I graduated from Smith College in 2014. That spring, our commencement speaker was originally supposed to be Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund. However, because of the IMF’s policies, particularly relating to austerity measures imposed as lending terms, a large group of students began organizing in protest having her speak at commencement.

An open letter was written. Emails were sent. Lagarde decided to withdraw from speaking at graduation. It seemed like a fairly normal “college students organizing” sort of thing. I mean, college students have been known for organizing and protests since at least the 1229 University of Paris student strike. And Smithies aren’t exactly known for standing idly by when they perceive an injustice.

Believe it or not, at this time in my life, I was not particularly politically aware, had no interest in international economics and was mostly focused on graduate school. But I think about this incident every time I hear the phrase “cancel culture.” If it had happened today, I’m sure at least one Fox News segment would have been devoted to it.

I don’t actually know what “cancel culture” is. I mean, I know the individual meaning of the words “cancel” and “culture” (I did get a degree in English from Smith), but nobody seems to be able to define “cancel culture” for me. A lot of people, especially older folks with a conservative bent, seem to be worried about it.

Now, I don’t watch cable news. Never have. My family television gets two channels, and that’s if it isn’t windy out. I do read a lot of newspaper op-eds, because I have to study the art if I hope to master it, and I’ve seen the term sprinkled around, but mostly as a vague looming thing that everyone fears and nobody understands, like the Internal Revenue Service.

I take freedom of speech very seriously. (I kind of have to – it comes with the job.) But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Incidentally, one of my dad’s favorite words when we were growing up was “consequences.” It’s a multisyllabic mouthful for small children, but we learned the term early.

My parents were good at setting up choices and allowing us the freedom to make them, but with full knowledge that we would have “consequences” if we made the wrong one. I could choose to call my dad “a poopy butthead,” but then I would get the consequence of no TV for two days, as well on a lecture on one of Dad’s other favorite phrases, “ad hominem attack.” (They were strictly forbidden in household arguments. Can you tell I was raised by a lawyer?)

Freedom of speech also doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to listen to you. I can say what I want in this column (mostly: no profanity, no libel), but readers are under no obligation to read it. You could even cancel your subscription if you are sick of my words darkening your doorstep! (You shouldn’t cancel your subscription, though. You’d miss out on all the coupons.)

In our society, we are used to people with power saying whatever they want to people without power, or with less power. How many women have had to smile through gritted teeth when a male supervisor makes an off-color (read: sexist) joke? The difference these days is that the world is incredibly online and interconnected. People who might previously have been isolated and powerless can band together and network instantaneously. You can tweet about the sexist joke your boss made, and you can get thousands of people chiming in to share their own experiences.

The whole “controversy” about the commencement speaker blew over pretty quickly. We ended up having Ruth Simmons – the first Black woman to be president of an Ivy League university, among other accomplishments – as our graduation speaker. She was very good, although I don’t remember much of the ceremony because my period started unexpectedly in the middle of it, while I was baking under the springtime sun in a white robe.

I also smelled a bit odd because the night before, my hair caught fire in a candlelit ceremony. (Did you think the Maine Millennial would have a normal, boring graduation experience?) Christine Lagarde’s career didn’t suffer in the slightest from this alleged slight – she was director of the IMF for another five years before becoming president of the European Central Bank.

And the students all learned an important lesson about how powerful working together and using their voices can be.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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