A case study on the cancel culture

I’ve never met nor heard of John Focke.

He’s the radio voice of the Charlotte Hornets, which is interesting to me only because, many many moons ago, I covered the Hornets as a young sports writer in Gastonia, N.C

But I stumbled across Focke in the ESPN top story scroll.

My first thought was: Oh boy, another exposed racist. One signal that the broadcaster must be guilty is that “mistyped” was put in quotations, signaling that his claim is bogus.

So, I go read the story.

The guy was tweeting about the Nuggets-Jazz game (Charlotte didn’t make the playoffs, so he’s providing Twitter commentary on other games) which he was watching.

Instead of typing Nuggets, he typed the N-word. He quickly deleted the tweet.

Hmmmm, I thought. Those words are at least a little similar in construction. So, I looked down at my keyboard.

It turns out that Nuggets and the plural of the N-Word have the exact same number of letters — seven.

It also turns out that only 2 of those 7 letters are different. And they both occur in the same place in the word — the “U” and the “T” in Nuggets are the second and sixth letters as are the “I” and “R” in that most offensive, racist N-word.

Now, let’s look at the keyboard.

Those two letters that are different are ADJACENT on the keyboard. And if Focke was typing on his phone, we know that proximity is even more problematic.

So here is my question:

What’s more likely, that Focke is a closet racist who tried to sneak the N-word in place of the word Nuggets creating a completely out-of-context slur that thousands would see, or that he mistyped two characters, adjacent on the keyboard, which resulted in him posting a slur which he immediately took down?

I did a very little research on Focke — I couldn’t find much because the first four pages of search results are now filled with the Nuggets tweet.

But I didn’t find these two recent tweets:

Does this look like the social media activity of a racist?

I can’t find any other evidence that he has done anything controversial.

Yet, he is suspended indefinitely by the Hornets and is being lit up on Twitter.

And ESPN coyly signals he is making excuses by saying he “mistyped” the word (test: read the ESPN headline without the quotations around “mistyped” and see if it reads any differently or less accurately).

So … maybe Focke is some secret closet racist who types the N-word so often that other words autocorrect to it. And I’m not being sarcastic with that sentence. I know nothing about this guy and I’m not vouching for him. He may, in fact, have typed the N-word often enough that it came up in some sort of autocorrect form.

But absent any other information the FAR more plausible explanation for this tweet is that he simply mistyped something that, by extremely unfortunate coincidence, happened to be a horrific slur (And I must say, it has been fascinating to see the Twitter warfare on this — in particular, the number of African Americans who have defended Focke).

Here are my points:

Before declaring this guy guilty of racism, can we at least be open to other possibilities?

Also, if this was just a typo, have we run out of real racism and racists to ferret out? I don’t think we’re even close. Wasting time on the Fockes of the world not only doesn’t help the cause, it sets it back. I know that Focke may be getting a taste of what it’s like to face discrimination and unfair treatment, but two wrongs have never made a right, and that’s no excuse for ruining a man who doesn’t deserve it, if that is what has happened here.

In fact, based on his tweets, this guy is an ALLY of the BLM movement! Why would anyone want to cancel an ally?

Maybe Focke will be found to have (OK, I can’t help it) Focked up in other ways. If so, cancel away.

But until something more substantial than two key strokes is proven, Focke is not cancel-worthy.

In the meantime, the fight for racial equality should continue, in earnest. One false cancel doesn’t mean there aren’t many hearts and minds to change.

EDIT: Since I’ve written this but before I posted it, Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman was suspended for using an anti-gay slur on the air.

This situation is everything the Focke situation wasn’t. Brennaman spoke the word in a clearly derogatory way. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, it was intentional and clearly a window into Brennaman’s character. He should be suspended (and has been by the Reds) and I can’t come up with a reason why Reds fans should hear him call another game. That is, he should be fired.

Monuments to nuance

So, one hallmark of the post-Floyd era is a movement to tear down certain historical monuments and statues, or at least to push to have them removed.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a healthy thing to reevaluate how history is written and interpreted. In addition to the traditional, moral Golden Rule is a more capitalist version of that axiom: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” The same is true of history.

A typical result is that history is romanticized in the direction of those who authored it.

We know that has led to a glossing over of the horrific plights of all sorts of groups of people, from Native Americans to African Americans and more.

Of course, history has also been known to be quite forgiving — the adulterous behavior of a business or political leader is often forgiven, orover time, in the face of larger accomplishments or contributions to society. Some sins seem to stick more than others, but history tends to airbrush blemishes and highlight the “good side” of historical figures.

The emergence of the “cancel culture” has been a shift in that philosophy. There are some who now believe anyone who ever owned slaves or endorsed their ownership should not be recognized with the historical affirmation of a statue or the like (the same is true of post-Civil War segregationists).

This has led to some seemingly confounding situations, such as a statue of Union war hero and eventual President of the United State Ulysses S. Grant’s being pulled down by protesters in San Francisco.

Grant is a fascinating American figure.

He was the son of a fervent abolitionist, Jesse Root Grant. While Ulysses Grant did not inherit his father’s rabid opposition to slavery, he was hardly comfortable with the institution. He married into a Missouri family of slaveowners in the 1850s and acquired a slave in 1858 from his father-in-law. But Grant couldn’t do it. He couldn’t force the man to work and within a year, he formally granted him his freedom.

You know Grant’s legacy as a general — he ended a long line of Union generals who could not get the better of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, eventually securing Lee’s surrender.

But you may not know the hallmarks of Grant’s presidency – he prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, appointed African Americans and Jewish Americans to important federal offices and even created the nation’s first national park — Yellowstone.

Which brings me to my thesis: We should judge our fellow women and men on the totality of their contributions to history.

For me, that means a clear delineation between Civil War Confederate leaders and Union leaders, such as Grant, as well as Founders of the United States.

Let’s take Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President served in a variety of capacities in the U.S. government pre-Civil War (Secretary of War; U.S. Senator, etc.), but none of his contributions were anywhere near as substantial, historically, as his presidency of the insurrection.

And let’s call it what it is, even here in the Deep South — secessionists are, by definition, seditious, disloyal and treasonous. To honor Davis is to honor a failed effort to end the union. Perhaps ending a government’s rule could still be justified, if the cause were honorable, such as the American Revolution, but the cause was not honorable — it was at least in part to preserve slavery as an institution.

That is a monument which should be moved from a place designed for public adoration and admiration, to a venue where history is viewed warts and all, such as a museum or cemetery.

Compared to Grant — well, there is no comparison to me. During an era when slaveholding was widespread, Grant owned a single slave for only a year and couldn’t stomach it. He then spent much of the rest of his life advocating for American blacks, including winning the war that ultimately secured African Americans their permanent freedom, then passing government reforms that increased their legitimacy.

Grant is an analog, in my eyes, to American Founders, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the like. All four owned slaves, around 100 years before the Civil War was fought.

But to view their actions a quarter millenium ago through present-day lenses is a dangerous way to analyze history. Actually, I just defined something called “presentism.”

The nation’s oldest historical society — the American Historical Association — says of “presentism” that it “encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior.”

I’m not going to list the contributions of Washington and Co. to the country they founded, but needless to say they are prodigious and worthy of continued celebration.

University of Richmond historian Julian Hayter said it well recently on 60 Minutes:

“I would say the difference, the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com– complicated individuals– and by our standards– thought about ideas in– in an entirely anachronistic way– they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle– the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.”

I guess this is the problem I have with the “cancel culture” in general — it tends to treat all “crimes” as “social justice felonies” regardless of context such as the era of the offense, or the degrees of wrongdoing. Context still matters, even as we wrestle as a nation with institutional — and blatant — racism.

On the other hand, I understand that some will hold the view that any association with slavery is a “cancelable” offense. I think that is misapplied “presentism,” but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a completely unreasonable view — just one with which I strongly disagree.

Anyway, the “fanatical middle” here is that some monuments should not longer be heralded as homages to heroes, while others should. In other words … NUANCE!

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow me!