I’m officially old. I learned that from former U.S. president Barack Obama and his critics.
Obama recently weighed in on what has come to be termed “cancel culture.” The term refers to a situation in which someone who says something objectionable is “cancelled.” It originated from the practice of “cancelling” – that is, condemning, unfriending or unfollowing – someone on social media because that person said something that others find offensive.
It extends to condemning and isolating individuals whose political opinions and cultural sensitivities are deemed improper, and encompasses cancelling and pressuring institutions to cancel speaking engagements of people whose views some regard as insensitive, hateful or wrong-headed.
To Obama, cancel culture poses as political activism, but is essentially a form of feel-good judgmentalism. Cancel culture gets in the way, he explained, of finding points of agreement on specific issues with people who you may disagree with on other issues.
Obama’s comments earned him unusually broad-based praise, across the political spectrum and across generations. But some people took issue with his characterization of cancel culture. His comments, these critics observed, marked him as an outmoded “old” person, part of the boomer and gen-X generations, who’s out of touch with the young, “woke” generation. In their view, “cancelling” and “calling out” pushes back against the powerful who harm the vulnerable, and can be used as an effective protest against issues of inequality that have eluded resolution.
I, too, feel the impulse to shut out scoundrels. Who wants to give a platform to racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, homophobes or proponents of other hateful ideologies? Who wants to read their books, view their films, applaud their performances, laugh at their stand-up routines?
As a teacher, I struggle with what to do with culturally important works by writers and artists who espoused abhorrent positions or used language insensitively. Do I cut them out of the syllabus? And what about people invited to speak on my campus who espouse positions that I consider misguided, or morally bankrupt?
I know I am old because, like Obama, I come down against cancel culture. This is because I believe that changing minds – including my own – happens only when there is debate and an exchange of ideas. Without that, we converse only in ideological silos. We hear only those who agree with us. We are not challenged to examine and refine our views, explain them to others or defend them.
While the Jewish community is not immune to the cancel impulse, I trace my own position to Jewish learning. Our tradition not only does not cancel dissent, it keeps a live record of it. The rabbis of the Talmud did not have a cancel culture, and we’re better off because of it.
The pages of the Talmud reproduce and invite robust debate. That is not to say that it offers a fully inclusive and complete conversation. Rarely, for example, do we hear the voices of women; when we do, they are filtered through male reporting and often collide with women’s sensibilities. But intense disagreement, and fringe voices, were heard and preserved.
At the start of the millennium, the Jewish-American novelist Jonathan Rosen published a small, exquisite book titled, The Talmud and the Internet. In it, Rosen compares the pages of the Talmud to a website, because “nothing is whole in itself but … visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations.” Struck by the range of opinions and tolerance for dissent, even after the loss of Jewish sovereignty, Rosen comes to see the Talmud as “an inoculation against the dread consequences of … rupture,” not by limiting discussion, but stimulating it.
Most astonishingly, the redactors of the Talmud did not respond to historical vulnerability and religious crisis by insisting on a singular doctrine. Instead, its pages insist on the value of dissent, discord and argumentation. It refutes cancel culture by its invitation to future readers to engage themselves in debate, even with the Talmud itself.