Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
In my last column I addressed the need for logical thinking along with our passions. The irony of the cancel culture is that it argues that cultural icons are offensive while at the same time they themselves are offending large segments of the population. Their own insensitivity is ignored while they argue for sensitivity. Ironically, those who scream loudest for tolerance are sometimes the last to display it when someone disagrees with them.
It would be unfair to ignore the fact that cultural icons can be painful. The very purpose of icons is to evoke memory and emotion. For example, before Hitler adopted the swastika as an icon of his party, it was a good luck symbol that appeared throughout American culture and even on medallions distributed by the Boy Scouts of America. But to display that icon today as a "good luck" symbol would be thoughtless. Absolutely no one would see it as anything but a symbol of hate.
Without question, some symbols, statues, and historical icons can evoke similar thoughts and feelings today. But it appears the cancel culture expects men and women of history to either be flawless or to have lived many years ago with a value system of 2020.
Jerry Lewis was renowned for portraying a "Chinese" character in movies and skits in the 1950s and 60s. His caricature is exceedingly offensive by today's standards, but today's cultural sensitivity wasn't even on the radar at that time. It is inane to suggest that he be held accountable for a cultural value system that didn't even exist at the time. Lewis later sponsored national telethons that raised $2.5 billion for research on muscular dystrophy. Should he be remembered as a "racist" or a philanthropist?
A list of similar individuals is lengthy. Alfred Nobel invented ballistite, a substance that made nitroglycerine more stable, thus safer to use. Ballistite ended up being used in many military applications. It was written that Nobel became "rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before."
Having no intentions that his invention would eventually be used in weapons, he deeply regretted this perspective and wanted to be remembered differently. Consequently, he bequeathed over 90% of his $30 million+ estate to endow the Nobel Peace Prize. Was he a death-monger or peace-maker?
Franklin Roosevelt was at the very least unfriendly to the Jewish people and at worst an anti-Semite and he unconstitutionally interred Japanese Americans during WWII. But because of Roosevelt we have the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Social Security (like it or not), the repeal of prohibition, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that was established to control flooding and to provide electricity for thousands who didn't have it before. Was he a racist or an innovative leader?
Henry Ford was definitely an anti-Semite and is personally named in Hitler's Mein Kampf. Should we demand the dismantling of Ford Motor Company? In 1964, J. William Fulbright adamantly opposed the Civil Rights Act. Yet Fulbright scholarships have provided advanced research experiences to 350,000 people leading to over 150 Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Should we demand an end to any reference to Fulbright?
None of us is without flaw. The flaws I’m talking about aren’t illegal behaviors. I'm referring instead to offensive words, behaviors, or thoughts that people may change over time as people mature and grow. The cancel culture wishes to silence anyone who might have ever said or done anything that offends them today. Absurd.
One might note that I have only called attention to white men thus far, but that should come as no surprise. Historically, it was white men who had the power to pursue great endeavors in Western culture.
But Martin Luther King and other great African-Americans who paved the way for civil rights were far from perfect. Published reports indicate that King was less than loyal to his wife. Suppose we decide at some point in the future that infidelity is as unconscionable as racism. Would this justify removing statues erected to him, changes the names of streets and schools that honored him, and ignoring King's major contributions to the freedoms experienced by their African-American brothers and sisters? Again, absurd.
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and there is evidence that he recognized the inconsistency of his behavior with the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. But the words he penned gave rise to the eventual freedoms that non-white Americans experience today. Greatness doesn't mean flawlessness.
We expect others to understand our mistakes in the context of our intentions and our efforts to do good. To erase history because of personal flaws is near-sighted. I would not want to only be remembered for a mistake I might have made 40 years ago. I doubt those in the cancel culture would either.