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A Better Cancel Culture - BCB #8
"Sometimes bad takes are how we get to good takes."
Entirely too much has already been said about “cancel culture.” We will add only three points, from the perspective of how the practice makes conflicts better or worse.
First, the argument over whether “canceling” even exists is silly – it's a linguistic proxy war for the question of who deserves punishment and whether the means of punishment have changed. Proponents of the “cancel culture is just accountability” view point out, correctly, that shaming and shunning have always been a part of human norm enforcement. What is new is the ability to recruit masses of anonymous strangers combined with permanent public records of behavior. That, and ours is a time of enthusiasm for moral purity – which is, of course, a standard side effect of conflict.
Second, canceling seems to affect different people in very different ways. While many canceled celebrities are still working, the consequences for regular people can be devastating. We now recognize the harm that online harassment and bullying can cause; shunning is even more destructive, and can make people suicidal, especially young people. Also, even the most sincere apology usually just invites more attack. If cancellation is to be an instrument of justice, it must be proportional.
Opinions on whether cancellation is typically just are correspondingly split. According to Pew Research, “51% of U.S. adults say calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 45% say it is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it.” That 45% has increased 7% in the last year.
Finally, canceling tends to be better at inflicting damage to one’s own side. The consequences of being disowned by your ingroup are severe, while the outgroup presumably already hates you. Cancellation has been tearing political movements apart for generations, under a variety of names. A decade ago, leftist activist Mark Fisher dissected the damage of “callout culture”. Fifty years ago, Jo Freeman described the harm of “trashing”. Whatever “cancel culture” is, whatever the phenomenon has been called, and whatever its net gains or losses, the impulse has always been with us.
Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood – Jo Freeman
This description of “trashing” and ostracism within the feminist community of 1976 sounds eerily familiar. “[Trashing] is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.”
The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture – Lindsey Toler
This article is unique in exploring the mental health effects on the canceled, the cancellers, and “the bystanders.” It includes actionable advice for people in any of these positions, such as “try to see the other side,” and of course “spend less time online.”
we will not cancel us – Adrienne Maree Brown
Brown is a transformative justice advocate who writes movingly about alternatives to ostracism. “Canceling is punishment, and punishment doesn’t stop the cycle of harm, not long term. … instead of prison bars we place each other in an overflowing box of untouchables – often with no trial – and strip us of past and future, of the complexity of being gifted and troubled, brilliant and broken.” Also a book of the same title.
Exiting The Vampire Castle – Mark Fisher
This multidimensional piece from 2013 suggests from a leftist point of view how a movement might “create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.” It’s still very relevant today, especially when Fisher describes himself as “drifting through social networks, feeling my depression and exhaustion increasing.”
New and Interesting
This study finds that people are more likely to accept falsehoods from their own side. This tendency contributes to polarization: “These findings begin to paint a more complete picture of why the electorate can adopt such sharply divergent views of politicians who are called out for making false statements.”
A study involving Europeans and Americans states that nope, belief in conspiracy theories has not increased since 2012, even though 73% of Americans “believe that ‘conspiracy theories are out of control.’”
Braver Angels is holding three-hour online workshops in August and October for conservatives who live or work in a blue-coded environment. From the description: “this will be a ‘no whining’ zone. We will focus on the question, ‘What can I do?’ rather than ‘Aren’t they awful?’”
Quote of the Week
What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism.
Thanks for reading
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor