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Sunday, February 05, 2023
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(Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Is ‘cancel culture’ a problem at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

When freshman CJ Wallace first read about the university’s decision to remove Chamberlin Rock, he, like many other students, was left quite confused.

“I was like, ‘we’re canceling a rock?’”

Initially, Wallace, like many media outlets who reported on this story, felt that actions like this were emblematic of a larger, and potentially dangerous trend that is gracing many college campuses today: “cancel culture.” 

Evan Gerstmann, professor of Political Science and International Relations at Loyola Marymount University, is a UW-alum who has written numerous articles on the role of cancel culture on college campuses. He believes that the phenomenon is a threat to free speech, calling it “problematic,” “unaccountable” and “anti-democratic.” 

“It is a culture in which you don’t dialogue on or debate someone who disagrees with you or consider the possibility that you have something to learn from them,” Gerstmann said. “You make an effort to punish them: to get them fired, to get them de-platformed, to shame them, that is the number one feature of cancel culture that’s different than say a mere protest or disagreement.”

Though Chamberlin Rock is more recent, critics of “canceling” have referenced other perceived instances on the UW-campus as emblematic of the culture. These range from a student-led petition for the removal of the school’s famous Abe Lincoln statue to when a grad student was forced to resign from her teaching position after it was made clear she’d been lying about her race.

Nalah McWhorter, the president of the Black Student Union who was instrumental in pushing for many of these changes, believes simply referring to the work she and other students have done as “cancel culture” negates the importance of the conversation surrounding why they did it in the first place.

“I think it’s really a way of holding people accountable but also making sure that they understand where they went wrong,” McWhorter said. “Society is really holding people accountable for the words they put out.”

Like McWhorter suggests, we ought to look beyond the headlines and to question the purpose behind the work of her and all the other students who pushed for the change. 

For example, Wallace, who initially was skeptical of the rock’s removal, revealed his perspective on the issue had changed once discovering the rock’s unfortunate nickname, “N*ggerhead,” exposed in a 1925 Wisconsin State Journal article.

“If I was on campus, and I heard that name being referred to this rock, that’s not okay,” Wallace said. “If the behavior of the students isn’t getting corrected, then maybe the rock should be removed. Yeah. discourage that behavior.”

McWhorter believes that her activism isn’t some form of “cancel culture,” but rather functions as a means of changing the narrative for students of color on campus and amplifying their voice, an assertion that Gerstmann surprisingly agreed on.

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“They are using a process, they’re accountable, they’re making good arguments,” Gerstmann explained. “The absolute core of what I consider cancel culture, the problematic cancel culture, is its punitive aspect … this has none of those features.”

The work these students did has helped kickstart the slow process of the school dealing with its complex history with race and revealed areas that need to be addressed to make the campus a more welcoming place. Even the University faced being “canceled” after a homecoming video featuring only white students went viral. 

“Ultimately, they are the ones that need to be held accountable,” McWhorter said of the school’s administration. “I wanted to put pressure on them to make sure that they’re setting the tone for how students should act and how inclusive on their campus is.”

The pushback McWhorter and other students involved in these proposals received demonstrates the uphill battle they’re currently facing. To ensure the most support from the student body for their actions, those who push for change must walk a fine line between accountability and expecting ‘perfection.’

To address the problems present on the UW-Madison campus, Gerstmann emphasized the imperative need for people to come to a common understanding, institutions must teach them about the country’s flaws, as well as its virtues; in essence, a holistic representation of the way things were and truly are.

“People have to decide to have more dialogue.”

Alessandro de Novellis is a junior studying journalism and communication arts. Do you agree with these perspectives on cancel culture? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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