#Canceled: Powerful white men who use their wealth and status to sexually harass, assault, and abuse women and/or children.
#Canceled: Low-brow comedy that hinges on race-based impressions, racial slurs, and gross stereotypes.
#Canceled: Anyone who has failed to meet today’s standards of wokeness or who fails to demonstrate sufficient contrition.
#Canceled: Cultural appropriation (including your kid’s Halloween costume).
#Canceled: Your neighbor — for their bad parking job (such white male entitlement). Your kid’s teacher — for the homework assignment that made gendered assumptions. You — for your FB meme that was in poor taste.
#Canceled: Anyone, anywhere, anytime.
It’s 2020. We expect hindsight and foresight to be that good.
Cancel culture is a form of boycott in which an individual or institution is called out for an unpopular, often offensive, behavior and others are urged en masse, typically through social media, to “cancel” the target person or company by disavowing their professional work or social status.
While it’s hard to name cancel culture’s birthday (public shaming is a well-worn tactic), the practice has shifted dramatically since the election of Donald Trump. What began with the targeting of powerful public figures — Harvey Weinstein and Justice Kavanaugh, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson and Louis C.K. — has shifted in the last three years. The original impetus in each of these instances was to use the new power of social media to cancel a person who misused their power. But no longer.
At first I felt fine about this shift. In a prior essay, I reflected on my own personal experience in the wake of the #MeToo movement and my conviction that these call-outs were part of a process of restoring justice, redistributing power, and giving a voice to those who had long been dismissed. Cancel culture was about consciousness-raising, I thought, and cancellation wasn’t about one person’s ruination but dismantling systemic forms of oppression. Today, things have changed. Cancel culture has become an everyday affair and accusations are levied for offenses large and small.
These call-outs are, in one sense, progressive. They suggest that more people feel emboldened to speak out about language and practices that are harmful, including the micro-aggressions involved in everyday discourse which can be easy to shy away from. But social media, as the platform through which these call-outs take place, undermines that positive effect.
Hidden behind the digital cloak of interpersonal untouchability, we respond online to other human beings as if they were only avatars, attacking utterances, denouncing people and leaving little room for dialogue much less forgiveness.
But it’s not enough to just cancel cancel culture. Which is why I propose that we begin not with cancellations but by asking a better question: what social function is cancel culture serving?
In asking this question I take a cue from my own field of clinical psychology which teaches that people change not when they are faced with the costs of their behavior, but when they come to understand the positive function a symptom is serving. Only then can they feel understood and cared for despite their prior inability to change an unhealthy behavior.
If our society is going to learn this lesson we have to do better than calling out cancel culture. Shaming the shamers will not drive change. Instead we need to ask what function cancel culture is serving. What do we gain when we cancel someone?
While systematic studies are still ongoing, I argue that cancel culture serves three primary functions. First, it provides the opportunity for virtue signaling. More than a hollow exercise in vanity, virtue signaling provides the opportunity for individuals to put new values into practice and receive positive reinforcement for that behavior. Second, cancel culture provides a mechanism through which traumatized individuals can form in-groups, denigrate out-groups, reclaim power, bolster self-esteem, and repair lost or damaged sources of meaning and identity — all while exercising the classic symptoms of PTSD such as hyper-vigilance and irritability. And although I will not discuss it here, cancel culture leverages social pain as a form of punishment, making it possible to swiftly and interpersonally to establish a new moral code in others.
The first function cancel culture serves is virtue signaling. It is easy to dismiss online virtue signaling as a hollow exercise in vanity, but I think we should take a more sympathetic view. Amidst a cultural landscape of changing values and identity threats, cancellations not only signal our virtue to others but also to ourselves. We are reminding ourselves of our values and of the new expectations of a “woke” society.
In this light, cancellations are similar to the five-year-old who becomes the household mini-cop. Aware of her own susceptibility to forget the rules, she exercises every opportunity to remind others of what they are. For a child, this is completely normal behavior. It’s how a new moral code is habituated. At one point in our growth all of us have turned others into bad objects in order to remind ourselves of our values. But this same behavior — converting others to objects and making examples of them — is transformed online.
Given the high level of trauma present in the American sociopolitical climate, it’s possible to see how the recovery of traumatized victims relies on re-establishing moral boundaries and vigilantly protecting the wounded from further rule violations. When slow-moving social institutions fail to punish those who commit major rule violations it becomes natural for victims to personally take on these task themselves. In this light we can see that call-outs and cancellations are one way in which traumatized persons remind themselves (and others) of sacred values in an attempt to keep themselves safe and preserve their integrity.
Another psychological theory, Terror Management Theory (TMT), can help us get a better theoretical grip on the second function of cancel culture: the way it allows traumatized persons attempt to keep themselves safe by re-establishing social-moral boundaries.
TMT is a social-psychological theory which suggests that, when confronted with reminders of their own mortality, human beings feel terrified and subsequently deploy massive psychological resources to assuage their anxiety. Among the most powerful of these psychological defenses has proven to be symbolic sources of meaning, including the religions, myths, and artwork that confers immortal purpose to our lives.
Another important defense against anxiety is self-esteem — a fundamental belief in one’s intrinsic value. TMT research has demonstrated that when individuals experience an existential threat they tend to respond by engaging what is called the “worldview defense.” That is, by reifying their own cultural symbols and boosting their self-esteem. Participants who experience a mortality reminder, for example, are more likely to endorse extreme political views, demonstrate in-group preference and out-group bias, engage in dehumanizing behavior toward perceived members of an out-group, and bolster their own self-esteem by aligning themselves with successful tribes (such as sports groups).
I don’t think it is at all a stretch to suggest that, as we listen to the news or scroll through our Twitter feeds, we encounter endless reminders of our mortality. We also experience constant assaults on our identities such that the very things that confer value to our lives and provide us with a coherent sense of self are fragilized.
This is part of the function that cancel culture serves. Call-outs are digital worldview defenses; they align us with an in-group, create an imagined out-group, and allow us to reify our cultural values — all while increasing our self-esteem through virtue signaling.
But besides the negative social effects that accompany call-outs there is another problem: it is only intermittently successful. And because it doesn’t always work we have to do it over and over again which means that one unsuccessful effort to reduce our anxiety turns into another effort. And another. And another.
But this examination of the social function of cancel culture doesn’t negate its problematic effects. Even when released in the interest of driving change, today the pain of traumatized persons being unleashed on social media is no longer a controlled burn. It is, as a recent Invisibilia story put it, a social wildfire.
But what is to be done? Those who share such concerns tend to emphasize forgiveness, asking what a person can do to atone for past mistakes. While this is laudable, cancel culture is just that: a culture. It is supra-personal. Which means that personal responses are necessary but not sufficient remedies.
Let’s take just one case as example: gender-based violence. If individuals are being torn down for both their actions and as symbols of the systemic oppression we wish to overthrow, then the required apology much come both from the individual (for the specific action) and from society (in the form of meaningful change). A new structure has to be created which inspires a sense of safety among the victimized class such that hyper-vigilance and vigilante justice no longer feel like the only viable means of self-protection.
But large-scale change is painstakingly slow and, in the interim, individual wrong-doers need some meaningful form of atonement that is more attainable than personally driving a sea-change in gender relations. With no middle ground we begin to inhabit a prison-like world, one in which each of us is in solitary confinement.
There is a key word missing that can, I think, thread the needle of this dilemma: rehabilitation. It’s appropriate, in purely personal terms, to speak of redemption and forgiveness, but when the personal and social are intertwined we need a new term. I take this one from the criteria by which prisoners are judged ready for readmission into society because of the reasonable assurance that their past wrong-doing will not be repeated.
Importantly, the word rehabilitation is markedly different from redemption. To be redeemed implies three important factors: that one is absolved by someone else, that a single act may constitute sufficient penitence to warrant forgiveness, and a restoration of status. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, does not involve anyone else’s forgiveness. Nor is it a single act. It does not confer absolution and it does not restore status. It merely permits one to resume participating in society.
Rehabilitation is a process that makes it possible for a person to re-engage in society. Rehabilitated people do not expect a certain reception by society upon their return. They do not seek erasure of the past or restoration of status. Redeemed people do. It is important, therefore, to note that, at best, what traumatized victims want for perpetrators is their rehabilitation. It is not necessarily desirable for a victim to participate in that process by offering redemption or forgiveness. This helps to explain why cancel culture has rapidly devolved into a police state: the victims making the call-outs are unlikely to also participate in creating pathways to rehabilitation and it is unfair to ask this of them. We need our institutions to do this work.
It is equally critical to point out that the reason for seeking rehabilitation is that annihilation — or cancellation — isn’t possible. Rehabilitation is the only option. In reality, the wrong-doers we “cancel” online do not die or go to jail. At no point, despite painful experiences of public ostracization, are these people actually removed from society. They continue to live and work among us.
Our call-outs and cancellations are mock trials and, as such, they produce illusory prisons. These illusory prisons exact real social pain from the guilty but they neither contain the prisoner nor offer pathways for re-entering society. They exist in a liminal space.
The hyper-vigilance, explosive anger, and repetitive compulsion we see in cancel culture is not going to change any time soon because the trauma is still unfolding. It’s unreasonable at this point to ask many of the traumatized to “be better activists.” Nor is piling on by shaming the shamers particularly helpful.
Though I agree that cancel culture and the myriad lateral call-outs it contains have come to form a maladaptive response to the ongoing trauma of gender violence, I think it is worth remembering that maladaptive responses arise as mechanisms of survival and were usually, at one time, highly successful. We might consider that the call-outs that initially surrounded the #MeToo movement were deeply meaningful, aimed at people and systems of power, and were embedded in a trauma. Though many present-day cancellations may appear petty, I think they are better understood as mechanisms through which we attempt to enforce a new moral code in the absence credible social institutions.
Call-outs and cancellations may no longer serve their purpose, but attempts to cancel cancel culture are themselves fruitless. If you are in the privileged position of being able to see cancel culture for the maladaptive response it has become, perhaps you are one of those among us who has healed enough — or is unharmed enough — to start carving out pathways for rehabilitation. Because the illusory prisons cancel culture is now constructing are poor containers for our bogeyman.
Andrea Singer is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at The New School for Social Research. She is interested in the intersection of the personal and political, particularly with respect to traumatic experience.