On Tuesday, video of a mildly-exasperated President Obama went viral, in which he criticized online and college campus “woke” culture.
“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people — and this is accelerated by social media — 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. “Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb or — then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself.”
“That’s not activism,” he added. “That’s not bringing about change.”
Some (including me, snarkily) observed a passing resemblance between Obama’s comments and complaints from the Intellectual Dark Web. The IDW is a catchall term for people of varying political stripes who decry what they see as the rigidity and insincerity of those whom they derisively term “social justice warriors.”
Some IDW folks (also snarkily) ushered in their apparent fellow traveler.
Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, tweeted “Welcome to the Intellectual Dark Web…Barack Obama?” Quillette editor Claire Lehmann joked “Obama is cancelled in 3, 2, 1…”
Obama also received some love from the left and center. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of Morning Joe practically saluted him. Comedian Sarah Silverman retweeted the clip, commenting “This. Very much this.”
Most of the approval from the left and center, however, came from people who already decry what they see as angry social media mobs. By contrast, members of the social justice left at whom the argument was aimed were either silent or disappointed.
Obama’s resemblance to the IDW on this issue is not entirely illusory. He echoes one of the IDW’s central critiques: that woke culture is morally self-righteous and ultimately harmful.
Those commonalities aside, though, his takedown is fundamentally different from the IDW’s—both in his assignment of blame and his assessment of the harms.
Obama and Free Speech
When Obama says disinviting speakers is harmful, he is not referring to harm done to the speaker, or to a violation of the speaker’s free speech rights. Rather, he worries that the social justice left is hurting itself by denying itself the benefits of civil argument and compromise.
Some IDW folks expressed surprise to hear Obama criticize the social justice left. If they were in fact surprised, it’s because they were willfully ignoring years of evidence of Obama’s advocacy of a free marketplace of ideas.
Arc Digital columnist Matt Jameson wryly observed that folks within the IDW “marketing machine” expressed shock at a similar set of Obama comments over a year ago—while others who agree with their ideology, but are not part of their loose collective, knew perfectly well that Obama had long been aligned with them on this.
They have, in short, a vested interest in pretending that the former president — who is so deeply despised by many of their followers—is in fact utterly opposed to everything they hold dear. For example, as Arc Digital senior editor Nicholas Grossman showed, Ben Shapiro consistently ignores evidence of Obama’s moderate positions.
To be clear, Obama has always adhered to a certain stripe of classical liberalism. He consistently maintains that progress emerges from civilly tolerating those who disagree—even those who espouse immoral views.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama faced a crush of criticism that he sat through anti-American sermons by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama should have walked out right then, they argued—that is, he should have canceled Wright. Obama delivered a speech on race in response:
I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Though the speech was generally lauded, the right assailed this passage, accusing him of throwing his grandmother under the bus. But the passage dovetails with his current criticism of the social justice left. He’s arguing that people are complicated. They might have one repellent moment or opinion, but that does not mean they are not good people, or that they should be rejected.
Tuesday’s viral video is not even the first time Obama has urged the social justice movement in its current iteration to embrace civility. In a 2015 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he argued that college students should not be “coddled and protected” by disinviting morally repellent speakers, instead advocating that students should “out-argue” them.
And in a 2016 commencement address at Howard University, he said:
Change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.
What Obama shares mostly closely with the IDW is the assumption that exposure to a variety of viewpoints is inherently salutary. Beyond that, though, his vision of the marketplace of ideas is markedly different.
One of the IDW’s central contentions is that because the social justice left seeks, if possible, to deny a platform to morally repellent views, that the left violates everyone’s right to freedom of speech. They argue that the social justice left’s attempts to impose social and financial costs for racist, sexist, etc., speech amounts to a violation of the rights of all speakers to speak their authentic thoughts, of all scholars to research their authentic interests.
In contrast, Obama emphatically does not portray the banned campus speaker as a brave teller of unpalatable truths facing a mob ruled by their own emotions and fundamentally irrational. Neither does he tend to bemoan the damage done to people who have been “canceled” — that is, so severely criticized that it harms their careers and social position.
He is not a free speech absolutist. He thinks it’s fine for colleges to ban, say, blackface or a student mockingly wearing a Native headdress.
Obama and Social Justice
The IDW tends to accuse the left of insincerity. Phrases such as “performative wokeness” and “virtue signaling” are indicators of this mindset: The left doesn’t really care about racism, they are either just out to get the right or else just trying to score social approval from other fakers.
Obama, though, assumes not only that the social justice left is sincere, he also shares their values.
A social justice activist’s failure to listen to opposing views—even racist views—is a missed chance to develop her own arguments and to advance her good causes via compromise.
The social justice left’s response to the IDW contains multitudes, but at the very least includes the following tenets: (1) denial of a platform via social sanction does not amount to a denial of free speech, (2) the free market of ideas is not inherently salutary, and can be harmful, (3) speech that further marginalizes marginalized people is especially repugnant and dangerous, and not a legitimate viewpoint that ought to be countenanced with arguments, (4) civility may not always be effective, but in fact may paper over and thus perpetuate injustices.
Obama may well agree with the social justice left on (1), but he clearly does not on (2)-(4). Yet he doesn’t take the time to explain why those positions are mistaken. Stating that college students shouldn’t be coddled simply begs the question.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., professor of African-American studies at Princeton, criticized the Obama video in a thoughtful thread.
The social justice left does not seriously doubt Obama’s commitment to anti-racism. He is also much readier than the IDW to see their views as worthy of respect, rather than contempt. His many differences from the IDW could make him a far better ambassador for the cause. If there is a convincing case to be made that the social justice left should relax some moral rigidity, Obama is in the position to make it.
In defending the marketplace of ideas, Obama argues that listening and engagement are effective means of persuasion. If he is to persuade his fellow progressives, he will likely need to put that theory into practice.