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America Exports Cancel Culture to the World

Recently, I was interviewed for a video for the Dutch media outlet NU.nl, a popular news website in the Netherlands. The topic was cancel culture, which refers to the social trend of ending (or attempting to end) an individual’s career or prominence to hold them to account for violating moral norms. The video was about the uses and abuses of this new trend, including how cancel culture has rightly jettisoned reprehensible individuals like Harvey Weinstein from polite society. On the other hand, it also discussed its excesses, such as the recent social media mobbing of J.K. Rowling. During my segment, I described how individuals use cancel culture to elevate their own social position.

Three days after it was published, the video was taken down. I contacted the journalist who interviewed me, asking what happened. He replied that although the video gathered over 176,000 views and was positively received by viewers, his employer determined that it “didn’t meet their profile.” He then revealed that his supervisors believed the video was too sympathetic to the targets of cancel culture. In other words, a video about cancel culture was cancelled.

This social phenomenon is spreading beyond our shores. It is the latest American cultural export. Referring to the cancelled video, the Dutch sociologist Dr. Eric C. Hendriks has told me, “This would have been unthinkable in the Netherlands a year ago. Over time, American influence has spread cancel culture here.” The political scientist Joseph Nye advanced the idea of “soft power,” or the ability to influence societies through seduction, persuasion, and pop culture rather than military power. Because America still has reputational prestige across the globe, other societies adopt the views of our credentialed class. These individuals have been manipulating language and norms for personal gain.

The reason provided for why the Dutch video was banned is revealing. The economist Tyler Cowen has suggested that the purpose of media is simply to raise the status of some individuals and groups and lower the status of others. Taking this idea one step further, Cowen’s fellow economist Arnold Kling has written, “So much of political and economic debate is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status… Lowering another group’s social status is the most powerful message of all. It is more powerful than raising the status of those who one likes.” The video was taken down because it did not do enough to damage the status of cancel culture’s targets.

Consider the way charges of “racism” have been used to target individuals. People used to appropriately get rebuked or fired for expressing racist views. Today, though, people are getting cancelled for not supporting the claim that America itself is irredeemably racist. Never mind that such a position is in fact a Kafka trap: Danger awaits no matter how you respond. If America is a racist country, and you agree, then you are admitting that more purging and re-educating must be done. However, if you disagree, proponents of cancel culture take this as evidence that you and others like you are more racist than you realize, and thus more purging and re-educating must be done. The guidelines for what the writer Wesley Yang has termed the “successor ideology” are perhaps intentionally vague, and maximize optionality for undercutting political adversaries.

And status matters, particularly for how people evaluate beliefs and opinions. And this is a key reason why cancel culture has spread so swiftly. The Nobel Laureate economist John Harsanyi has said, “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.” One way people evaluate a claim is by checking the prestige of the source. Put simply, people believe higher status individuals have more credibility. In fact, a recent study led by Philip R. Blue in the European Journal of Social Psychology used financial incentives to understand the role of social status when it comes to trust. Researchers invited participants to play economic games, and found that people were more likely to cooperate with (i.e., trust) high-status game partners. Such findings are relevant to current trends. Many people view our credentialed class as credible because of their resumes. And many members of this lofty group have spread the belief that America is hopelessly bigoted. Some have even suggested that social revolution is required to purge all bad elements, regardless of how minor, from society.

Alongside prestige, another way people decide whether to believe something is through social proof. That is, how many of their peers believe it. Social proof is a mental shortcut that allows us to bypass the burdensome work of actually thinking about an issue on our own. Moreover, people are terrified of social disapproval, and for good reason. Although we live in the 21st century, our cognitive architecture is still set up for small foraging communities. In the ancestral environment, being ostracized by one’s community was a death sentence. The panic we feel as a consequence of social judgment is adaptive, because that feeling alerted our ancestors to life-threatening danger.

These two features, prestige and social proof, help explain why American culture has changed so rapidly. We didn’t suddenly become better at evaluating evidence and reasoning our way into cancel culture. Rather, people saw homo sapiens with fancy credentials emotionally express certain beliefs. Those beliefs spread, because most people mimic the views of high-status individuals in the hope that some of that prestige will rub off on them. “If virtuous person says X, and I say X too, then I’m as virtuous as she is.” This is also how celebrity endorsements work.

But sometimes people go even further. They take an article of faith, and stretch it to increase their own reputation. Indeed, in their forthcoming book Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke refer to this as “ramping up.” They observe that, “Moral talk often devolves into a moral arms race, where people make increasingly strong claims… trying to outdo one another… to be the most morally impressive… to signal that they are more attuned to matters of justice.” This creates a spiral such that each person competes in a moral grandstanding contest. At first, people cancel Harvey Weinstein for real offenses. Then then ramp up, change their standards for cancellable offenses, and go after J.K. Rowling for tweets. Still, sometimes doubters remain. And these non-believers do not want to be ostracized from polite society. Thus, they either remain silent or publicly express a belief they do not privately hold.

The US used to export Coca-Cola, television shows, and music. Today, we export outrage, deplatforming, and social mobbing. The fact that cancel culture has seeped into other countries is evidence that American soft power is alive and well. The way things are going, though, eventually the only culture left will be the one that has “cancel” behind it.

 

Rob Henderson is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He obtained a BS in Psychology from Yale University and is a veteran of the US Air Force. You can follow him on Twitter @robkhenderson.

Comments

  1. This is an interesting article. However, even the author points out the biological roots of shunning and shame society, and how deep those roots are. This is no American invention. In fact in its current form it seems more of an import from the former Eastern bloc (and other communist societies). Furthermore, considering that in recent years citizens of the U.K. and Germany, for example, have actually been prosecuted for hate speech, something that goes beyond canceling, I’d say this pandemic is fairly widespread in the western world. I also recall Swedish feminists marching a few years back against random statues of men on horses.

    That being said about the political side, there is a long history of shunning in all the major religions (it’s still widely practiced in islam), and many of America’s homegrown sects practice it with glee. So I do recognize that we may have a particular “gift” for it. But I’d venture, from what I’ve read, that Canada is equally gifted.

  2. While the writer’s heart and mind is in the right place, he does make some sweeping assumptions.

    1. Harvey Weinstein was “rightly jettisoned”. Sure, if you believe women routinely date their rapists for years, and rapists chivalrously pay your bills and treat you to limo rides.
    2. Cancel culture is a “US export”. I wouldn’t be too sure. PC culture has been brewing in many Western nations .The BBC suggested not using the terms AD and BC in 2011. The RhodesMustFall campaigns at all South African universities predated the Evergreen protest by two years.
    3. People are copying celebrities. Not really. Thanks to social media, celebrities do what “little sister” says.

    My opinion, woke is a power play. In Communist Russia, what mattered was not how well you did your job, but how solid your ideology was. This is how someone like Hannah Gadsby -unfunny, unattractive, unpleasant - can thrive as a standup or why Black Panther can be seen as on par with Lawrence of Arabia.

  3. I do not find this article persuasive.
    The author bases his claim that a country like the Netherlands is “importing” cancel-culture from the US on one quote from one sociologist and one example of -his own- video being taken down.
    That’s not meaningful data in any sense.

    I am familiar with the Netherlands, having lived there half my life.
    Dutch culture has always been marked by people being in each other’s business and being highly critical of one another.

  4. Exactly, being from the Netherlands myself I can only concur, it’s hard to find people more self-righteous than the Dutch. But that only makes it worse, if even in the USA with it’s strong tradition of individual freedom and rights cancel culture can root itself, how far worse will it be in the Netherlands and other European countries.

  5. I’d agree with you. Also, next to the Netherlands, you have Germany, and many Germans had sympathy for the Baader Meinhoff Gang on a far greater scale than Americans sympathized with, let’s say, the Symbionese Liberation Army. And it is hard to separate the far left from political correctness since the term has its roots in Leninism.

    Saying political correctness is an American invention would be …gasp, sputter … cultural appropriation.

  6. Myself born and living in the Netherlands, I can confirm the opinion expressed in replies by authors from the Netherlands: underneath a calm surface a culture of political correctness was already taking hold of many parts of society but a spark from outside (USA) was the trigger to let this anger erupt in the Netherlands. So the title “America Exports Cancel Culture” is in my opinion not correct. A better title would be in my opinion “Events in America are a trigger for opportunists in the rest of the world to test if they can enforce their opinion on the society without resistance from reasonable people”.

  7. I agree with the authors concern about cancel culture but he reinforces one of the largest popular expressions of it in his use of Harvey Wienstein as an example of where general condemnation was justified. The essence of cancel culture is that people are collectively punished for perceived infractions without any due process and without there being a clear code against which the infractions can be judged. This is partly what gives it power everyone is potentially vulnerable and there is no defence against accusations and therefore everyone is afraid to be subject to it.

    Harvey Weinstein appears to be a rather unpleasant individual who took advantage of his position but his convictions are the essence of cancel culture because they flew in the face of the evidence unless you believe sexual assault victims continue to send friendly messages and actively pursue intimate meetings with their attacker. There is a far stronger case against his accusers for perjury than there is for his guilt. He was convicted because of the cancel culture storm around him and the rampant sexual discrimination in modern society which argues women should always be believed and that men are abusers and abusive and that denials are themselves further abuse. He may have committed other assaults but the ones taken to trial were false accusations beyond reasonable doubt.

    I believe Weinstein was a classic Hollywood figure using his position to gain sexual favours but everyone knew this and the alleged victims were eager to provide those sexual favours in return for his patronage. When interacting with genuinely naive actresses he may have gone beyond this but his conviction and the destruction of his business in the face of the evidence and the focus of blame on him as a man while praising those who instigated and colluded in the trade of sex for stardom and then lied outrageously about their involvement is not just hypocritical and sexist but should worry everyone for the implications about the impossibility of a fair hearing if accused of crimes which fit a political narrative.

  8. Bit of a diversion from the article, but I would like to point out that it’s not just The Left that has embraced cancel culture. The Right happily threw Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes under the bus. When the multiracial Proud Boys beat the shit out of Antifa after being attacked, who did US law side with? Antifa. Did conservatives defend the Proud Boys. Oh no, they didn’t want to be linked to a “Nazi” group. Lauren Southern, gone. Jordan Peterson, gone. Lots of Republicans want Trump gone. And then, voila, we will have nothing between us and the mob except the most dickless and spineless conservatives ever.

  9. Didn’t The Scarlet Letter make it clear that cancel culture is old and never-ending? If not, what about witch trials, Inquisitions, McCarthyism and even the voting notion of “throw the bums out”?

  10. I once suggested to a Swedish friend, that America’s worst export was Affirmative Action, Political Correctness, etc. He said I was wrong. America’s worst export is “Gangsta” / Hip hop. Over time, I have come to agree with him. The dominant culture in Europe’s (ever growing) ghettos isn’t Islam, much less Radical Islam, it is Gangsta. Traditional conservative Islam would be a vast improvement over Gangsta.

    Cancel culture is no doubt a bad export. However, compared to Gangsta it is still small potatoes.

  11. IMO social media is too easily manipulated by influencers to control a group of smart phone addicts, and the Press is either cynically supporting Cancel Culture (Jeff Bezos owns WaPo) or too weak (afraid?) and or beholden to social media group think to challenge it. Time for the regulators to step in and end the madness. Time to treat the internet as a public utility. Small chatrooms like Quillette are private clubs. Facebook and Twitter are no longer private clubs, they are monopolies of a new form of public media outlet. Google is a monopoly. Amazon is a monopoly. Even little old Snopes needs oversight. I see Cancel Culture as a form of pollution. No different than exhaust from cars or smoke from chimneys.

  12. Instead of seeing this as a competition for the ‘honor’ of having invented cancel culture, it makes more sense to realize that there are people in all countries who are willing to use such methods in their struggle for status and power, given the opportunity. America is somewhat in the spotlight here because it generally receives more attention than the Netherlands, but they did not invent the concept.

    Variants of cancel culture have been seen during the French revolution, in the purges of Stalin’s Soviet Union, in the campaigns of Nazi student fraternities against Jewish professors and scholars, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and on many other occasions when radical progressive zeal became the dominant political current. The main difference from the past is that today the phenomenon is no longer limited to a single country, but all Western countries are affected simultaneously and more or less to the same degree.

    I agree with the author that the fight for prestige and peer pressure are among the main driving forces behind this. Status is a zero-sum game: Your gain is necessarily other people’s loss. And if you want to rise further than your abilities would allow, it helps immensely to do so as part of a powerful movement and with the quasi-religious zeal of those who feel that they simply deserve to rise above others. Each elimination of a canceled opponent means more opportunities for the aggressors. That’s extremely rewarding. And it’s not gonna end anytime soon.

  13. I do think “little sister” rules the roost though. Take JK Rowling, for example. It’s amazing how many adult women worshipped her. Rowling probably imagined herself a mother figure, that her little babies would always adore her. She probably thought most would admire her tweet, and her brood would stand by her side. Instead, the usual opprobrium followed. Hell, even the little wimp who got rich off of her snubbed her. Celebrities can be idolized or demonized on a moment’s notice. Little sister is the star maker.

  14. I grew being taught by American TV that characters who said “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” got killed before the end of the show.

  15. For the last 60 years, the intellectuals explained to us there are no savages and barbarians, only “savages” and “barbarians”; and conversely, that there is no western civilization, only “civilization”.

    Naturally, the result of intellectuals not distinguishing between barbarism and civilization - the equivalent of physicians not distinguishing between sickness and health - had been the massive growth of barbarism and savagery in the west, since nobody is defending civilization.

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