Who Is Obama Talking To?

Photo by John Matychuk on Unsplash

Maybe it’s that it keeps coming up in different articles, columns and op-eds. Maybe I’m just slightly obsessed. I can’t really be sure. What I do know is Obama’s comments about “cancel culture,” being “woke,” and “purity politics” get under my skin in a way that’s usually reserved for conservative pundits.

I have the distinct impression he doesn’t quite understand the dynamics of what’s happening as social media continues to change the cultural landscape. Maybe he does, and there is just a fundamental disagreement about what is good about those changes and what isn’t.

In some ways, this conversation has a certain similarity to the conversation surrounding restorative justice goes, but in reverse. Despite their knee jerk reactions, most people understand what restorative justice is actually about. If a family member is experiencing some kind of hardship, part of which is financial, and they steal something from you, the chances are real high that calling the police is not going to be your first thought.

The first thought is going to be to locate that person, and with whatever other family you share, try to rectify the situation. You don’t want to see this family member face jail time or whatever else the criminal punishment system has to offer, because you already know they’re experiencing a hardship and they made a bad decision in response to that hardship. Families and small communities deal with things in this way all the time. It’s the same basic idea behind restorative justice. We already know how to do this. We understand the concept. Most people just need it brought to their attention that they do understand the concept.

With Obama and his comments about “cancel culture,” he seems to be completely discounting the idea that people are already trying to find compromise and common ground with the people in their lives they think it is possible or with whom they believe the effort is worth it. It’s as if he doesn’t think we, as people, are capable of making the distinction between the people we believe we can have productive dialog with and the people we can’t.

As an example from my personal experience, I’ve spent the majority of my life experiencing the symptoms of mental illness. I was diagnosed with recurring major depression and generalized anxiety at a young age. I’ve learned very recently that I’ve spent the last 30 years experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, which makes a whole lot of sense considering there were certain things the symptoms of anxiety and depression didn’t seem to explain. PTSD certainly does. Understanding I’ve been navigating life with a full blown disability, and not knowing those symptoms were the result of a disability, has been a hard pill to swallow, but I’m getting there.

For many people in my life, this is not something they know much about. They have no experience with it themselves, and popular conception is not factually accurate. I’ve had to get used to the idea that I’m just going to have to talk about these things sometimes, and not always when I’m the person initiating the conversation because I’m comfortable with the people involved in the conversation. Sometimes, I’m going to have to talk about it because it’s in my best interest to counteract what’s in the popular conception that is terrible and incorrect.

Here’s what I’m not going to do… Attempt to have an in depth conversation with someone who is obviously misinformed and is incapable of either admitting they are misinformed or becomes defensive and insulting in defending the fact that they’re misinformed. If I say, “Ya know, I’ve been dealing with mental illness for 30 years, and you’ve got some stuff wrong there,” and the conversation then involves the other person continuing to defend that which is verifiably inaccurate, that’s the end of the conversation, and there’s a significant chance I’m going to systematically avoid having to spend time in proximity to that person again. They are effectively cancelled.

What happens in those interactions is the people who are misinformed and defend their state of being misinformed are essentially saying it’s more important for them to win a “debate” for which the only stakes are recognizing there is a human being who has the lived experience and expertise which comes with it or dismissing them. When you are attempting to “win a debate” as if this were all some kind of high school competition, you’re putting your vanity ahead of my humanity. As a person who experiences the symptoms of mental illness, it’s very literally among the very last things I need to have in my life. I can dehumanize me all by myself, thank you very much. That’s not a discussion which involves anything like good faith or even public good.

It’s not an academic debate for me. Every time some far right asshole commits a mass shooting and “mental illness” gets tossed around as the way to prevent far right assholes from committing mass shootings, that is dangerous for my well being. That is continuing the kind of stigma which encourages society to see the many millions of people like me as a problem to be solved, as opposed to seeing us as people who should be consulted about our well being and the health condition which effects it.

Those are just the conversations with people I can have actual conversations with. It’s not taking into account the seemingly endless parade of pundits, columnists and political party operatives who are continuously given space in publications, on websites and time on television to repeat and popularize specious the specious ideas being repeated by the people I can have conversations with.

Even if I accept the basic premise of Obama’s assertion, that there are people who are just trying to be mean online to score status points in “cancel culture,” it seems off to me that I’m supposed to put forth the effort to make the attempt to try and find some kind of common ground with someone who has through their actions said that the last 30 years of my life don’t matter, but somehow, these other folks offended by being “cancelled” shouldn’t continue to try and establish some common ground. It’s as if discounting what is pretty much the whole of my life experience is acceptable, but someone telling you you’re “cancelled” on Twitter is the more significant harm.

Another part of what doesn’t sit well with me about Obama’s comments, the entire conversation around “cancel culture” has been the pet obsession of pundits and columnists who happened to have to deal with the fact that the dregs like myself, who used to just have to shake our heads, sigh and keep going can actually tell them they’re wrong, and when they’re defending their ignorance and misinformed assertions, we can suggest it would be best if whatever outlet keeps giving them a platform give it to someone who is actually going to do the research necessary to have a grasp on the topic.

It isn’t by mistake that every conservative I know immediately jumps to “mental illness” following every single mass shooting, despite the fact that people with mental illness are in the definite minority where mass shootings are concerned. Somehow, every legacy publication, cable news station and website will still give space to people to say those things, again, and again, and again. The same is true of any number of different topics.

It’s my sneaking suspicion the real problem with “cancel culture” is that people like David Brooks, Bret Stephens, Tom Friedman and any number of other caustically misinformed propagandists are angry that social media has actually made it so someone like me can tell them directly that they’re full of shit. I don’t honestly think the majority of the writers and columnists who’ve been championing the idea that “cancel culture” is some dire threat to democracy give a shit about the “marketplace of ideas,” because the majority of them have been taking every possible opportunity they can get to drop a giant shit in the middle of that marketplace.

I mean, I’ve also spent the my life as a working class person, and according to David Brooks, the reason I’m so at odds with our political establishment as a working person, is that there are so many new restaurants that serve sandwiches with funny names.

Generally, I’m pretty close to the limit of my tolerance for misinformation about a number of topics because it’s so often being propagated by people who should and easily could know better before I even encounter the average schmuck whose just gotten done reading or hearing about how the proposals to expand federal and state networks to provide mental health care are simultaneously communism and the key to preventing mass shootings.

Sure, I’d love to be able to have a whole lot more productive conversations about the topics which I have experience in or that I’ve spent a good deal of time learning about, because I do care about them beyond them being some kind debate to win. I do not expect those conversations to be possible until we cancel the living shit out of the idea that you can be very regularly, very wrong about things that produce destructive effects in people’s lives in outlets and channels which are reaching millions of people and whose cultural power is beyond that of your average Twitter user by an exponential magnitude.




Tired, weary human. Excavating the geography between trauma, masculinity, mental health, and their social expressions. Anti-racist, anti-sexist. Learning.

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Alex Pagliuca

Alex Pagliuca

Tired, weary human. Excavating the geography between trauma, masculinity, mental health, and their social expressions. Anti-racist, anti-sexist. Learning.

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