A jogger runs past barricades blocking an entrance to College of the Atlantic this past April after the campus was closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

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The conversation about “cancel culture,” including the push to cancel it, stands small compared to some of the weighty debates underway in an America going through a pandemic-induced recession.

Cancel Culture is defined by Dictionary.com as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.” The debate over how this process has played out and affected our society feels largely academic when lives and livelihoods are being canceled by COVID-19.

But the discussion still has very real implications, because it impacts how we discuss and debate other issues. And while it’s a positive thing for people to realize that their words and actions have consequences, there have been occasional examples here in Maine that have us worried about a slide into silencing speech that people find objectionable rather than engaging with and debating it.

Take the decision from the College of the Atlantic reported last week, in which the school caved to alumni pressure and uninvited conservative power player Leonard Leo — not from speaking, but from introducing someone else as a speaker at a July 29 virtual event.

A spokesperson from the school told the BDN that because Leo was only scheduled to introduce the other speaker, Heritage Foundation president Kay James, and was not the featured speaker himself, people tuning in to the remote forum would not have had the opportunity to challenge or discuss Leo’s advocacy for conservative federal judges.

At the very least, the disinvitation reflects poorly on the college for inviting someone they weren’t willing to stand behind once concerns were raised. Leo’s politics, his role in helping to get several conservative justices appointed to the Supreme Court, and the backlash he’s already received haven’t exactly been a secret.

It’s also particularly disappointing because college officials have emphasized their desire to bring diverse voices to campus, yet have now positioned Leo’s perspective as one that is potentially harmful to community members.

If we’re at a point where Leo’s mere appearance is treated as harmful, rather than giving event participants an opportunity to discuss why they think the policies and people he has helped advance are harmful, we’ve become unmoored as a society.

Certainly there are some COVID-19 logistical complications at work here. But it’s perplexing to read the college’s dean of institutional advancement, Lynn Boulger, say all the right things about trying to bridge the canyon that is America’s political divide while the school is simultaneously failing to fully act on that message.

“This intolerance is not only hurting the fabric of civil society, our democratic process and any possibility of civil discourse, but is also hurting us personally by dehumanizing us and leaving us with a very distorted understanding of each other,” Boulger said. That’s spot on, but canceling Leo’s participation isn’t.

“What we’re seeing described as cancel culture isn’t so much a new kind of behavior but a new set of actors in our political discourse who get to say what isn’t ok — young people, African Americans, transgender people,” journalist Osita Nwanevu recently t old Politico. “They now have the power to have their voices heard. Everyone thinks there are lines. The question is where are those lines and who gets to draw them.”

That’s an important reminder that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from all societal consequences resulting from that speech, and about a much-needed recalibration of power.

It also should be a call to action to make sure those lines end up in a reasonable place. As the recent decision up in Bar Harbor shows, our institutions and our society as a whole need to find a better balance.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...