Of all the terms to gain prominence in 2019, few have provoked more pontification, more pearl-clutching, or more caustic dismissal than “cancel culture.” Depending on where you get your discourse, you’ve probably already seen the phenomenon blamed on any of several culprits: technology (social media and the internet), pathology (the growing cachet of “victimhood” and its attendant incentives to claims of harm), or even one political tribe in particular (“So much for the tolerant left!”). Or, alternatively, you’ve heard that it’s not a phenomenon at all, and that all this talk of cancellation is just the world’s-tiniest-violin lament of a bunch of cultural dinosaurs, whining as they’re rightly crushed into irrelevance under the wheels of progress.
But the entire cancel culture conversation, including the debate over whether or not it exists at all, has largely missed a crucial point. While celebrities, successful artists, and other too-big-to-fail types can survive a cancellation (or even seek one out as a means of drumming up publicity), the rest of us are trapped in an increasingly deranged surveillance state fueled by the disappearance of our most essential resource: trust.
In a large, diverse country, trust is the thing that keeps us living in harmony and content to let other people live as they wish, but its erosion is an institutional problem as much as an interpersonal one. Three years after Donald Trump won the presidency with promises to “drain the swamp” of untrustworthy, corrupt D.C., Americans have very little faith in the systems that keep the country running, including government, business, and media. Between 2017 and 2018, trust in media, for example, dropped from 47% to 42%. Trust in government declined even more precipitously, with a 14-percentage-point drop in the number of people who said they trusted the U.S. to “do what is right.” While those numbers rebounded by a few points in 2019, Americans’ overall faith in the country remained dismal: A mere 20% of Americans agreed that the system was working for them.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of fake news, along with political polarization, makes it difficult even to establish an agreed-upon set of facts from which to draw conclusions when we talk about this trust problem. We aren’t sure what’s real or true; we don’t know who’s wrong. But increasingly, we suspect that everyone is.
And that’s the insidious thing about a culture where trust is eroding: A majority of people don’t even have to support or participate in cancel culture for it to wreak havoc on society at large. In a recent New York Times article about political polarization, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained how small pockets of concentrated outrage can produce immense destructive force: “You can tell me that 70 percent of Americans don’t participate in the culture war, but it doesn’t really matter,” he wrote. “Events today are driven by small numbers that can shame and intimidate large numbers. Social media has changed the dynamic.”
Haidt compares this scolding minority to arsonists, but to me, the current dynamic is more evocative of an Agatha Christie-style dinner party where all the guests are being blackmailed—or killed off one by one as punishment for their sins. Once the terrifying truth is acknowledged (“One of us in this very room is in fact the murderer!”) the only safe strategy is to trust no one, and the bodies keep piling up. It doesn’t matter that most people are willing to live and let live; it only takes one busy, tunneling mole to weaken our social structures to the point of collapse.
Perhaps because of the media-specific connotations of “cancellation,” the cancel culture discourse often centers on art, comedy, literature, and other familiar fronts in the culture wars. But it’s both bigger and more banal than that: Cancel culture is most apparent in the lives of ordinary people, who feel more powerless than ever to change the systems they feel are working against them, and for whom canceling their enemies allows the comforting illusion of control. Cancel culture is a parent combing the Facebook pages of local elementary school teachers in search of immorality (in the form of dancing, drinking, or dating) that she then reports to the superintendent—or an administrator firing a teacher after her ex-boyfriend leaks her nudes. In the latter case, the district superintendent told Lauren Miranda that she had “caused, allowed, or otherwise made it possible for a nude and/or inappropriate photograph of yourself to be distributed,” by not taking “adequate precautionary measures.” Translation: You shouldn’t have trusted your boyfriend. You shouldn’t trust anyone! Ever!
Cancel culture is a reporter digging through the Twitter history of a security guard who raised $1 million for charity to discover that he posted something racist when he was 16; it’s the reporter losing his job when a thousand outraged people respond in kind; and it’s also the newspaper, asked to rethink its role in enabling this sort of petty offense archaeology, instead describing the act of digging through old tweets as a routine background check: the institutionalization of mistrust happening in real time.
Cancel culture is the story of Kim Brooks, who allowed her son to wait in the car while she ran a quick errand, only to be filmed, arrested, and charged with child endangerment: not just canceled, but criminalized. For this unforgivable parenting failure (aka the thing virtually anyone born before 1990 remembers as a normal and natural part of their own childhoods), Brooks got off with a “light” sentence of community service and parenting classes—but the disruptive impact of the incident is permanent. After her arrest, Brooks wrote, “I worry that if I let my son play in the alley with the other kids and don’t follow him down because there are already eight responsible adults standing around, I’ll be thought of as the slacker mom who’s not pulling her own. And so I accompany when I probably don’t need to. I supervise and hover and interfere.”
As do we all. This is how we live now, under penalty of cancellation: in a culture of screencapping, filming, and snitching. Offense-seeking and finger-pointing. It’s intolerance on steroids.
It is also, unfortunately, a culture in which our petty and vindictive impulses don’t just have an easy outlet in the form of social media, but where those impulses are rewarded the more we indulge them. Social media isn’t just dissolving our concept of privacy; it encourages public conflict over interpersonal resolution (let alone minding your own business), and it erases the tempering effects of time, distance, or personal growth. Before social media, the stupid joke you made among friends 10 years ago would fade from memory long before it had a chance to age poorly. Now, millions of people will read and react to to a tweet from 2009 as though it had been written yesterday—while Twitter’s chaos-fomenting algorithm promotes the least charitable, most savage responses to the top of the heap. The result is a petri-dish environment for the internet’s worst Iago types, who manipulate the fearful majority to emerge as powerful influencers (or, you know, U.S. presidents); for the rest of us, it’s as toxic as it is inescapable.
It’s been more than two years since Freddie deBoer penned Planet of Cops, one of the first and still best analyses of the fear that feeds our current climate. Cancel culture, callout culture, cop culture: it’s all the same.
“We are all informants on each other,” deBoer wrote. “Contemporary political culture is an autoimmune disorder. Do you enjoy living like this? Are you not exhausted? Don’t you want to break out?”
For many, clearly, the answer to that question is yes. But breaking out requires an understanding currently missing from the cancel culture conversation: The real danger is not to Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr, or Louis C.K. This isn’t about P.C. madness, the social justice excesses that erupt on college campuses but not, for the most part, in the wider world. It’s not about an insufficiently sensitive monologue on pansexuality from a pubescent cartoon character. Without trust, we become fearful and desperate to exert control. Instead of terrorism or violence or a boogeyman lurking in the bushes with a gun and a roll of duct tape, we suspect the ordinary person sitting next to us, who suspects us in return. We are less charitable, more judgmental, and more likely to go to extremes—including violence—in a quest to protect our own interests from the unknowable strangers around us, who naturally mistrust us in return. Even if you want to break that cycle, do you want to be the first? To delete the screencaps, burn the receipts, and move through the world without looking back every few steps to make sure nobody is watching; to value private resolutions over public denunciation; to go back to assuming the best of people, when you think of them at all: All of this is possible, but it will take an act of faith. Someone brave enough to not only step away from the herd, but to trust it not to trample him.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.