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Why Is Cancel Culture Such a Big Part of Our Lives Today?

To understand the Twitter mob’s destruction of lives and careers, it’s essential to address the immense power of groupthink

Just in time for International Women’s Day, Emma Camp, a female student at the University of Virginia, reports experiencing a wave of hostility when she suggested that non-Indian women could legitimately criticize the practice of suttee, by which a woman burns to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, voluntarily or otherwise. The reaction on Twitter suggests that Cancel Culture is its lifeblood.

Meanwhile, virologist Julie Overbaugh, a National Academy of Sciences member who has made many contributions to the study of viruses, has been forced out of her teaching and research leadership positions because she had worn a Michael Jackson costume to a Halloween “King of Pop” party in 2009. Curiously, although one of her cited offences in connection with the party was “blackface,” Canada’s very Woke Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has never faced any serious pushback for donning blackface more times than he can remember.

It’s not hard to see that a mob psychology is at work here, one that has little to do with traditional liberal aspirations.

Andrew Mahon

Commentator Andrew Mahon offers some thoughts at MercatorNet on what’s happening here:

George Orwell invented the term “groupthink” for his dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949. A few years later, the term was already in clinical use to describe a common psychological phenomenon.

The idea is that people have a tendency to conform their own thoughts to those of the people around them, while believing themselves to be independent thinkers. Peer pressure is at least an important element in groupthink. With successful propaganda, bad actors can take advantage of groupthink, as a technique with which to control a society. This is what happens in Orwell’s novel.

Andrew Mahon, “Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating” at MercatorNet (March 7, 2022)

In unpacking groupthink, Mahon offers the insights of French philosopher René Girard (1923–2015) on mob violence, Gerard argued that we not only copy our thinking from others, we also copy our desires. That is, if everyone wants platform shoes or a face mask outdoors, inescapably, we might too. Otherwise, we stand out, maybe in ways that attract attention.

And it’s not an idly meandering current:

Gradually, society bifurcates into antagonistic groups, each united by a common hatred of the other. As one group gets larger than the other its hatred of it grows, rather than reduces, in proportion to its increasing superiority. When the larger group includes almost all of society, it becomes a mob, and seeks the annihilation of the smaller group, or in some cases, the individual—the scapegoat, onto whom it has channeled all its hostility.

Andrew Mahon, “Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating” at MercatorNet (March 7, 2022)

Except, of course, for one other source of the mob’s rage — anyone who defends the scapegoat:

For the mob, the scapegoat is the source of all problems, and must be eliminated for the greater good. Nearly everyone in the mob believes this, and anyone who challenges it is denounced and banished. Few dare question the mob, and instead succumb to groupthink. It’s much easier.

Andrew Mahon, “Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating” at MercatorNet (March 7, 2022)

Obviously, a liberal and tolerant society will not survive repeated onslaughts of groupthink — and it is not intended to either, as we shall see.

Rene Girard

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has also reflected on the question of how social media turn coffee klatches into Cancel Culture mobs, likewise citing René Girard:

The internet provides two dynamics that inflame hatred and even violence: obscurity and contagion. By obscurity, I mean that the traditional “one-on-one” nature of personal attacks is circumvented by the anonymity of the internet. On the internet. you can personally attack someone without ever seeing them, knowing them, or being anywhere near them. You can attack people in a way that leads to violence against them without your own identity ever coming to light. The anonymity of the internet and the distance it creates between an attacker and his victim both lend an obscurity to the attack that is much more dangerous to the victim and much more desirable for the attacker. It is even possible to harm others unintentionally through the spread of errors and misunderstandings which are so common to internet communication…

The internet is also an accelerant, a multiplier of attack. It spreads rage like a disease (contagion).

Michael Egnor, “How the internet turns coffee klatches into mobs” at Mind Matters News (February 1, 2019)

We lose a sense of responsibility for our irrational hostilities when we are only one of a huge crowd (contagion).

The COVID-19 pandemic was a textbook case, Mahon argues:

You either accepted the narrative as presented by the politicians, experts, and media, or you were in the other group—a victim or purveyor of misinformation and disinformation, a something-denier, an anti-something. There was no room for nuance, subtlety, scepticism, independent analysis of evidence, or even honest questions. There was only a binary choice: pro or con. And the more successful the propaganda, the more powerful the groupthink, and the larger the pro-narrative group became.

Andrew Mahon, “Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating” at MercatorNet (March 7, 2022)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expertly exploited the drivers of Cancel Culture in his response to protestors against measures taken during the COVID panic:

First, it was the lockdown sceptics that attracted the mob’s hostility, then the “anti-maskers”. But the unvaccinated proved to be the best scapegoat candidate of all. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau illustrated this perfectly, when he said of the “anti-vaxxers”: “They don’t believe in science, they’re often misogynistic, often racist. They take up space, and with that we have to make a choice—in terms of a leader in a country—do we tolerate these people?”

Andrew Mahon, “Groupthink today: an endless circle of scapegoating” at MercatorNet (March 7, 2022)

He didn’t tolerate them. The ferocity of his response attracted international attention even as Twitter mobs approved it:

Science will certainly not emerge as the winner if Cancel Culture prevails because, as the Royal Society has pointed out, the history of science is one of error correction and errors cannot be corrected unless opposing views are permitted to be aired.

But that would run contrary to the guiding principle of Cancel Culture’s groupthink, as explained by science fiction writer Frank Herbert (1920–1986) in Children of Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”

The internet, which was supposed to liberate, is increasingly becoming a direct challenge to the bases of a free society.


You may also wish to read:

How the internet turns coffee klatches into mobs A philosopher sheds light on how the Covington high school kids became America’s Most Hated. The chaos and violence rising in our own country and around the world get much of their fuel from the obscurity and contagion of the internet, which is kerosene sprayed on the sparks tossed up by civilization. If we are to survive this conflagration, we must understand how these fires grow. (Michael Egnor)

and

Royal Society: Don’t censor misinformation; it makes things worse. While others demand crackdowns on “fake news,” the Society reminds us that the history of science is one of error correction. It’s a fact that much COVID news later thought to need correction was in fact purveyed by official sources, not blogs or Facebook or Twitter accounts.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Why Is Cancel Culture Such a Big Part of Our Lives Today?