Cancel culture: We can do better

Alan Nathan
5 min readFeb 24, 2022

By Alan Nathan

Image: Getty Images

I listened to The View episode that got Whoopi Goldberg in trouble. And I listened to her interview with Stephen Colbert that some people feel got her into more trouble. Let’s remember that the discussion on The View was about cancel culture. They were discussing the censoring of books from school including Maus and To Kill a Mockingbird. Does it make sense to censor the woman who was speaking out against censorship? Cancel culture breeds tribal warfare rather than thoughtful discussion of complex human problems that have devastating impacts upon people’s lives if left unresolved. In fact, the divisions cancel culture feeds makes those devastating impacts more likely to happen. We can do better. We must do better if we’re going to survive.

Whoopi Goldberg said the Holocaust wasn’t about race. She said it was about man’s inhumanity to man. Even if you believe she is wrong in her analysis, maybe there can be agreement that inhumanity characterizes the behavior of the Nazis toward the Jews and every other group they deemed inferior to their mythical Aryan race. I think that was one of the points she was trying to make toward the end of the discussion on The View. She suggested that if we focus on race, we get sidetracked from thinking about this core issue of inhumanity. Thinking together about the problem of inhumanity seems like a crucial point that gets lost once we start cancelling out each other’s perspectives and experiences.

I understand why someone would be hurt and offended by Goldberg’s statement that Jews aren’t a race. I’m Jewish and have family who perished in the Holocaust. The Nazis considered the Jews a race and used it to justify their genocidal policies. I understand the pain in having one’s trauma misunderstood or in any way minimized. When we are in pain, we’re more vulnerable to approaching each other with anger and defensiveness.

If I say, “Whoopi, you’re an Anti-Semite and a holocaust denier”. Where does this conversation go? You can imagine, it isn’t going to be a conversation at all. It’s going to be mired in anger, threat, and shame. We’ll get nowhere.

What if instead I start with addressing the pain? Goldberg clearly expressed the pain that informs her analysis of race in her interview with Colbert. She explained that referring to Jews as a race, feels to her like it erases her experience as a Black woman targeted by Anti-Black racism. I get it. As a White Jewish person of East European heritage, I can choose to conceal my Jewish identity. I can identify as White, appear as White, and live as a White man. I have that choice given way white supremacy and racism operate in the United States.

At the same time, I would point out to Goldberg, for Jews that openly practice and deeply identify with their religion, they are quite easily identified by their appearance. While wearing religious garb isn’t the same as being born with black skin, both experiences are painfully cast in dehumanization in the contexts of Anti-Semitic Nazi Germany and United States Anti-Black racism.

There’s another important layer to name regarding who gets to claim a raced or oppressed status. Part of what drives cancel culture is the social clout to be won by declaring oneself a member of an oppressed group. As a White person, I’ve noticed myself responding internally with envy in this context. I’ve imagined, for instance, Black folks are getting all the attention and I want some too. Honest introspection I think would lead many people to recognize a similar impulse within themselves. I have also had the experience of a Black person negating my experience as a Jewish person. Cancel culture contributes to the feeling that empathy, voice, recognition, and power are a zero sum game.

Some historical perspective. There were Jews that formed underground militias alongside non-Jewish citizens of Germany, France, and other countries to fight the Nazis. There were revolts against colonial and United States plantation owners that included White indentured servants and Indigenous peoples fighting side by side with enslaved Africans. It was the threat of such combined forces that contributed to the invention of the United States brand of race and racism. We can consider it an earlier form of cancel culture.

How we think about each other and how we engage with each other is vital. Just as important is how we think about ourselves. It is important to recognize when we’re being manipulated to believe something about ourselves, like the myth of white supremacy or the purity of our political affiliation, in service of divide and conquer strategies. Cancel culture makes enemies of each other and confuses us about our identities. Once a destructive and deluded power structure turns people against each other, we do their destructive bidding for them. We can do better.

Back to the issue of banning books that became a flashpoint in the recent race for governor in Virginia, and the main issue in The View episode in question. How do we have a productive conversation that doesn’t divide the room between the “right wing racists” and “liberal haters of America”? The way Youngkin and McAuliffe went at each other just stoked the fires of cancel culture. I think it is up to us, communities of peoples, to figure it out together. Demand that our leaders do better.

I don’t think we have to ban books or censor curriculum to have a thoughtful conversation that leads to a plan for how to best educate our children about issues related to difference, the history of racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based persecution, alongside the history of movement toward liberation and social progress.

We should consider what children are developmentally ready to understand and digest. Reading a book like Beloved might really be overwhelming for some children regardless of the child’s identity. Encouraging children to appreciate identity and worldview differences might work best by also encouraging children to appreciate their own identities and worldviews. While I don’t want one political party or group of parents to dictate school curriculum, parents should be involved in shaping and carrying out such educational programs. We need specially trained teachers and facilitators as well.

As a mental health professional and teacher, I know first hand that difficult conversations can be educational and bring people closer together. We can and must do better.

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Alan Nathan

Dr. Alan Nathan is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst specializing in trauma recovery, diversity, and justice/equity issues.