• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

Obama and Cancel Culture

The Obama approach to diversity and disagreement is the one we should emulate.

November 6, 2019
 
 

A video of Barack Obama calling out cancel culture has been circulating. Awesome, I say. I hope his mic drop moment finally and fully kills the idea that publicly humiliating someone who 80 percent agrees with you by insisting she is a 20 percent traitor somehow improves the world.

It’s worth noting this has long been Obama‘s approach to the world, and it’s something we in the diversity progressive community should have fully embraced years ago. Obama always recognized that a diverse democracy means we are going to disagree with people on some fundamental things, while still having to work with them on other fundamental things. He sought common ground amid deep differences and civility when discussing irreconcilable disagreements.

Early in his first term, Obama was invited, like many American presidents before him, to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame and receive an honorary degree. Thousands of pro-life activists came to South Bend, Ind., to protest a Catholic university honoring a pro-choice president. The demonstrations received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news. It’s become commonplace for high-profile people to withdraw from commencement addresses when a whiff of controversy emerges. Obama did not. He went to Notre Dame, was gracious when pro-life demonstrators interrupted his address and proceeded to relate the story of a letter he’d received from a doctor when he was running for the Senate in 2004.

The doctor was pro-life, but he was not writing to ask Obama to change his position on abortion. Instead, he was concerned that the Obama for Senate website promised to “fight right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor was concerned about the distorted picture Obama was painting of people who held opposing convictions on a serious matter, and simply asked him to represent people with whom he disagreed in “fair-minded words.”

Obama agreed. He apologized to the doctor who had written him the letter, and he instructed his staff to change the language on the website.

Standing on the commencement stage at Notre Dame, Obama ran down a familiar litany of common-ground ways that the pro-life and pro-choice camps might work together to reduce abortion -- reducing unwanted pregnancies, encouraging adoption -- all of which earned applause from the audience. But he didn’t avoid the hard part. Instead, he said, “No matter how much we may want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

And then Obama said that it was pro-life Catholics who had taught him this lesson. There were the Catholics he had worked with as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, when he was not much older than the graduates in that building. The Catholic sisters were some of the most Christlike people that he knew. And then there were the Catholic intellectuals who had given him the philosophical language to describe the type of diversity work he decided he wanted to exemplify. He quoted one of those intellectuals -- Father Ted Hesburgh, the man who had served as president of Notre Dame for some 50 years, growing it from a modest Catholic institution to a major research university -- and who was in the audience that day: “Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where ‘differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality and especially love.’”

The proximity of the Obama narrative, the fact that it is still fresh in our memory and that the man is still held in such high regard by large segments of the population, should give us some hope that the substance and shape of that inspiring multicultural narrative of America still has a large audience.

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