By Steve Kelman

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Cancel culture: Tales from the U.S. and China

US China interdependency

One evening recently I experienced two related events that taught me two interesting different but related things about two of the most prominent cultures in the world today, those of the U.S. and China.

The U.S. story first, At the University of Southern California a professor teaching a business communication class who does work on China illustrated a point about how people state things in different cultures by using the Chinese word "na ge," which means which or what and can be used as an equivalent to the sound "um" or "uh" in English.

Some students objected that he had used a word very similar to an unacceptable racial epithet. I viewed the video myself, and it is utterly innocent. But, after a protest from the black student association at the school, the professor has now been removed from his class for the rest of the semester.

We have been hearing a lot about the cancel culture. I teach mostly executive education students who are government officials, and it will not surprise you (and surely please you) to learn this is not at all a problem in those classrooms. However, colleagues who teach younger students in degree programs at the Kennedy School report that it is definitely a problem in their classrooms. It very seldom degenerates into literal efforts at "cancelling" professors (or conservative students) – e.g. removing them from the classroom -- but colleagues do say they often feel they need to be careful about topics they might discuss in class, and they can become victims of disruptive complaints and dissing.

This may be easy for me to say because I have not experienced it myself, but I would be inclined to say to colleagues, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." And I think most professors would be proud to defend the ideal of academic freedom that is so central to universities.

If we are going to live together in a diverse society, two things are required. The first is that people need to go out of their ways to respect people from groups not their own. The second is that people need to dial down hypersensitivity over presumed slights from others. The U.S. has problems with both these requirements. The first problem is clearly by far the more serious, associated as it is with racial prejudice and racist behavior. But the professor's story, and the so-called "cancel culture" with which it is associated, is a problem as well.

A second incident related to the USC story took place shortly after the first. Soon after I posted this incident on my Facebook page, I got a message from my first Chinese teacher, who lives in Washington and is now a journalist for a Hong Kong TV network. "This story is big news on Chinese social media too," she wrote.

So I sent a message on WeChat to a friend in China asking him whether he knew about this story. Yes, he told me, this was all over Chinese social media. I asked him what people were saying. His answer surprised me. People were not sure why this event had occurred, he said. But the most-common explanation was that students didn't like the teacher because he was too strict, and sought to punish him. After a bit of further back and forth, it became clear that for Chinese it was unimaginable that students would be willing to criticize a professor, a representative of authority, because they disagreed with the professor's political views.

In China, you just can't do that. So, though educated Chinese typically know far more about the U.S. than Americans know about them, in this case they gravely misinterpreted U.S. culture. And they are victims of a much more serious cancel culture, where the government "cancels" (or to use a stronger phrase sometimes used in China) "disappears" people who dissent from the party line. This difference makes us seem a lot better.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 24, 2020 at 12:06 PM


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