The Cancel Culture: Learning from History
Should Schools Change the Names of Their Buildings to Placate the Cancel Culture
My blog last Monday addressed the benefits and harms of the cancel culture that seeks to embarrass a person or group for their offensive comments or actions. Today, I look out when it is (or should be) culturally acceptable to change the names of school buildings that are named after historical figures.
Learning from History
How many school kids know or care why their school has the name it does and whether they are uncomfortable about it unless they were told they should be? We need to address this issue in a historical context before deciding to cancel the name and replacing it with another that is more politically correct.
Just because something had a collective or societal agreement at that time and new perceptions then changes that agreement does not mean we have to cancel our history. Imagine if Germany decided not to teach about Hitler or Naziism to avoid painful discussions. How many people around the world would lose out by not having an open and free exchange of ideas about the most inhumane acts of one group against another. How will we ever learn the dangers of repeating the past unless we fully understand the negative effect on society that still linger today?
What is happening with increasing frequency these days is the retroactive apologies of a society that feels ashamed of something done or said that was acceptable at that time. Taken to its extreme, the cancel culture seeks to rewrite history or ignore the errors in the past.
By demanding that the names of school buildings be changed, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, because their namesake owned slaves back in the day or were known to have discriminated against black Americans, the cancel culture shuts down a major advantage of having free speech taught in their schools. Rather than change the name, schools should discuss with students why the actions of historical figures are offensive looking back some 200 years. In other words, schools should use it as a teachable moment. How will students learn about the ills of society unless they are discussed in the classroom?
Rules of the Road
Are there any rules of the road when it comes to when the cancel culture goes too far? Here is a good example. Some youngsters had a paint color party and everyone painted their face a different color. And some poor white kid, who had never heard of blackface, gets wrung through the wringer for choosing black. I doubt the kid even heard about blackface no less know about the offensive act years ago. It is not as if such behavior is discussed in the history books today.
When should such acts be cancelled because they are offensive to society in general? A while back a local chapter of the NAACP and school officials in Simsbury, Connecticut agreed to meet after a picture surfaced on social media of two high school students in apparent blackface makeup. The picture was posted to social media on and included two teenage girls in dark makeup, akin to blackface, which the NAACP says embodies “racist images, attitudes and perceptions.” The fact that high school students were involved is troubling because they should have known better or at least scoured the history books about such actions.
NAACP Greater Hartford Branch President Maxien Robinson-Lewin sent a letter to Simsbury Superintendent Matthew Curtis requesting a meeting to discuss what happened. In the letter, Robinson-Lewin said the NAACP was concerned about how the situation had been minimized in statements by school officials and how there had been a lack of discipline by Simsbury High School Principal Andrew O’Brien. Robinson-Lewin said the girls received one-day, in-school suspensions.
Apparently, the girls consulted with a parent after-the-fact who explained that their post resembled racially motivated “black face” images and should be taken down immediately and that such images such are offensive and have no place in the school community. However, by taking down the images the school district may have lost a valuable opportunity to sensitize impressionable youngsters about a form of behavior they may know nothing about.
Few if any students today know that blackface in any manner is always deemed as racist and such behavior should not be tolerated in a civil society. It is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume. Its racist origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late 19th century, white racist actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage. The images mock these portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans are inferior to white people.
We need to develop guidelines on the cancel culture. When does it go too far? When might it be acceptable behavior? Teachers should include it in the curriculum because the best way to learn about the potential dangers of the cancel culture is to develop rules of the road. It has been said that students learn best by doing. That should be the mantra of education in all forms today.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 5, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.