Is Cancel Culture coming for you?

December 2, 2020 • 9:15 am

Lee Jussim is a professor, social psychologist, and chair of the Psychology Department at Rutgers. We’ve met him spoofing wokeness before, though one spoof was removed by Psychology Today, the place where he blogs.  Cancellation has thus been on his mind, and his latest piece at Psychology Today (click on the title screenshot below) is far more serious, though not without some humor. In part, the humor resides in this Venn diagram, showing Cancel Culture sitting at the intersection of three forms of behavior:

But most of the article is pretty serious, outlining the forms of opprobrium you receive during the Cancellation Experience.  In a future post, Jussim promises to tell us “how to defend against a cancellation attack”. Here I’ll list the ten ways Jussim lists about how to discern your imminent “erasure.” Be sure to read the gloss he gives on each step (I’ll give just two). Jussim’s words are indented; mine are flush left.

1.) You are being denounced, not criticized.

Criticism means someone says “your ideas are factually incorrect or illogical” or “I disagree with you.”  They explain why.  You then can defend your ideas.  A discussion ensues, with or without your critic, perhaps with others.  Everyone gets closer to enlightenment.  Or they don’t.

Lee Jussim

A denunciation is entirely different. Your ideas are not being addressed in any way.  Instead, you are accused of doing something deplorable.  You might be accused of racism, sexism, transphobia, or some other form of bigotry.  You might be accused of causing unidentified flying “harms,” and of making people “unsafe.” For example, David Shor was targeted by a mob of his co-workers, and ultimately fired, after tweeting a link to a political science paper showing that peaceful protests win over more support than do violent ones (he was accused of making his coworkers “unsafe”). For a list of such attacks, go here.

Accusations of “harm” or making people “unsafe” may seem bizarre to most people. And they are right. An idea cannot “harm” someone at least not without some strangely Orwellian twisting of what “harm” means.  BUT, it is a brilliant propaganda and tactical move.

  • By claiming “harm,” your attackers are not disagreeing with you; they are claiming victim status!  And with the rise of victimhood culture, this gives them power.
  • They can now contact Human Resources or your boss to get you fired.  No one can make a case for firing you because they disagree with you.  But if you are causing “harm”? Now HR can get involved, launch an investigation, and may the gods help you if your tracks are anything but pristine.

2.) It’s a mob [JAC: not a single person, and the mob usually uses social media]

3.) Public shaming

4.) Flagrant disregard for truth, evidence, or logic [JAC: more on this later today]

5.) Flagrant rejection of due processes. 

6.) Deplatforming you.

7.) Attempt to isolate you by stigmatizing anyone who might support you.

8.) Moral grandstanding.

 Moral grandstanding refers to publicly taking moral positions to advance one’s self-interest in some way, usually one’s social status (e.g., esteem or respect among peers).  One gets on a soapbox to prove one’s moral worth and gain status by denouncing others’ moral corruption and filth.1

For example, if being antiracist conveys status, people will be incentivized to denounce you as a racist.  They need not necessarily care much whether you are actually racist.  But the louder they denounce you as a racist, the more they show the world their antiracist bona fides, so they win, even if they are wrong about you.  Moral grandstanding can whip a mob into a frenzy:

Denouncer 1: “Joe is a racist!”

Denouncer 2: “Joe is not just a racist, he is the most vicious racist in this company!”

Denouncer 3: “Joe is not just the most vicious racist in the company, he’s a literal Nazi!”

9.) Gaslighting.

10.) They contact your employer or supervisor. 

Many cases of attempted cancellation show nearly all of these features. If the target is famous, like J. K. Rowling, then #10 is out, but she did experience the other nine. Dorian Abbot, a professor targeted at my own university, experienced all ten, but the university refused to truckle to the mob. He’ll surely be shunned by many in his department, which is still a form of cancellation, but university punishment is off the table.

h/t: Greg Mayer, Brian Leiter

41 thoughts on “Is Cancel Culture coming for you?

    1. I don’t disagree with your comment. After all, “der Mensch, das kranke Tier.” In addition, I see Cancel Culture and Wokeness as being instantiations of the craven, immature, though the natural, human tendency to want to be above criticism and therefore on unassailable moral high ground. Other examples of this tendency are those with religious titles who fancy themselves infallible and those who say they are business people and therefore ipso facto qualified to be our elected leaders.

  1. I think we had better get the followup to this shrewd analysis—the one in which Jussim explains the best defensive strategies and tactics—PDQ!

  2. I wonder what do they call what Trump has done, how he operates. He uses some of the methods talked about here, public shaming and lots of gas-lighting. For his methods, it all comes down to intimidation. But in the end it is all the same. Lots of people get damaged and careers are lost. With the woke culture, what do they get in the end? With Trump the purpose and result is obvious.

    1. You are quite right. The techniques described in the article can as easily be ascribed to Trump and his cult: fear, shaming, intimidation, and the display of grievances. People in authority respond cravenly to the demands of the mob. The big difference is that the Woke intimidate some college administrators and employers. The Trump cult, living in an alternate reality where facts don’t count, intimidates a political party, resulting in the near destruction of democracy. Mobs are very dangerous things; in times of social change, even more so.

      1. So for the mob, the counter culture it is just the pleasure of making people suffer or get ruined? The cult is no so different from Trump but the purpose is somewhat different.

    2. Central to Cancel Culture and Trumpism is the creation of alternate realities, each inside their own bubble. The Republicans and right-wing media have been working on theirs for decades, way before Trump was much involved. The Left have created their own bubble with postmodernism and its attack on objective reality and placing who’s speaking over what is said. The Center needs to assert itself against both these extremes. That’s (partly) why we’re here, right?

  3. I admit it: I am a western white male who grew up in the 60s. I am completely baffled that I live in a world tilting toward the view that facts don’t matter, science is bunk, and we’ve tossed Dr Martin King in the dustbin.

    1. Science matters for both the left and right…it’s just that they are extremely selective on what they consider valid science. They reject any scientific facts that do not fit in their respective narratives, but will gladly use the authority of science when it suits them.

      So someone on the right may wrongly think that global warming is a hoax, but be genuinely skeptical of claims that sex is not binary and in fact exists on a spectrum. Someone on the left may be the opposite (accepting of the reality of global warming, but thinks that sex is not binary but exists on some kind of vague spectrum).

      But a true rational thinker, who is not using ideology as a filter for facts, would examine each claim on its scientific merits, and may conclude that global warming is a real thing and sex in humans really is binary. And such a person may feel like an orphan in today’s political system (at least in the US).

      So it’s really logical consistency and principles-based reasoning that is thrown into the dustbin.

      1. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Most people still think facts matter but differ in who they trust as a fact source and the degree of that trust. For example, many climate change deniers have their own set of experts who support their point of view. We might hope that they evaluate the evidence presented by their experts against those who express the opposite point of view but they really lack the skills to do so and don’t want to argue against the opinion held by others in their bubble.

        1. People choose their set of experts in the first place based on their pre-existing ideologies and worldviews…so it’s a bit of a vicious circle.

          The erosion of the idea of objective truth is at the heart of this. For too many, their ideology is sacrosanct and somehow sits outside the realm of objectivity.

          The only way out of this it seems is for renewed appreciation and dissemination of Enlightenment values.

          Also, one concept from the sciences that has helped me immensely throughout my adult life is the principle of falsification.

          As in, has my assertion about reality been constructed in a way that it can be rejected? Are there observations that, if shown to be true, can defeat my idea?

          If I’ve come up with an idea that is unbeatable in the sense that I can account for any possible observation, it’s probably a bullshit idea.

          For a textbook example of an unfalsifiable set of ideas, see White Fragility.

          That fact that so many educated people on the left have been taken in by this shows that we do a very poor job in this society of inculcating basic mental hygiene. We are therefore vulnerable to all sorts of misinformation.

          1. Because your statement that the “ fact that so many educated people on the left have been taken in by this shows that we do a very poor job in this society of inculcating basic mental hygiene. We are therefore vulnerable to all sorts of misinformation” does not mention that the word “left” could just as easily be replaced by the word “right” proves your point that “the erosion of the idea of objective truth is at the heart of this. For too many, their ideology is sacrosanct and somehow sits outside the realm of objectivity.”

            1. I agree that this applies to the left and the right. My last sentence was meant to address the book White Fragility…this is a delusion that the left owns. However, the right have their own set of delusions that probably are collectively worse than those on the left. As wonky as the left has become in the past few years, they still have no equivalent of the odious Donald Trump taking over their party.

          2. I certainly agree with you in terms of my own behavior. However, we all rely on trust. When you seek to falsify some belief, you almost always don’t do the experiment yourself, see the subject of the controversy with your own eyes, or interview the person in question. You have to trust others. If you are like me, you spend a lot of time deciding whether something or someone can be trusted. Given that dependency, it is no leap to see that who and what you trust can be relative to your social situation.

            1. Yes, there is an element of trust, and you’re right…anything I know about science I have pretty much learned from others, and not done the original research.

              But there are ways to test the veracity of these sources we rely on. Internal consistency is a big one for me…is the source contradicting itself? (yes I know that a set of ideas can be completely false and yet 100% internally consistent, so this is more of a necessary rather than sufficient condition).

              Also, there are certain observations that are much more solid than others (upwards of 99% likely of being true), as they may form the basis for several disciplines. For example, the evidence evolution actually crosses many disparate areas of science…what are the chances that all of these areas would be wrong in the same direction?

              Sometimes you can build on these 99% assertions and use them to test assertions that may not as rock-solid.

              I also find that most people, even those that may violently disagree with you, value internal consistency. If you can show a person how their assertions, taken together, form an incoherent worldview, you may have a chance of persuading them to reevaluate their ideas.

          3. Another Enlightenment value (which was derived from Greek philosophy) is that of open debate in the best sense: take your claim to your harshest critic and ask them to find the flaws. Cancel Culture itself seems set up to be a direct counter to this.

      2. Science is not left or right. It is enquiry that requires evidence-based explanations.To be clear, political opinion is just that: opinion. Science as a process demands cleart hiniking without regard to politics.

  4. Well ya just might be a Nazi. Hah, victimhood culture- that is rich… victims of sexual harrassment have been told forever- what “harm” did it do? Spoken like an unwoken, lol. And also because I am not unreasonable, sometimes it does go to far- the pendulum swings like a guillotine, it has been a long time coming, a maybe… just maybe we might find a good way to address bad, harmful behavior. (Think about the Mascot issue… despite psychological studies indicating mascots do real harm to real Native American people… there are a large number of educational institutions that “sport” them… this piece kinda sets you on their side… it’s almost like you’re gaslighting. oops! #9) Also, sorry, not sorry for the lack of formal structure to my writing.

      1. Exceptions, I assume, are granted when the person is wearing a swastika shoulder patch or carrying a swastika flag. There are, after all, self-declared nazis.

  5. I have heard the analogy of Left-Right being somewhat akin to female-male or mother-father relationships in this country, and apologies if I am being offensively sexist here (I’m female, if that matters – and probably more averse to mean girl politics specifically because of that, not in spite of it. I had my run-ins with mean girls during my formative years.) but the more polarized we get, the more I see it. People talk a lot about ‘toxic masculinity’, and sometimes their critiques are valid (even if the term itself seems unnecessarily pejorative to an entire sex), but forms of social power plays that are stereotypically associated with femininity can be harmful as well. The cold shoulder; the snapping “Fine! Fine, if that’s how you’re going to be, we just won’t go to the party, we just won’t go! You ruined everything, everything is cancelled now, I hope you’re happy!” at one disliked comment; the random bursting into tears; the Mean Girls social shaming, gossiping, and tearing people down; the reminders of ‘everything I’ve done for you!’ (the Woke are constantly bemoaning how ‘exhausting’ their work is) etc.

    I’m not even entirely unsympathetic to all of those things – those describe my “less than proud” moments pretty well (I don’t see myself as a ‘Mean Girl’ type, obviously, but those dynamics look different when you’re on the other side of them – I do regret certain times I’ve gossiped about someone because I ‘needed validation that I wasn’t in the wrong here’ or ‘needed to vent’, etc.). And in some level of moderation, they’re probably ok, it’s more when one reaches an extreme that they become a problem. But I think the problem is that they’re not seen as a problem, they’re seen entirely as Good and Just in the context of politics. If they’re not seen as a problem, there’s no discussion about how to cope in a more productive way.

    I feel it took us quite awhile to reach a point where we saw the excesses of more stereotypically male vices as just that – vices. Before that there was a lot of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, ‘it’s ok to pick on society’s weak, we value the Strong’, ‘if someone in authority treats you badly, suck it up, because they’re more important than you are’ type thinking. When thinking of what toxic patriarchies – not benevolent ones, but toxic ones – look like, my mind often goes back to the horrors perpetuated by the Catholic Church when dealing with children, and how this could have been allowed to go on for so long in a culture of surrounding silence. I think the assumption at the moment, however, is that there is ‘no such thing’ as a ‘Toxic Matriarchy’, and I think that’s incorrect. I think that just as we didn’t recognize the harm in patriarchies in earlier decades, we don’t see the potential for harm in matriarchies now. Anything, in an extreme, unbalanced form, tends to turn into a force for ill.

    1. Look at any online forum: It’s perfectly acceptable (even laudable) to be sexist — as long as it’s women being sexist against men. Sweeping generalizations all over the place.

      I am so often tempted to swap the pronouns (or otherwise invert the statement) and say “there, fixed that!” But, of course, that would be … not welcomed. The lack of self awareness is rather startling.

      My wife is a public school teacher. One day a black woman, a parent, walked through the school shouting at the top of her lungs, “I hate all white people!” repeatedly. It today’s woke culture this is by definition (Orwell’s definition, I guess) not racist. (And they don’t see the irony of how severely they undermine their politics by such a contention.) How is this OK?

  6. Most of this was known when Will Shetterly wrote his book in 2013 or so. The rest, and much more than this, was understood a few years ago. I’m glad it becomes better known, but I somehow find it odd that years-late public intellectuals get credited (and probably citations) for antique observations.

    1. 2013 is “antique”??! I was 53. Holy smokes…..excuse me…I need to go over to my rocking chair and drool. Sadly.

  7. Appreciate the article. Also: I love the word “truckle.” I’ve not read that before. Much more nuance than “buckle.” I want to find out the etiology, as the word is completely new to me in this meaning.

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