The notion of cancel culture refers to the boycotting or shunning of someone whose behavior or speech is deemed in some way objectionable or controversial. The boycotting or shunning can damage a person’s reputation and cause a person to lose his job. A lot of cancel culture today is related to actions or speech that are considered racist or sexist. And although, in its present incarnation, it started primarily as an American phenomenon, it has spread well beyond the United States.
It is like a magnified well-organized version of giving someone the silent treatment. When someone is given the silent treatment, it is like he is placed in a social experiential vacuum. He is immersed in psychological numbness, because one or some of his actions or utterances is so apart from a seamless numbing normal for the people around him that it shocks them out of their own psychological numbness. In another time and place, perhaps what the person did would not be considered such a big thing or, at worst, could be written off as an element of human imperfection that could be overcome and forgiven. We have all done things in our past that we regret. But in today’s world, every mistaken action or utterance is considered by others as an intolerable source of abrasive friction, an intolerable tension-pocket.
Now I am not trying to suggest that all disapproved actions and utterances are equally forgivable. Hate speech and acts of violence are worth taking very seriously. On the other hand, we live in a democracy where people have the right to turn away from past mistakes and turn their lives around. The real problem with cancel culture is that people aren’t being permitted the freedom to rise above their mistakes.
On the other hand, we sometimes are being cancelled not because of actions or utterances demonstrating moral imperfection, but because of honest disagreements. If a person takes unpopular views that don’t fall within the promotion of political correctness, that in and of itself can be grounds for being socially shut out of polite society. Which means that cancel culture can act as a total damper on free speech. Again, I am not including those examples of hate speech, (in person or on the Internet), that directly insight people to violence. Nevertheless, so many people are being cancelled today for honest disagreement that a real danger is being posed to our democracy.
A democracy is based on a lively exchange of views. And on the assumption that we all have something to learn from those with whom we disagree. But if one is so numb that he experiences any disagreement as an overstimulating visceral threat, then the whole experience of democracy is going to be shattered.
This kind of thinking has been present in different forms in the U.S. in the past. It was present in the Salem witch trials. It was present in 1954 in the McCarthy hearings. But what makes cancel culture so different from these examples is that it is being used as a mechanism by so many different groups and individuals during the same period of time. It is so present that many attempts at original perspectives are being threatened with being totally shut down.
The threat of being vacuumized by cancel culture is going to have the effect of making many people feel that they have to take the politically correct line of thinking, that they have to become brittle figures in their thinking and join up with other brittle human figures in a tight bundle or else be expelled as a free-floating figure, doomed to float endlessly in the larger experiential vacuum without hope of social grounding. It is like a form of imposed exile.
On a deeper level, perhaps many of us feel secretly like we are deserving of cancel culture ourselves. Cancelling ourselves becomes in a way like canceling others: an internalized source of abrasive friction, an internalized tension-pocket that acts as a vehicle for stimulating ourselves out of the numbness created by the experiential vacuum that surrounds us. Cancel culture acts like a modern machine, an electric hammer or drill that pounds some life into us. In other words, the concern about immoral activities or about divergent political opinions is an overlay for a deeper concern about sinking into a living death. People can become very earnest and very self-righteous on the surface in their attempts to fight this experiential numbness. They themselves will believe that the surface issue on which they are focusing is the real source of their public moral behavior. Which is why, if by some chance they were able to resolve the public moral issue, they would have to find another one quickly in order to stay out of a dangerous state of numbness.
Many people today need the abrasive friction – the tension pocket – of canceling others and themselves in order to feel alive, to pull out of their numbness. Particularly with the additional numbness created by self-isolation as a result of the Corona virus, cancel culture has become a useful tool for dealing with our present situation. However, it is simply one more in the list of psychological postures that have been discussed in this column, postures that are being utilized to help people deal with the experiential effects of the evolving modern technological living environments which we are all inhabiting. And because the real cause of this posture is something distinct from the issues which it was ostensibly created to deal with, something deeper and more enduring, it is probably going to be around for a long time.© 2020 Laurence Mesirow