Cancel culture is a twenty first-century phenomenon which promotes and executes ostracism (aka “cancelling”) in order to exclude targeted persons from social, professional, creative and commercial status and activity. Its cohorts engage through social media and in other ways in accusatory complaints, vehement protests, and public shaming. Cancel culture frequently aims at boycotting and character assassination against those deemed to have spoken, written, or acted incorrectly by the measures of its embraced dogmas. Among practices which cancel culture holds in common with recognized cults are the manipulation of vulnerable and impressionable recruits, the shunning of outsiders and defectors, and the insistence on unquestioning groupthink. A central issue of cancel culture ethics is proper authority, since its activists characteristically attempt to co-opt legitimate power in order to coerce or prevent individual expression.
Cancel culture’s intimate alignment with identity politics complicates the challenges posed by related attacks. It is crucial to understand that its adherents do not fundamentally approach others as individuals but instead as representatives of ethnic, gender-linked or other politically determined groups. They further designate these groups dualistically as “oppressed victims” or “oppressors.” Targeted persons may be regarded as nothing more than disposable avatars of rival factions. It can be disorienting for a person of normal conscience and understanding to experience the intense condemnation typical of cancel culture aggression. What is more, the draconian ideological certainty of cancel culture antagonists can have a “gaslighting” effect, causing unwitting targets to question their own perceptions of reality.
Cancel-culture censoring typically involves vocabulary misleadingly applied as ideological jargon. Examples include:
- “diversity” (not of ideas, but of sanctioned groups)
- “tolerance” (for identity-based in-groups only)
- “inclusivity” (of identity-based “protected” groups for such purposes as hiring quotas)
- “compassion” (toward “victimized” groups)
- “equity” (equality of outcome, which contradicts equality of opportunity)
- “safety” (from unapproved words and ideas, as if from contaminants)
- “violence” (deviations from ideological positions are reacted to as if they (contagiously) harmed in-group members)
- “affirmation of existence” (meaning “protected” group members must be treated affirmatively regardless of merit, and never “offended” or “triggered”)
- “offence” (expressed difference from identity politics groupthink)
- “triggering” (provoking negative emotion in “protected” group members)
If you, or anyone you know, should become targeted by cancel culture:
- You (the target) have probably done nothing wrong and, if baselessly accused, should not experience guilt. The most likely “trigger” (catalyst) would be a statement of rational opinion, demonstrated fact, or the mere description of a concept, to which an ideological group objected. Even inadvertent use of terms judged as politically incorrect can trigger cancel culture perceptions of transgression. But following your conscience and exercising your legal rights are not wrong actions. It is helpful to know that cancel culture attacks, though often carried out against individuals, are rarely fundamentally personal, since they are collectively based.
- You are in good company. At least hundreds of successful and innocent people have been “cancelled.”
- Do not apologize when you know you have done nothing wrong. If you give credence to an unfounded attack, by conceding as improper anything you do not really believe should have been done differently, you further empower cancel culture to harm.
- Choose your words in the wake of an attack with utmost care. An expression of regret that a misunderstanding may have caused offense is likely to be exploited as if it were an apology for wrongdoing. If in good conscience you feel compelled to apologize for something, address yourself to trustworthy witnesses as well as to complainants, document your words, stress your original intentions, specify precisely what you are apologizing for, and brace yourself for additional reactive condemnation.
- Stand firm and model honesty. Although cancel culture assaults can be devastating, you are much more likely to survive one successfully by refusing to give in to inappropriate demands. Wait until your persecutors inevitably move on to a new target.
- Insist that targeted persons be treated with empathy and compassion. You may be able to turn the tables by using cancel culture’s own stated values. Offer reassurance that you are dedicated to fair outcomes, based on commitment to the truth, but that you will not cooperate with violations of standard morality such as vengeful or cruel behavior.
- The main drawback of this strategy is conflict between your resolve to treat individuals with fairness and your opponents’ possible unwillingness or inability to regard their targets in any way except as obstacles to “social justice.” Another potential stumbling block is miscommunication and increased misunderstanding, due to cancel culture’s redefinition of terms as jargon.
- Stress compassion and common sense. Cancel culture leaders train their protegees to reject reason, as if it were a tactic intended only to protect “privilege.” Thus, you might decide to avoid such words as “reason” or “logic,” during relevant interactions.
- Join and build support networks among reasonable people, no matter what your political or philosophical differences. The point is that individuals of good conscience, committed to freedom of expression, demonstrate solidarity. (See number 8 below.)
- Foster objectivity, forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness. Resist and undermine bitterness and resentment.
- Improve your listening skills. Stress that you are listening respectfully, but that complainants must do likewise.
- Individualize interactions to maximize empathy. Try asking the person lodging a complaint about their most positive experience of a targeted individual. If the circumstances are conducive, organize a one-on-one or small group conversation between accuser(s) and target(s), with the pre-agreed goal of calmly reached fair resolution. Participants might begin by introducing themselves (without volunteering information that could increase anyone’s vulnerability).
- Insist that criticism be addressed toward misunderstanding or disagreement, not toward personal character.
- Stress the importance of intention as a legal foundation. As a core societal standard, the importance of intention cannot be eliminated or trivialized. Neither can other elements of normalized Western justice such as the presumption of innocence or the right of the accused to confront accusers or secure impartial judgement.
- Since hardcore cancel culture proxies will shout down attempts at consensus building, not every encounter can end well. Use good sense in protecting your own and others’ physical safety.
General Suggestions (from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others):
- Reduce the number of campus enclaves for social grievance groups.
- Be honest in grading and other evaluation. Yet encourage and affirm the best in people.
- Encourage others to feel comfortable expressing their opinions while discouraging antagonistic reaction.
- Model civility. You may decide to respond to hostility with civility. However, it is important to temper friendliness with self-respectful assertiveness.
- If an exchange becomes hostile, stop for a moment. Calmly insist that the participants interact respectfully.
- State in a civil way that ideas are debatable. People holding ideas, with no intention to harm, must be treated decently.
- Refuse to protect people from words, ideas, and facts, while insisting on reciprocally considerate behavior.
- Connect with those who support openness and freedom. Join the National Association of Scholars and/or the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, or at least subscribe to their mailing lists. These organizations, whose memberships are not restricted to academics, advocate on behalf of “cancelled” community members, and provide information through publications and online projects. Another resource to explore is Heterodoxacademy.org, founded by Jonathan Haidt and associates.
- Support dissent and peaceful protest as legal rights. But remember that the purpose of a university is the broadening of the mind through exposure to a wide array of disciplines and ideas. All institutions of higher learning bear a fundamental responsibility to prepare students for the rigors of adult life and to foster intellectual curiosity, as well as honest, competently analytical thinking. These establishments, by definition, must foster freedom of expression and inquiry in a democratic society.
Cancel culture, through its alliance with identity politics, proclaims the infallibility of reactions to “triggers” by social “victims.” At the extreme, it rationalizes harsh incivility and even violence. It endorses the fallacy that the experience of the “victimized” unconditionally differs from and supersedes that of the “privileged” and excuses the “victim’s” bad behaviour. As one global gender-studies PhD has explained it, white poverty should be dismissed with the (obviously racist) assertion that whites are implicitly and always privileged; she adds that only whites have the systemic advantages necessary to overcome adversity and are therefore incapable of effective empathy toward people of color. The circular logic of this stock rejoinder also demonstrates the callous nature of identity politics, despite its insistence to the contrary. Such a stance denies the possibility of win-win scenarios, of racially integrated cooperation among people of good character, and the importance of situational variance, as well as the value of individual human beings.
Moreover, such a zero-sum world view is, by definition, identical to that of psychopaths. It is undeniably pathological and authentically dangerous. Further to the point, such beliefs condescend toward members of the very groups for which identity politics and cancel culture agents claim to advocate. Such stereotyping, at bottom, is nothing more than thinly disguised bigotry, weaponized in service of scapegoating and exploitation. It should not be necessary to recall that this behavioral and ideological pattern has been central to phenomena such as Stalinism, Naziism, and the Inquisitions. And just as in those historical infamies, when the tribal agents of identity politics proclaim themselves champions of race- or gender-designated underdogs, one of their primary aims, beyond increasing their own power, is to obscure their true essence through (at best naïve) “virtue signaling.”
It should be added that while most cancel culture initiatives are currently driven by the political left, these activities also ensue from the opposite end of the spectrum. Through such familiar situations as coached activism originating in university “cultural studies” programs, and bleeding into corporate society through “diversity and equity” administrations, cancel culture has become ubiquitously systemic. And yet this trend does include cases of peculiar and reactive demands from the political right. For instance, college administrators have been pressured to ensure exact parity (“equity?”) in the ratio of conservatively inclined campus speakers to left-leaning ones. It should be obvious that neither politically motivated boycotting nor censorship has ever been exclusive to a single faction.
In any case, cancel culture underpins the malign misconception that everyone is either a permanently helpless victim or an unjustly fortunate beneficiary (parallel to the Marxist terms of “proletariat” or “bourgeoisie.”) Tragically, it would follow such misguidedness that minority students, for instance, should not even try to succeed through hard work and self-discipline. Instead “victims” are instructed to “protest,” to secure their “just reparations,” while supporters outside protected status do so in efforts to compensate for their “inherited” and ineradicable “white guilt.” Regarding cancel culture’s aggressive protest actions, it is important to recognize that sustained, repeated or strident incivility, let alone physical violence, can deeply harm anyone, regardless of ethnicity or any other classification. For all the reasons addressed here, the malevolent ideologies of primary identity and victimhood status by politically determined group, which drives contemporary cancel culture behaviors, must be consistently and actively rejected.
Combat cancel culture, whose adherents are often resentful, cynical or despairing, by dedicated habits of treating others humanely, and encouraging those who do not believe in their own individual capabilities, in order to foster their success and self-respect. Take time every day to engage in something uplifting and health-promoting. Do your best as a supportive colleague and neighbor. Take pride in every courageous effort to become part of the solution.
Books and essays:
- Ackerman, Elliot et al. “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harper’s Magazine online. Posted July 7, 2020. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Brear, David. “The Universal Identifying Characteristics of a Cult.” European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Cults and Sects (FECRIS) website. Published May 12, 2015. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Cox, Rebecca D. The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.
- Haidt, Jonathan and Greg Lukianoff. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. London: Penguin, 2018.
- Mercer, Mark. “Grounds of Liberal Tolerance” Journal of Value Inquiry. Vol. 33. November, 1999. Pp. 319-334.
- Minogue, Kenneth. The Concept of a University. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005.
- Simon, George K. In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People. Marion, MI: Parkhurst, 2010.
- Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door. New York: MJF, 2012.
- “Violence.” Oxford Languages Dictionary online. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- The Red Pill. Directed by Cassie Jaye. Actors Marc Angelucci, Jack Barnes, Richard Cassalata, Harry Crouch and Rachel Edwards. Gravitas Ventures, 2017.
- No Safe Spaces. Directed by Justin Falk. Performances by Adam Corolla, Dennis Praeger and Tim Allen. Mill Creek Entertainment, 2020.
- Dennard, Paris. “Never Apologize to the Mob.” Praeger University YouTube video. Posted September 28, 2020. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Haidt, Jonathan. “Social Justice Warriors – why Universities become crazy and how to fight back.” YouTube video podcast. Posted December 16, 2016. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Porath, Christine. Tedx University of Nevada: “Do Nice People Finish Last or Best?” YouTube video. Posted February 23, 2018. Accessed November 2, 2020.
- Rubin, Dave. “The Bravery Deficit.” Praeger University YouTube video. Posted April 27, 202. Accessed November 3, 2020.