency more than 160 Confederate symbols were either removed from public spaces or renamed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, most of those symbols were removed or renamed after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, a tragedy that sparked a renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The recognition of the inappropriateness of monuments, statues, and other forms of memorialization of the Confederacy intensified at the same time that racism was given public space under former president Trump. Those two contradictory trends and the conflicts they engendered reveal a nation torn apart, with some in the country moving toward greater inclusivity while others rebel against demographic and cultural changes by turning inward and reinforcing their tribal identity.

Many Americans — especially on the political right — see the tearing down or renaming of Confederate symbols as an instance of “cancel culture.” It is an explosive term, meaning different things to different people. Examples of “cancel culture” include editors at prominent newspapers and journals resigning after running controversial pieces that provoked dissent among their own staff; the suspension of a White professor who used a Chinese word in class that students thought resembled a racial slur in English; and a Biden appointee — Neera Tanden — finding her nomination in jeopardy because of old tweets. 

But, to the right wing, “cancel culture” often refers to the wishes of progressives to make the public marking of history inclusive. Conservatives look at the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee as an attempt to erase the history of the Confederacy. Progressives see a statue of Lee as offensive to the descendants of enslaved Americans who Lee fought to keep in bondage, and many Whites and Blacks believe a statue of Lee condones treason.

The Republican National Convention last August gave voice to the right’s belief that the left is trying to erase history. “Freedom of speech is trampled on daily,” the delegates resolved, “with the notions of ‘political correctness,’ the plan to eliminate ‘hate speech,’ and the promotion of a ‘cancel culture,’ which has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.” 

There is a lot to unpack in that resolution. Why would anyone favor hate speech? The inclusion of that phrase reflects a conflation — whether deliberate or not, I cannot say — of free speech with offensive actions. Most people on the left — certainly those dedicated to protecting free speech — believe speech is protected, but actions are not. The First Amendment protects speech, but it does not protect harassment, threats, or the creation of hostile environments. Nor does the First Amendment require the government to provide a platform to anyone. Similarly, the First Amendment does not give license to incitement (January 6, 2021, for example), and it does not prevent a business from refusing to associate with someone whose speech or actions it finds objectionable. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley was incorrect in complaining that the cancellation of his book contract by his publisher because of the senator’s actions on January 6 was “a direct assault on the First Amendment.” Hawley also saw the voiding of his contract as proof “the Left [is] looking to cancel everyone they [sic] don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have.” 

Hawley’s reference to “cancel culture” taps into a common complaint on the right. Trump gave voice to this sentiment in his speech at CPAC Sunday: “For the next four years, the brave Republicans in this room will be at the heart of the effort to oppose the radical Democrats, the fake news media, and their toxic cancel culture. Something new to our ears, cancel culture.” Potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley described “cancel culture” as “an important issue,” adding that “[Trump] knows that political correctness and cancel culture are dangerous and just plain wrong.” And, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz said, “You cannot cancel a culture that loves its heroes.” 

Gaetz sidled up to the reality of the term “cancel culture” by referring to “heroes.” Statues of famous people are a function of memorializing those whom a society treats as “heroes.” A society commemorates a “hero” because it believes that individual is worthy of public recognition. Not only public recognition, but recognition in the public square, where everyone can see who is being remembered.

Black Americans, and many White Americans, do not believe Robert E. Lee is a hero worthy of public recognition. Yes, but the right counters, hero or not, Lee is a part of American history and removing his statue amounts to erasing history. That sentiment, whether sincere or not I cannot judge, misunderstands the role of history and memory.

Statues are not history; rather, they are the way in which a society chooses to remember its history. No one would erase Robert E. Lee from American history, just as no one would erase the Confederacy or the terrible sin of slavery from historical memory. Rather, the tearing down of statues that commemorate unsavory parts of history reflect a desire to honor the past in ways that reflect contemporary values and mores without insulting or harming segments of our diverse society.

The Confederacy will always be taught in our schools. Lee’s decision to fight on behalf of Confederate treason will never be forgotten, nor will the stain of slavery. Historical memory remains; what changes is whom we choose to memorialize as a hero.

Better a statue of Harriet Tubman than traitorous Robert E. Lee.

Posted March 2, 2021

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