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The “Cancel Culture” Smoke & Mirrors Game

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November 22, 2022

Opinion by Oliver Kreeger–

You’ve heard it from every conservative in America—free speech is under threat. Every notable figure on the right, from Florida governor Ron DeSantis to the big man himself, Donald Trump, has railed against the “wokeness” that is allegedly infecting American societal discourse, from increased scrutiny of insensitive remarks to “woke” Big Tech sites determined to silence traditional voices. Allow me to point out further actions that I see as encroaching on our right to free speech. In deep-red Nebraska, the local high school in the town of Grand Island saw its student-run newspaper shut down by authorities. A further sign of wokeness censoring anything deemed politically incorrect? Quite the contrary. Several LGBTQ student journalists on the paper had the audacity to run a story during Pride Month about the history of homophobia and the gay rights movement. Cancel culture strikes again, I suppose! What is so surreal right now to the seasoned political observer is how the vocal crusaders of everything free speech and anti-censorship are seemingly the only ones who are, for the most part, actually fighting against free expression. Of course, it is inaccurate to just dismiss censorship as a one-sided thing—one can even argue that there’s some human nature in wanting your opinions to dominate the other side—and there is no question that some figures on the left do try to silence what they don’t like. Please allow me to tell a tale of two “cancel cultures.” There is, of course, the “cancel culture” that media figures know and love. Those handfuls of angry woke hipsters on college campuses and online sure make exciting villains for the commentariat class. What could be more degrading to the America we know and love than self-righteous teenagers shouting down conservatives and taking words out of context? Feel angry? Good, because that’s the exact goal of this whole genre of media caricature. Of course, there is some truth to some of the outrage. One could very reasonably argue that recent doubts in the academic world over teaching books such as To Kill a Mockingbird are examples of this type of “cancel culture,” which presents books like Harper Lee’s classic as counterproductive to having honest discussions about racism in America. It is very important to have a multifaceted discussion, and we must not lose sight of this and give in to what are often stifling and conservative talking points. Now let’s take a look at this other breed of “cancel culture,” one I personally find more nefarious. Just as Nebraska students are being silenced, trans children in Alabama are facing the prospect of state-mandated detransitioning, and at least one trans youth in Texas has attempted actual suicide as state agencies have been advised by the conservative government to investigate and report possible transgender children. Student expression in these states, especially their right to speak out about these objectively barbaric policies towards LGBTQ people, has not been this stifled since a time when America as a whole was much more intolerant and bigoted. It is also worth mentioning that another article the Nebraska school paper received punishment for was an op-Ed opposing the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. Remember Florida? Haven of free speech and where, as their governor put it, “woke goes to die?” Whatever that means. As part of the Florida government’s crusade for free expression, the discussion of LGBTQ topics such as sexuality and changing gender are now prohibited in Florida schools. Not to mention book bans! I promised you talk of more book bans, and boy are there plenty here. It’s hard these days to turn on a news show and see some panic over “critical race theory,” a rather obscure college racial studies subject which conservatives have turned into a dog whistle for any discussion of America’s racist problems past and present in classrooms. History textbooks themselves are being rewritten to fit new laws restricting discussion of racial inequalities, and many children’s and young adult books have faced bans in certain school districts for discussing racism and homophobia. LGBTQ people, especially children, are facing threats to our identity and very existence in some cases by the very same people claiming the mantle of free expression, and I cannot help but feel some outrage over it. We must remember that speech itself is our greatest strength when preserving it fully. No faux concerns over children learning about “dangerous ideas” can survive peoples’ true passion and genuine expression, which is precisely why this expression sees constant threat. We persevere by informing ourselves, because our basic civic duties are speaking out and, indeed, seeing how our elected officials stand on our right to do so. Write your congressman, attend a meeting (of a free speech club, perhaps?), and maybe write your own op-ed about what free expression means to you! It is the harnessing of our humanity which the agents of silence and conformity fear the most. 

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Oliver Kreeger is a Junior at The Master School in Dobbs Ferry

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