Barack Obama calls out smug intolerance of ‘woke’ culture

The former US president was right to say that we are all flawed and that ‘cancelling’ people online and demonising them for real or perceived transgressions is wrong and akin to the public shaming of old, writes Joyce Fegan.

Barack Obama calls out smug intolerance of ‘woke’ culture

The former US president was right to say that we are all flawed and that ‘cancelling’ people online and demonising them for real or perceived transgressions is wrong and akin to the public shaming of old, writes Joyce Fegan.

What would you say to, and about, your postman if you found out he’d stolen €1.75m from An Post to fund a gambling addiction? You would use many words of condemnation when talking about him to neighbours, or to strangers on Facebook. And you would feel pretty smug about your own perfectly lived life.

And if the local community gossiped about and shamed this postman, you could bet your own few bob that this man would never show his face in town again. That’s how powerful shaming can be: You can run people out of town.

And that’s how useless it is, too. People can run themselves into a sort of paralysing inaction, crippled by your shame, never making amends and never repairing their behaviour. This postman is, in fact, a real person. His name is Tony O’Reilly, and on December 12, 2012, he was sentenced to four years in prison, with one year suspended, for his crime.

In 2018, he published a book, Tony 10: The Astonishing Story of the Postman Who Gambled €10,000,000 and Lost it All, about his gambling addiction and the money he stole. He spoke openly about his crime, the ins and outs of what he did.

In this day and age, that’s a rare turn of events. Nowadays, if someone does or says something wrong, the virtual pitchforks are raised and the cyber stocks are constructed. We obliterate the individual. They end up out of politics, out of work, ostracised from their community, and terrified to say anything.

And this isn’t just for abhorrent crimes, such as paedophilia. We take this approach for every perceived ethical, moral, and syntactic wrong. No-one is learning anything. No behaviour is being amended when you ‘cancel’ a person. How good does that feel?

This is what former US president Barack Obama spoke about this week at an Obama Foundation event, his comments unifying people of all creeds and none, all political allegiances and apathies.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly,” he said.

The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.

Some commentators interpreted his words as a smackdown of Donald Trump, but these words were meant for all of us. If we’re to be honest with ourselves, who doesn’t get a temporary sense of glee from condemning a stranger in the news or a criticising a wayward colleague or friend? Nothing tastes as good as smug feels.

“There is this sense that ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough’,” said Obama.

“Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Because ‘man, you see how woke I was? I called you out. Let me get on TV,’ that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

That is very easy, indeed. It’s the easy way out. During a high-profile Irish case of a convicted paedophile, experts in the field warned the media not to use words such as ‘monster’ in their headlines. Aren’t we meant to condemn these people?

This is what the experts said: You can condemn their behaviour, but if you make them pariahs, it makes it very, very difficult for them to reintegrate into society after their sentence ends. These offenders fall off the radar, make no amends, and maybe go on to reoffend.

And who is served by that? Shame has always been used as a tool of social control. (It is explained in Irish psychotherapist Joanna Fortune’s TEDx talk, ‘Social Media — The Ultimate Shame Game’.) Ms Fortune describes us living in a “modern shame society [that] is a highly sensitive, highly judgemental, highly intolerant one”.

In this kind of culture, or ‘cancel culture’, there is no learning for the individual or the group.

“The individual gets shouted down and both sides retreat, clinging even tighter to their version of the truth,” says Ms Fortune.

MOST worrying, though, is the fact that we believe we are enlightened and evolved, but we are as intolerant as ever, argues Ms Fortune.

We like to see ourselves as a more tolerant society than anything that has come before us. When you scratch the surface, you see that it’s actually intolerance that dominates.

"In our most informed time, we have become more judgemental and more intolerant of anyone that does, says, or thinks differently to us.”

While we may be outraged by climate change, phantom votes in the Dáil, and verbal transgressions, shaming another rarely brings about positive change. It only pushes people further and further to the fringes. Maybe that’s what you want to achieve?

But it is not a template for bringing about positive change. We want to hold people accountable for bad behaviour and for them to address their error, but we don’t need to ‘cancel’ them in the process. As the saying goes, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And all our houses have parts made of glass.

But acknowledging that fact, as opposed to condemning it, leaves room to improve.

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