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“Cancel Culture” Letter: 7 Tips from the Debate

The 7 psychology tips you can use for better conflicts.

“A tense and watchful atmosphere of almost universal mistrust may easily develop.” That sounds a lot like polarized online debates right now. Actually, it was written 30 years ago by Adam Curle, a respected mediator who was talking about his work in war zones!

Source: Pixabay

The latest example is a letter published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by various prominent academics and authors. I’m going to analyze it and give you seven related tips you might find yourself using all the time.

I’ve spent years looking into bitter conflicts and collecting the best evidence I can find about what tends to work, and what doesn’t, if we want to both address injustices to get our needs met and avoid despising each other at the end of the day. I’m interested in the process of how conflicts are engaged in, and what happens with different approaches. So this post will not be about who’s right or who’s wrong or who deserves to feel what.

In fact, I believe that focusing on the latter (who deserves to feel what) is almost guaranteed to deepen a conflict rather than to be useful. So tip number one is to stop doing that. Even if they seem unreasonable, seeking to invalidate other people’s feelings, rather than to understand them, isn’t your most powerful strategy.

Many of the approaches taken both to defend and to critique the Harper’s letter are likely to increase and entrench divides. They display the eagerness to interpret almost anything the other side does as hostile (even when it’s more ambiguous and there could be other interpretations) that Curle found among parties at war.

Let's look at a remarkable story. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in a hateful church. People on Twitter regularly attacked and tried to shame her, but it didn’t work—if anything it just made her feel more certain in her identity. She did eventually leave her old life and totally change, though. What could cause such a radical transformation?

A few folks reached out to her with genuine curiosity and showed that they cared. They gently engaged with her over more than a year. Once she realized that these folks on the other side weren’t monsters, she had to accept that she wasn’t so good as she had thought, either. The second tip comes from Phelps-Roper’s story: first, listen and show that you care. It’s tough to have a conversation on a sensitive topic at the best of times. It’s almost impossible if you feel like the other party doesn’t care about you or is out to get you.

This is not a moot point. A study that came out last month suggests that people in the U.S. believe that those on the other side of the political divide dislike, dehumanize, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. Many folks feel as if they’re in a very hostile environment indeed, one where they can’t trust each other and can’t have conversations.

To turn to the Harper’s letter, it is brief, positioning itself on the political left and arguing that a “needed reckoning” around racial and social justice issues is happening but that there is now also “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The authors worry that this is undermining democracy by creating too much fear about reprisals if authors or academics express unpopular opinions. They say they “uphold the value of robust and even caustic” debates, but what they claim concerns them is attempts at “swift and severe” retribution (i.e., causing harm to people who transgress, such as getting them fired).

Perhaps in a desire to spur reflection among the target audience, which seems to be people on the left, the letter claims that such silencing and severe responses were until recently found only on “the radical right” (this is questionable, as I can think of decades-old examples of people at various points on the political spectrum showing “blinding moral certainty” and taking aggressive actions towards those who disagreed with them, but let’s leave that aside).

Critiques of the letter have raised any number of issues, such as that: some of the signatories don’t behave consistently with what they’re now calling for, different techniques have long been used and are still used to silence people, not every person or idea has an equal platform, and those who claim to be silenced often have much more of a platform than their opponents. Some even felt that they had found issues like anti-trans “dog whistles” in the letter.

Now that we know a bit of what’s going on, what more can we learn from it?

Well, there is good evidence that groupthink and heavy-handed policing of groups by their members is real and exists in many groups. For example “Studies of gang members, prison guards, and prison inmates, as well as school teachers show that the social norms about proper behavior that are widely shared by all these communities are often regarded by their very members as too strict or even plainly wrong, but nobody dares to question the shared rules for fear of negative sanctions.”

We also know that moral certainty can indeed breed intolerance and sometimes lead to extreme behaviors. Psychologist Linda J. Skitka and Professor of Management Elizabeth Mullen have dubbed this problem “the dark side of moral conviction.” As they put it, “people become very unconcerned with how moral mandates are achieved, so long as they are achieved.” So research has found that the more we feel we’re on “the right side” of a moral divide, the more we may feel we have the authority to cause any amount of harm to anyone who opposes us.

Megan Phelps-Roper’s story illustrates this. She always believed that what she was doing was good. She felt it was moral and necessary, even when she was expressing deeply prejudiced views.

Tip: assume that, just like you, the other party is a unique individual, not just a group member, and that they think their intentions are good. Let this sink in and soften your desire to charge at them with all your impressive evidence of why their actions are evil. You may be right, but you may not reach them that way.

The dark side of moral conviction may or may not explain “cancel culture” (to the extent that it even exists), but generally speaking, it’s safe to say that the more we moralize an issue, the less grey area we tend to perceive, and the more we can then rationalize taking whatever course of action we imagine is necessary.

Tip number four: If you want to have more rewarding disagreements, try to steer them away from the moral domain. Get specific. Talk about exactly what you observe, feel, need, and are asking for, not about your moral judgements and labels of the other party.

Here’s what happens when you aren’t specific: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

That’s a line from the Harper’s letter that I found strange because it seems the authors are thinking of particular examples, but they haven’t provided citations. That means readers can’t reflect on the examples or be fully clear on what the authors are thinking. Again—try to keep your conversations grounded and specific. (The result of not being specific is what happened on Twitter with users trying to guess what the authors were thinking about, and then debate about those examples they assume are being referenced.)

The other thing that happens when we aren’t specific is this: The other party hears what makes sense to them. This happens anyway, of course, but it’s extra likely when we’re speaking in broad, abstract ways. The person listening then relates what we said to some totally different event from their own experience, and is now thinking about something other than what we thought we were saying.

In particular, in difficult conversations, if I make a number of vague statements, you’re likely to ignore the many things I said that you may have agreed with or had questions about and to jump on and amplify the thing I said that you disagree with.

A physician who developed creative ways of listening to and understanding her child patients, Rachel Pinney, put it this way, “When two people meet to discuss one subject, they are really discussing two subjects, which are the two people’s viewpoints.” This is exactly the issue with not being specific, and it regularly takes conversations in a less than useful direction. We aren’t even talking about the same one issue, but we imagine that we are, and we don’t realize just how muddled the discussion really is.

What both critics and supporters of the letter tended not to do was to first find points of agreement and commonality with what the other side was saying before criticizing. Tip five: establish common ground and compliment before critiquing.

This sounds simple, but it can be revolutionary. Psychologist Peter Coleman’s Difficult Conversations Lab has found that the initial conditions for a conversation can make a big difference to whether it stays complex and rewarding for the participants or whether it collapses into points of hyper-certainty and animosity. "Affective polarization,” where we feel negatively toward those on the other side, is particularly detrimental to rewarding disagreements.

Finally, with both the letter itself and with each of the many critical responses to it, it is worth considering our powerful confirmation bias and tendency toward motivated reasoning (read a chapter I wrote explaining these and related biases that make difficult conversations much tougher). Tip six: consider that you have your own biases and the other side may be at least partially correct.

I can say from reflecting on so many explosive conflicts for the last few years that I regularly find not that one side is fully right and the other wrong, but that our world is complex. There are some contentious issues that are simple (either the earth is flat or it isn’t), but most aren’t. We don’t need to become total relativists with no opinions, but we benefit from trying to look for evidence to the contrary of what we want to believe.

For instance, rejecting the Harper’s letter by simply saying the issues it raises are all made up seems overly simplistic given the number of cases that have been written about for years now.

Similarly, it’s all too easy to suggest that “cancel culture” is a major threat to democracy without providing strong evidence for that strong claim, or considering the many other factors at play in a situation so complex and difficult to understand as the health of a democracy.

I’ve previously discussed how this simplistic either-or thinking can make our lives worse. So that’s the final tip: try to keep your thinking complex, realizing that there is always more to the story than what you’re currently aware of.