Is the cancel culture here to stay? The advance of intolerance to the different and thoughtless criticism that leads to disproportionate punishment is taking hold as a “valid” way of defending what is considered “rightt”.
Faced with this trend, a few months ago hundreds of writers, researchers and philosophers, including Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell, signed an open letter warning about the growing cancel culture.
They claim that “censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
In that letter they speak of a true “reckoning” that “weakens our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” They warn that “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation”.
And he ends by stating that “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
Without a doubt, the cancel culture is a sensitive and complex subject, especially in a society that is more used to criticizing than to thinking, to condemning than to understanding. For this reason, psychologists and sociologists have an unavoidable role in the analysis and possible containment of this phenomenon that threatens to homogenize ideas and establish absolute truths.
Lynching is not a modern phenomenon
Let us not to deceive ourselves, lynching and ostracism are not new phenomena, nor were they born with social media. There have always been forms of social control through shame and rejection. In fact, they were a staple of Puritanism and are still common in almost all religions.
In Ancient Greece, for example, every year met an assembly and voted if it was necessary to banish a citizen. If so, they called another public vote for each person to inscribe on a ceramic fragment or an oyster shell the name of the person who should be exiled to contribute to public order.
The person condemned to ostrakismos had to leave the city within 10 days and could not return before ten years. In some cases, this exclusion was a death sentence because in those days it was very difficult to survive outside the city.
From that moment on, ostracism degenerated. In the Middle Ages, “witches” were lynched and adulterous women too. At the beginning of the last century, in the United States there were terrible lynchings of african-americans. And at the end of the Second World War there was no lack of lynchings and public derision of the sympathizers of the defeated.
Ostracism and lynching have the purpose of homogenizing certain socially desirable ideas and behaviors. The person or group punished serves as a public example, so that others do not dare to go against the mainstream. This current can sometimes be commanded by a dictator or a group – more or less large – that exercises power. The result is the same: subdue and silence the dissidents.
Currently, social networks have only amplified this phenomenon, trying to impose a correct vision of doing things and a fair ideology in the name of which it is intended to cancel everything that does not correspond to those canons.
What is the cancel culture?
You cannot analyze a phenomenon without first defining it. University of Houston psychologist Utpal Dholakia provides an interesting insight into the culture of cancellation. He indicates that “Canceling is an individual’s volitional act of publicly rejecting and actively pursuing harm against a perceived transgressor.” The cancel culture implies, therefore, a public reaction with the aim of punishing and canceling those people, companies or works that represent something offensive.
Dholakia explains that for a cancellation episode to occur, three psychological processes need to come together:
1. To identify or become aware of a transgression and judge it to be significant. The cancellation phenomenon begins with a transgression – which can be real or perceived – but which offends the “canceller” since he or she considers it serious. That transgression can be anything, it is enough that it is perceived as the violation of a deeply ingrained value of social justice in the “canceller”.
2. To experience strong negative emotions. The transgression often elicits a strong emotional reaction. Generally people experience anger and hatred, that are the driving forces behind media lynching. Although they may also experience outrage, fear, or disgust. Those emotions drive rejection and the desire to apply punishment.
3. To act punitively and visibly to harm the transgressor. In this phase the “canceller” tries to punish the offender, making his or her punitive action visible. The most common is that he or she verbally attacks the transgressor trying to embarrass him or her or ruin his or her reputation. These attacks are visible because their objective is to add more people to the public lynching in order to produce the cultural cancellation of that person or entity.
In fact, what differentiates the cancel culture is that it does not occur in the private sphere. The offended person, for example, does not limit himself or herself to unfollowing the offender on social media, but seeks to punish and harm him or her publicly. This is plain retaliation.
The cancel culture spreads through social contagion
“An individual act of canceling is psychological rejection,” Dholakia said. However, when communicating through social networks, a contagion effect is sought, which usually amplifies the damage that the offender may have caused. In this way, it is perceived that the transgressor has not only affected one person, but the entire group that feels offended by his or her words or actions.
So that group intends to cancel it from the society. Instead of one person, it is a group that takes punitive actions. Social media helps drive things crazy, encourages speedy trials by removing context, and becomes fuel that feeds anger and the desire for revenge – often conveniently disguised as so-called “justice.”
Thus, to an unbiased outside observer, the punitive actions of the “canceller” are likely to appear disproportionate to the magnitude of the violation. In these cases, there are no complaints or prosecutions. Only condemnation, without presumption of innocence. It is the judgment of the “canceller” and his or her apparent sense of justice that triggers the punitive action.
The cancel culture is actually an extension of the culture of complaint: an escalation of anger to demand the head of the offender. What the call to cancellation expresses is the discomfort with a type of discourse and the inability to dialogue to face it in a more constructive way.
The cancel culture is not based on a methodical, rational, and balanced assessment of the transgression, but is usually a visceral response based on a shared understanding of the transgression. Disproportionate punishment and restriction or censorship of freedom of expression are often the results of this process of cultural cancellation.
Punishing in the name of “justice” does not make us good people
Activism that only consists of pointing fingers, blaming, shaming, canceling and isolating is actually more like a short-term cathartic liberation, than a mature and committed attitude to change to work for a better society for all.
The cancel culture does not make us a better society. It does not lead to the change we want. On the contrary, everyone becomes more angry, frustrated and saddened. Instead of creating stories of punishment and excommunication, it is better to bet on stories of transformation and evolution.
In a world of opposites, the path is harmony, not head-on collision. Every time what we consider an antivalue is attacked, it grows in the same proportion in the opposite direction. The more someone is attacked, the more that person is talked about and the more attention receives. In fact, often the most ruthless attacks are those that generate the most sympathy in other social groups. This is precisely how the behavior or value that was intended to be eradicated is promoted.
Although perhaps the most terrible thing is that the “cancellers” become self-proclaimed guardians of purity and justice. However, canceling and punishing for a just cause does not make them good people.
Shaming, humiliating, and punishing the others does not work. It is an eminently punitive and self-aggrandizing action that serves to feed the ego of those who establish themselves as holders of truth and good values. In fact, it rarely changes the opinion of the person being punished, but often radicalizes it even more.
Is there a solution?
Noam Chomsky said: “If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”
Rejecting the culture of cancellation does not have to mean rejecting the principles of social justice and the drive for equality that fuels it. “This does not mean stifling our reactions or waiving responsibility,” Chomsky said. “Rather, it means giving ourselves the space to truly honor our feelings of sadnessand anger, without reacting in a way that implies that others are… incapable of compassion and change.”
It does not mean agreeing with the ideas of the others, but respecting them and seeking a space for transforming dialogue. Dissent strengthens us as a society and as individuals. We just have to learn to deal with it.
Psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner said that “The cancel culture is ‘collective ADHD’ caused by a need to immediately manage distress through action,” rather than looking for its deeper causes and developing cultural and personal tools to deal with the different.
Therefore, the way to create an inclusive society, instead of cultures that punish those who think differently, begins with each individual maturing and accepting difference, not as something that simply must be resigned to “tolerate” but as an enriching phenomenon.
Dholakia, U. (2020) What Is Cancel Culture? In: Psychology Today.
Hilary, G. (2020) The Psychology of Cancel Culture and Mass Violence Risk. En: Psychology Today.
Ackerman, E. et. Al. (2020)A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. In: Harper’s Magazine.
Grant Brenner says
Thanks for citing my blog.
Is great piece on this important subject.
First, I am a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. I am not psychologist.
2nd, my main point is that cancel culture primarily is due to deeper causes and I cite the work of psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar on large group psychology among other things.
The analogy I drew to ADHD is to note how the underlying dynamics and dissonance and conflict prevent people from thinking through things clearly together – which might help.
Thanks again for a very well done piece and for looking at my work.
Jennifer Delgado says
Thanks to you Grant! I will change psychologist for psychiatrist…