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What Barack Obama gets exactly right about our toxic ‘cancel’ culture

Former President Barack Obama has largely stayed out of the spotlight since leaving the White House in 2017, choosing to avoid much direct criticism of his successor and not heavily engaging in the national dialogue more generally.

But when Obama does take the time to offer his thoughts on the state of our culture and our politics, he’s always worth listening to.

Which brings me to what Obama said at an Obama Foundation event Tuesday about young people, social media and the demand for absolute purity of belief in all things. Here’s the key bit:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.

Obama went on to note that he is bothered by a trend he sees “among young people particularly on college campuses” where “there is this sense that ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.'” Added Obama: “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

It would be easy to see Obama’s comments as a shot at President Donald Trump. Because, well, Trump’s entire presidency is about sending tweets and casting stones.

But I think Obama is up to something much more complex — and important here. The rise of “cancel” culture — particularly on the left and particularly on social media — is 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.

The goal of many of these cancel culture acolytes appears to be simply to move from outrage to outrage — pointing fingers and yelling “here is the bad person. RIGHT HERE.” Left unsaid — but without question present in the underpinnings of this worldview — is that there are only good people (aka people who agree with me on all things) and bad people (those who don’t agree with me on everything.) There is no gray area. It’s black or it’s white.

The point Obama is making is that politics — and life — are rarely that cut and dry. No one, including you, is all good or all bad. “People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

This is especially true when it comes to the political realm and the 2020 campaign. At the moment, the fight within the Democratic Party is between the liberal, “no compromise” wing (represented by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) and the establishment, pragmatic wing (represented by Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden.)

Biden started the 2020 race using his ability to get deals done as his calling card. As Politico’s Michael Grunwald wrote in a Biden profile April:

“Now that Biden is running to unseat President Donald Trump, he’s touting himself as a true master of the art of the deal, a son of a car salesman who knows how to get to yes, a relentless consensus-builder who can work across the aisle to bring Americans together.”

But as the campaign has worn on, Biden has been forced to scale back that call to compromise — faced with a Democratic electorate (or at least a vocal portion of the party base) that wants to see Democrats as the white knights and Republicans as the evil dragon. No more and no less.

To be clear: What Obama is advocating for isn’t that people change their beliefs. Instead, he is reminding us all of our common humanity, that we have much more in common than politicians and partisans would like us to believe. Seeing people as less like cardboard cutouts and more like, well, people, would do us (and our politics) a world of good.

CNN