When Barack Obama was president, there wasn’t much he said with which I agreed.
So it must be a sign of our crazy, upside-down political times that I found myself nodding vigorously at comments he made during an event put on by his foundation Tuesday in Chicago.
Speaking about “call-out culture” and “wokeness” he said: “This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
It was a pearl of much-needed wisdom in our current political morass.
It was also surprising commentary from a man whose tenure in the White House helped provoke the strange and destructive environment of quick judgment and false virtue in which we live — the culture that tears down statues of people who lived and died centuries ago, that “cancels” people who say unpopular things, and that labels as cultural appropriation and privilege any statement that isn’t considered politically correct.
Perhaps that’s why his words were so powerful and so welcome.
And he didn’t stop there.
Speaking to young people, specifically those on college campuses, Obama continued: “There is this sense sometimes of, ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’ Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb ... then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself.”
Obama is right about social media exacerbating the culture of outrage.
The detachment from human interaction and facelessness social media provides can be intoxicating in its perceived power. It can also be deceiving in its actual impact.
What feels like righteous anger is often just self-aggrandizement. It feels good call out others, and makes us look good to certain audiences. But it amounts to little more than casting stones.
“That’s not activism,” Obama said.
The propensity to use social media as a weapon of “wokeness” isn’t restricted to college kids.
And in some small way, it felt like Obama’s comments could be directly aimed at the people of Fort Worth.
In the aftermath of Atatiana Jefferson’s death at the hands of a Fort Worth police officer, I watched local neighborhood Facebook pages — sites populated by adults — explode with commentary about the tragedy.
Some of it was thoughtful and helpful; most of it was not.
A lot amounted to “sound and fury, signifying nothing” except a self-serving sense of moral purity, just as Obama described.
I didn’t bother to count the number of times a person accused a neighbor of exerting “privilege” — a word now rendered meaningless by its continued use.
Nor did I count the number of times hashtags were employed in an attempt to convey virtue.
The saddest part was that most of the comments were made by people who should know better.
Unlike most of the topics that manifest in social media outrage, Jefferson’s death seems a justifiable reason for anger. And there are people in the community taking concrete steps to provoke change that don’t involve angry online rants.
But there are far more people who think Facebook call-outs and Twitter hashtags are the solution to complex social problems — and many of them have happily accepted the former president’s advice in nearly every other circumstance. Why not now?
Most of us will not be activists. But most of us can vote. And all of us can be kind and respectful to people with whom we disagree, because believe it or not, that’s a far better way of exhibiting virtue than “canceling” someone on Twitter.