In My Own Words: Both sides of an issue by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’m having a hard time getting my head around an issue that’s been featured in recent news reports and opinion pieces. My problem? I can understand both sides of the issue and, while I think each side makes good points, I can also see when their choices are problematic. This might make me a wishy-washy liberal, but it also means that I really want to understand what people are feeling.

I’m talking about what’s been called “cancel culture.” Wikipedia defines cancel culture as “the act of canceling... [which takes the] form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity) who has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner is boycotted.” There are times when people deserve censure for antisemitic, racist or homophobic statements, although I do believe we need a statute of limitations on some comments. Do any of us really want to be held responsible for something stupid we said in high school or college? I’d like to think I’ve learned a great deal over the past 40 years or so, and don’t want to punish people for years-old problematic statements, as long as they acknowledge they no longer subscribe to them.

However, some people rightly claim that they have been punished for what they believe is a legitimate difference of opinion. These folks have complained about the cancel culture because they see it as stifling conservative voices, saying they are not welcome in Hollywood or on the pages of The New York Times. They are punished for speaking out in classrooms or even in private. They believe they have a right to their opinions, even if others disagree with them. Jewish voices have spoken on both sides. Numerous Jews have said that showing support of Israel or Zionism is no longer considered acceptable in many places and that they have been punished for their opinions. Other Jews focus on censoring those who talk about Jewish conspiracies or condemn Jews to death for fictitious crimes. Both sides want their voices to be heard, but they are cautious about who else can speak.

What needs to be taken into consideration is that those in power have long cancelled the voices of minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community and anyone else who is not part of the establishment. Those who support this position say that the powerful only object when the cancel culture is used against them. What has changed is how quickly and easily those voices can now spread due to the Internet, especially through social media. The downside is that sometimes people don’t do enough research before voicing their outrage and wrong information spreads quickly – causing harm to innocent people. But when the information is correct, there is probably no faster way for people to make their voices heard.

It is true that the powerful try to limit information, whether because it shines a bad light on them or because keeping the information secret is the key to staying in power. When reading a recent history of the early 20th century, I was reminded that, at that point in U.S. history, it was illegal to offer people information about birth control. Sending a pamphlet on the subject through the U.S. Postal Service was a federal offense and could result in a prison sentence. Socialist newspapers were confiscated and people arrested for sedition because they were demanding fair treatment of all U.S. citizens. There was no right to strike and police forces at the time supported those in power, rather than the emerging unions. (That’s ironic now in that police unions are among the strongest in the country.) And who gets to decide who can hold rallies and where? The folks in power do and they don’t always allow those who disagree with them to speak, despite constitutional rights on peaceful assemblies.

These disagreements can lead to the threats of boycott and the question of whether or not boycotts should be illegal. In a free country, though, everyone has the right to buy, or not buy, a product or to watch, or not watch, a TV or film. During the Vietnam War, there were people who would no longer watch John Wayne movies because he supported that war. Others boycotted Jane Fonda, calling her un-American. Caught in the middle was Bob Hope, who entertained the troops in Vietnam, but later said he had no idea what that war was really like for those men. Everyone made their own choice. That’s true today: Don’t like someone’s opinions on a talk show? You don’t have to watch them. In fact, no one is forcing anyone to watch a TV show. (If we could, some of my favorites would still be running.) You don’t want to eat a particular brand of food or buy from a particular store for moral reasons? Then don’t eat that food or shop there. You can suggest that others shouldn’t, but those who disagree with you may now buy that food or shop in that store on purpose. That’s also their right. 
Where does this leave me? I’m still seeing far too many shades of grey to totally support one side. I’m for free speech, but acknowledge that some words are unacceptable. I believe people should be able to register complaints against those who denigrate them, but, in some cases, there is a fine line between what is hate speech and what is protected speech. Who makes that judgment about where the line is drawn? Society always has, but that line has moved many times over the past five decades. Unlike most in our very divided society, I think every individual and each individual action should be judged on their own merits. That’s the only way to have a civil and moral society.