Students debate cancel culture and deliver respect
If you happened to catch the first presidential debate on September 29 between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, you might have found yourself agreeing with CNN’s Jake Tapper, who called the performance “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.” A post-debate Politico poll noted that more than half of those who watched (52 percent) said they did not enjoy the 90 minutes of prime-time programming and only 10 percent surveyed said the candidates were “respectful of each other’s time.” The event was, by most accounts, simply chaotic and confusing.
The same could not be said for the Braver Angels debate that took place virtually at St. Olaf College on September 17, in part, to mark the college’s commitment to Constitution Day. Organized by the Student Associates of the Institute for Freedom and Community, the debate brought together about 20 students on Zoom to argue the following resolution: Cancel culture is antithetical to the principles and liberties that are at the foundation of this country (watch the full event in the video player above).
For those readers unfamiliar with the term, “cancel culture” is something of an umbrella concept, which, according to Merriam Webster, refers to the removal of “support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.” The “cancelling” of something — or someone — is rarely done alone, making social media a powerful tool in this process. Someone is said to be “cancelled” when they experience group shaming for their actions or beliefs to such a degree that they begin to face serious personal, professional, or social consequences. While cancelation occurs in many ways, a cancelled individual is most often (and most consequentially) targeted on a professional basis.
Clearly, this is a hot button topic and a tactic, used by both the political right and left. So how exactly did the debate work? And what made it different from the typical understanding of a debate?
For starters, a Braver Angels debate is not a political debate, where competing candidates attempt to win votes. Nor is it a competitive high school or college debate, where people advocate positions in which they may not believe for the sole purpose of winning points and defeating their opponent. Instead, a Braver Angels Debate is a highly structured conversation in which a group of people think together, listen carefully to one another, and allow themselves to be touched and perhaps changed by each other’s ideas. Bruce MacKenzie ’72, who moderated the student debate on September 17, prefers to call them “extended dinner table conversations.” When all is said and done, participants should walk away a little closer to the truth and more aware of the validity of opposing views.
One of the features that stands out from the Braver Angels debate last month was the use of parliamentary procedure. Four initial speakers — two in support of the resolution and two opposed to it — begin the conversation; later anyone is allowed to make a speech and all attending may pose a question to a speaker. Max Bradley ‘22, one of the initial speakers who defended the resolution, noted, “As a debater I’m used to events in which the only goal is to win and there’s no place for arguing what you truly believe. Braver Angels debates are refreshingly different and offer a valuable opportunity to express yourself freely and authentically. With so few places left where reasonable disagreement over contentious issues is welcome, Braver Angels debates provide a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between different perspectives and find much-needed common ground.”
With so few places left where reasonable disagreement over contentious issues is welcome, Braver Angels debates provide a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between different perspectives and find much-needed common ground.Max Bradley ’22
Another initial speaker, Markian Romamyshyn ‘23, who spoke against the resolution, concurred with Max: “The conversational structure of our debate allowed me to respond to critiques of my somewhat controversial claim that cancel culture bolsters American liberalism by making society far more democratic. I think the format allowed for some interesting exchanges and I appreciated the opportunity to be challenged by my peers while challenging them in return.”
Emily Albrecht ’21 led student efforts to organize the event. “The Braver Angels Debate was a much-needed glimpse of what discourse can and should be in American society,” she said. “Students shared their views and personal experiences, asked clarification questions of others, and left the evening with both a greater understanding of what they each believed individually and how others came to different conclusions. In the middle of this polarizing election cycle, the Braver Angels Debate reminded us what is possible and equipped students with the tools to foster better political discourse in their classrooms and spheres of influence.”
In the middle of this polarizing election cycle, the Braver Angels Debate reminded us what is possible and equipped students with the tools to foster better political discourse in their classrooms and spheres of influence.Emily Albrecht ’21
Brendon Westler, the Institute for Freedom and Community Post-Doctoral Fellow, thought that “the four people tasked with opening the debate did a really good job. The arguments were serious and generally seemed to be well-researched. I also really appreciated the way that everyone — both primary debaters as well as the general audience — was able to articulate positions in serious but non-confrontational ways. It was a perfect example of how people could disagree about (an apparently touchy subject) without things becoming heated or anyone seeming to become upset.”
Ultimately the exchanges that unfolded between participants led to incredible insight about the topic and the term “cancel culture” itself. Markian offered the following summary of his takeaway:
“As I look back on the experience, I like to think our dialogue brought to light a number of politically salient misunderstandings about the roots of the cancel culture debate. While some debaters presented cancel culture exclusively as a threat to free speech, others, like myself, discussed cancel culture as a means of democratically shifting norms of social acceptability. While the former assumes cancel culture is at odds with American legal institutions, the latter assumes cancel culture exists within them. By distilling our presuppositions and noting our differences, we were able to come to an important truth: How we define cancel culture can greatly impact our opinions of it.”
The students who participated demonstrated a real commitment to intellectual humility, engaged in meaningful discourse, and sought mutual understanding. As one of the Braver Angels staff commented to me afterward, ‘With these students, the future of our country is in good hands.’Braver Angels Debate Moderator Bruce MacKenzie ’72
MacKenzie, who has moderated a number of Braver Angels debates as a volunteer for the organization, says that “the students who participated demonstrated a real commitment to intellectual humility, engaged in meaningful discourse, and sought mutual understanding. As one of the Braver Angels staff commented to me afterward, ‘With these students, the future of our country is in good hands.'”
The debate was not the first Braver Angels event at St Olaf. During Interim this January, 24 St. Olaf students signed up to participate in the Red/Blue Workshop, a three-hour workshop focused on bringing together students with differing political beliefs for moderated activities and discussions to clarify disagreements, reduce stereotyped thinking, and begin building the relationships needed to find common ground.
Given the mission of the Institute, namely to stimulate and support free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues, the collaboration with Braver Angels makes perfect sense. “The Institute was very pleased to support our students in this debate,” says Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri. “Indeed, the debate embodied precisely what the St. Olaf College Institute for Freedom and Community is all about.”