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William Burden: Much ado about cancel culture

A recent opinion piece in The Union (by Rick De Knoop) led me to try to better understand a term I hear being used in various environments: Cancel culture.

I didn’t find an actual definition in the opinion piece, but there were several examples, starting with statues of Mohandas Gandhi being removed because of some of his personal practices.

A Google search turned up several reports of a defaced statue in Davis, and a couple of other defaced statues in Britain and India. I didn’t find mention of a larger movement to remove Gandhi tributes due to his sexual practices (and it’s worth remembering that Gandhi, who tried to broker peace between Muslims and Hindus, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist, and that today’s government is made up of fundamental nationalists).



The piece goes on to refer to attempts (in general, nothing specific) to attack Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. And he rhetorically asks what we are to do about their darker sides and misdeeds.

The thing is, these should not be rhetorical questions, but ones we should really try to answer. People who have paid attention to history, and their own experience, know that we are all flawed, even the greatest of heroes.



For instance, Washington wasn’t a great man. He was a man who did great things. Specifically, at a point when he was being offered the power of a king in the new republic, he resigned his military commission and relinquished power. This specific act was what convinced other countries that we are truly unique.

If we have a peaceful transfer of governments, it is because of that single action. And it should be celebrated. But it should not be used to hide his humanity. He is one of us — coming through at the right times, even if not always, and so can we.

In short, our heroes are still men and women. Unless we understand the humanity and fallibility of these individuals, we persist in lies about our country and ourselves. Each of the individuals mentioned in the piece should be viewed in the same way, getting a better idea of how we balance our actions and thoughts.

It should be noted that cancel culture is often used to claim that a person’s voice is being suppressed because someone doesn’t like their politics, like “the my-pillow guy.” All those people, from Harvey Weinstein to Mike Lindell, can still say whatever they want, they just may lose a soapbox, though most find another soapbox offered, even if with a smaller audience. Which is how the free market of ideas should work.

For what it’s worth, I identify with the iconoclasts: no more statues, no more “great men,” but a renewed appreciation for great actions, and the possibilities for greatness in each of us. What are the chances?

William Burden lives in Penn Valley.


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