Obama takes issue with 'call-out culture', says it's not activism

Former United States president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle closing the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago last Tuesday. The summit covered topics such as leadership and grassroots change. PHOTO: AGENCE F
Former United States president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle closing the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago last Tuesday. The summit covered topics such as leadership and grassroots change. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Former United States president Barack Obama has made a rare foray into the cultural conversation, objecting to the prevalence of "call-out culture" and "wokeness" during an interview about youth activism.

For more than an hour, Mr Obama sat on stage with actress Yara Shahidi and several other young leaders from around the world at the Obama Foundation Summit last Tuesday, talking about topics such as leadership and grassroots change.

But it was his remarks about young activists that have ricocheted around the Internet.

"This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically 'woke' and all that stuff," Mr Obama said. "You should get over that quickly.

"The world is messy; there are ambiguities," he continued. "People who do really good stuff have flaws."

Mr Obama spoke repeatedly of the role of social media in activism specifically, the idea of what has become known as "cancel culture", which is much remarked upon but still nebulously defined.

It tends to refer to behaviour that plays out mostly on the Internet when someone has said or done something to which others object. That person is then condemned in a flurry of social media posts. Such people are often referred to as "cancelled", a way of saying that many others are fed up with them and will have no more to do with them.

"I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people - and this is accelerated by social media - there is this sense sometimes of 'the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people'," he said, "and that's enough.

"Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb," he said, "then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself 'cause, 'Man, you see how woke I was. I called you out'.

"That's not activism. That's not bringing about change," he said. "If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far," he added.

The audience erupted in applause, which was echoed by conservative pundits such as Ms Ann Coulter. "Good for Obama," she tweeted last Wednesday night, adding a parenthetical: "Not sarcastic!"

Ms Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential candidate and a congressman from Mr Obama's home state of Hawaii, seized on his words as a campaign message for her supporters. "In a nutshell, Obama is saying we all need a little more aloha spirit," she tweeted.

Others called out the 44th president for being "paternalistic". Mr Michael Arceneaux, author of I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, And Other Reasons I've Put My Faith In Beyonce, said he did not "need lessons about 'being woke' and 'cancel culture'" in an op-ed for The Independent.

"I am never quite sure if Obama really thinks this naively or if he's trying to convince certain sects of the population - notably young black folks, whom he just loves to lecture - that it's better to coddle white people about their prejudices with the hopes of growth rather than speak our minds as we see fit," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2019, with the headline Obama takes issue with 'call-out culture', says it's not activism. Subscribe