The Psychology of Cancel Culture

Should we Marie Kondo the culture, or is there another way?

Posted Jun 27, 2020

Is canceling an effective way of dealing with a problem?  Or does it prolong the problem by making cosmetic changes which conceal deeper needs?

Tear it down

I am completely on board with removing hurtful objects. Doing so changes things for the better. Take the Berlin Wall, for example, or the liberation of death camps. Such events are the culmination of long struggle, but they also take on independent symbolic meaning which shapes the future.

Many of the words, symbols, laws, statues and names under scrutiny perpetrate harm to no good end. They maintain maladaptive societal structures while retraumatizing large segments of the population. The failure to have them removed is itself a slap in the face.

Thinking evolves in response to thoughts

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, raised in India at the height of the British empire, describes how people learn to think (Bion, 2013) Disturbing thoughts present a threat to the mind if we can’t make sense of them. We need another person to help us contain overwhelming emotion and develop an “apparatus for thinking.”

Unacceptable ideas are cast out, falsely perceived to be part of other people, and not one’s own. We get rid of disavowed, hated parts of ourselves onto others, and the world. Bion writes that such experiences “are treated as if indistinguishable from things-in-themselves and are evacuated at high speed as missiles to annihilate space.” Not thinking becomes a lifestyle.

In the absence of training from thoughtful caregivers, we never learn to think properly. The mind fails to develop, becoming instead an “apparatus for projection.” Instead of thinking, there is splitting... no shades of gray, only black or white. All good, or all bad. Nothing in between, more fantasy than reality.

Large Group Identity and Racism

In his recently updated book Large-Group Psychology: Racism, Societal Divisions, Narcissistic Leaders and Who We Are Now (2020), noted psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan, himself raised in Cypress in a subjugated Turkish ethnic group, discusses how, through adoption of large group norms, people fail to develop individuality and instead adopt cookie-cutter, prejudicial beliefs.

Following Freud, he describes the individual as being like the pole of a big top tent, the tent being the culture. Individual identity is like the close-fitting clothes one wears, the fabric of the tent group identity. The canvas is inscribed with group meanings which are wired into the belief system, the same in each person, without question. These group markers are instilled early in life, and are not questioned.

The individual comes to identify with what is on the outside of the tent, adopting not only the views of the culture but typically those of leaders who powerfully voice those views. Volkan notes perceived truths are “deposited” into impressionable minds. The emerging neuroscience of this process is fascinating.

The deposited ideas are the same in every person in the group, constituting large group identity by virtue of being shared the same by all. Negative group identity facilitates intergenerational trauma by creating and recreating the perception that the other is the enemy, and must be destroyed, or canceled.

On the margins

Cancel culture represents a battle at the boundaries of the two tents, what Volkan calls "border psychology" (2003). The same image is inscribed on both tents, which share a patch of canvas — but from the inside the image looks different to each group.

A statue represents one thing to one group—reminders of slavery, destruction of family and culture, subjugation, lynching—and for another group it represents pride, past glory, local culture, and so on. Removing a statue of a beloved-by-some Civil War hero is a prime example of this. 

Those who want to keep those images need to in order to hold on their “large group identity.” It’s easy to understand how one group must destroy such symbols in order to thrive, while another group fights for perceived survival to preserve them. Recovering from prejudice is hard work.

Any arguments for preservation lie within an ethical framework, doing good such as memorializing great loss or embodying a collective decision to learn from the past and prevent repetition of harm against others, as in slavery and Holocaust memorials. They are transformative, distressing but contained. They serve to foster development through exposure and education while allowing for collective grief and justice.

When resilience interferes with growth

Resilience is generally considered to be a positive thing, and I agree. But as reported in Harvard Business Review (2017), resilience has a “dark side.” Being too durable can mean being brittle and unyielding, holding fast to the past, kicking and screaming to prevent something from happening.

Cancellation complicates resilience and post traumatic growth. Erasing the symbol from one tent is a step forward in healing for some, while for others is perceived as an existential threat, a tear in the fabric of social reality.

Cancel and...?

The implications for cancellation culture are important. Avoidance is a core symptom of post traumatic stress disorder. Suppression is a good short-term defense, but without access to those experiences, we cannot expand to contain them.

If canceling is followed by forgetting, if canceling is a superficial fix and then we move on to the next thing to cancel, we will miss the next stages of the work. From this perspective, cancel culture is “collective ADHD” caused by a need to immediately manage distress through action. We are using spot remover to clean up stains, but no one is deep shampooing the rug.

By distractedly jumping from one thing to the next, executive functions required to approach enduring solutions are disrupted. Alternatively, when cancel culture incorporates sustained attention, opportunities for post traumatic growth on a grand scale are fostered.

The nuance lies in disrobing large group identity. Seeing other people as individuals, rather than as two dimensional cut-outs, opens up room for more possibilities for meaning and connection. Become yourself, and stop confusing yourself with the tent wall.

For cancellation culture, it means contextualizing the process, and thinking about each cancellation with some nuance. This takes a lot of time and an “alliance of moderates.”

In the longer-run, nuance is needed to work through changes in a country where there is minimal dialogue among competing large group identities. Rather than “Cancel Culture”, we would strive for “Cancel And” Culture. Striving for “Cancel And…” is more likely to get us to a better future, rather than impulsively “Marie Kondo’ing” everything which seems problematic and realizing we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

References

Bion, Wilfred. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2013 Volume LXXXII, Number 2, The Psycho -Analytic Study of Thinking

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