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“Cancelling” and open debate are both essential to a just and growing society

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Over the last few weeks, social media has been buzzing with debate on racial justice, “cancel culture”, and free speech. To oversimplify, some prominent academics are increasingly under fire for disagreeing with some of the conclusions of the social justice movement, especially around racial bias in police brutality. They believe they should be able to question these conclusions without risking their jobs and reputations.

I have a lot of thoughts on this and hope to share them with you sometime. This weekend I had bigger fish to fry. (It was Owen’s second birthday!)

So let me just say this: This conversation is not about free speech. Everyone has maintained their legal right to free speech without interference from the government. Free speech has never protected anyone from saying what they believe without social consequences.

And this conversation is not really about “cancelling” either. No one believes all ideas should be openly debated in our universities and media. No one believes we should reconsider the validity of Nazism, segregation, or the right of men to rape their wives. Everyone believes these ideas, and anyone who promotes them, should be “cancelled.” 

The real conversation is this: Which ideas are important and credible enough that our most hallowed institutions should validate and amplify them? And which ideas are dangerous and misguided enough that there should be a social (but not legal) consequence to voicing them? 

Here’s what’s most important to me: The answer to these questions inevitably will – and should and must – be constantly shifting and evolving as we grow as a society. We must always be considering “dangerous” new ideas and discarding old ideas that aren’t working. 

This process is inevitably messy, deeply imperfect, and at times very painful. It can be cruel and punitive. We should strive to cancel bad ideas, not people. And we should have the humility to acknowledge that none of us is holding the whole truth. We should be incredibly wary of cancelling good ideas that feel bad.

But let’s also remember: this process is absolutely essential to any society that cares about progress and justice. “Debating” controversial topics is too often an excuse to maintain the status quo indefinitely.


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Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, son, and cat.

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