Former president Barack Obama offered some advice earlier this week to young people hoping to change society: participating in cancel culture isn’t the way to do it.
Obama’s pointed warning that social media enables “woke” people to be “as judgmental as possible” went viral Wednesday, drawing praise from both the left and right. By early Thursday, clips of Obama shared on Twitter had been viewed millions of times as many stressed that all social media users needed to hear his message.
“He is right on all counts,” 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted, while his opponent Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) wrote, “We all need a little more aloha spirit — being respectful & caring for one another.”
“Good for Obama,” wrote conservative pundit Ann Coulter, adding in parentheses that her comment was “Not sarcastic!”
On Tuesday, Obama was roughly 50 minutes into a discussion with young leaders about their activism when he mentioned that he had started to notice a worrisome trend “among young people, particularly on college campuses.”
“There is this sense sometimes of, ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’ and that’s enough,” he said, noting that the mind-set was only “accelerated by social media.”
Obama went on to describe an example of the behavior he was cautioning against.
“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, man, you see how woke I was?” he said, drawing laughter from the audience. “I called you out.”
But the act of public shaming on social media, Obama said, is “not activism.”
“That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
With that, Obama effectively inserted himself into the ongoing debate that surrounds cancel culture, a term that refers to a mass effort, usually carried out on social media, to call out prominent people for any alleged wrongdoing and demand that they lose access to their public platforms. The strategy has proved vital to holding powerful figures accountable, sparking international movements such as #MeToo. But “canceling” has also been criticized for encouraging mob behavior that often results in major consequences to people’s lives and careers over missteps such as old inappropriate tweets, The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser and Elahe Izadi reported.
Boycotts have long been considered an efficient method of motivating change, but the intense censoring of people or groups on social media is a newer tactic that has gained popularity on the left over the past several years, according to CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who described it as “one of the defining hallmarks of our culture in the post-Obama presidency.”
“Say something wrong, tweet something people disagree with, express an opinion that is surprising or contradicts the established view people have of you, and the demands for you to be fired, de-friended or otherwise driven from the realms of men quickly follow,” Cillizza wrote.
It is not especially surprising then that Obama, known for promoting compromise, would take issue with an approach that hinges on the premise that everything is black and white — and Tuesday wasn’t the first time that he has publicly raised concerns. In his first interview after leaving office, Obama criticized unnamed leaders for using social media to sow division, The Post’s William Booth reported.
“One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases,” Obama said in December 2017. “The truth is, is on the Internet everything is simplified, and when you meet people face to face, it turns out they’re complicated.”
He later added: “It is harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the Internet.”
At an event celebrating former South African president Nelson Mandela in July 2018, Obama emphasized the importance of understanding people with different backgrounds and beliefs.
“Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours,” Obama said. “And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start.”
Still, Obama’s most recent comments on the issue sparked a fresh wave of reaction this week.
Many applauded Obama for, as one person put it, “speaking wisdom.”
“I love this,” tweeted CBS late-night host James Corden.
Corden’s praise was echoed by other celebrities, such as comedians Billy Eichner and Sarah Silverman, and actor John Cleese.
“An actual adult with experience and perspective has entered the building,” Eichner wrote on Twitter. “You’ve been warned!”
Obama’s commentary sparked tweets from Cleese of “Monty Python” fame, who voiced his own critique of “woke persons,” ripping them for thinking in “binary terms.”
“This is a rotten description of reality, where MOST things are arranged on a spectrum,” Cleese tweeted.
A few thoughts about Obama's wise comments on 'woke'— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) October 30, 2019
Woke persons think in binary terms : either something is this, which is good, or it is the opposite, which is bad
This is a rotten description of reality, where MOST things are arranged on a spectrum
Even conservative commentator Tomi Lahren had positive comments about Obama, remarking Wednesday on “Fox & Friends” that the former president is “looking like the voice of reason.”
“What’s really nice to hear is Barack Obama standing up for our rights and our values of the First Amendment,” Lahren said. “Just remember that we used to think Barack Obama was bad.”
But Obama’s words did not sit well with everyone.
“Oligarch Irritated by Agonized Youth,” one Twitter user captioned a video of Obama speaking at Tuesday’s event.
Another accused Obama of “turning into a live action Bret Stephens column,” referencing the conservative New York Times columnist.
Carter: spends his post-presidency trying to broker peace, eradicating tropical diseases, and building houses for the poor with his own hands into his 90s— wideofthepost (@wideofthepost) October 30, 2019
Obama: spends his post-presidency jet-skiing with billionaires, golfing, and turning into a live action Bret Stephens column https://t.co/sv1OH7dVQw
But Obama’s supporters suggested that the president had not been “criticizing ‘cancel culture’ alone.”
“He’s criticizing attempts to force normal people into black-and-white good/evil boxes, because most humans are more complicated than that and shouldn’t be reduced to their worst tweet,” journalist Yair Rosenberg wrote.