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June 17, 2020 7:02 am

When ‘Cancel Culture’ Is Right: Racists and Antisemites Shouldn’t Have Online Platforms

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avatar by Simon Butler


Antisemitic YouTube personality Owen Benjamin. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

As questions about racism surround us about film and TV projects — and the presence of hate speech on mass-media outlets — the issue recently hit very close to home for me in the form of antisemitism.

I was searching for stand-up comedy options on TV via Tubi — a service offering movies, TV shows, and other content — when I noticed a listing for a program featuring Owen Benjamin, a notoriously antisemitic comedian whose videos have been banned by websites such as YouTube for their hateful content.

Among the videos he has created in the past are ones making light of the Holocaust, and others purporting to imitate stereotypically Jewish manners of speech.

Why is Tubi showcasing this personality?

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This is important to ask, given the wave of movements to ban films, statues, and other works glorifying slavery and those who have benefited from it — along with individuals involved in the oppression of populations. My feeling is that these mandates, if conducted in a just way and by the proper authorities in a safe and expeditious fashion, are absolutely justified.

But such directives should be extended to works celebrating antisemitic individuals too — and there’s a surplus of movies, paintings, etc. that warrant further scrutiny.

Take Banksy’s “anti-Zionist” (read: antisemitic) graffiti or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Maybe one even could look at David Lean’s Oliver Twist, which features a performance by Alec Guinness as Fagin that was widely criticized by Jewish groups at the time of its release because of elements such as a highly exaggerated prosthetic nose affixed to the actor. Or Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, which posited a future in which Israelis were miniaturizing Palestinians to render them helpless.

How will the debate rage around this, and where do we draw the line?

Advocating hatred of any population is abhorrent, and art has a responsibility to present its aesthetic attributes with an ethical sensibility. Yet many great works of art have been created by bigots; the examples are endless, but two examples are the antisemitic composer Richard Wagner and the racist writer Rudyard Kipling. What is the fate of those creations, as well as of the critical approaches we take to assess them?

I suspect the future of film and other artistic disciplines will be marked by the growth of supplemental commentary that can put the racism of artists and their works in the appropriate context. That would make sense. We shouldn’t necessarily ban them outright.

The works that are antisemitic, however, shouldn’t be ignored — and if they cross the line, they should be banned. I hope Tubi feels the same way.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. During his career, he has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek. His views and opinions are his own.

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