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Getting tight — the psychology of cancel culture

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The current era of cancel culture is upon us. From former Senator Al Franken, to Ellen Degeneres and Amy Cooper, people everywhere are having their lives upended because they violated the current social taboos of their community.

Of course, such communal forms of control through shaming and shunning are nothing new to our shores — they were a staple of the Puritanism of our early Pilgrims — and are today quite common in many religious communities. While these tactics can serve a purpose in shepherding more individualistic societies, they can also easily descend into mob-like forms of vigilante justice.

But why this current ascendance of cancellation from the left? 

Today, progressives are extremely frustrated and enraged. They still can’t believe that Donald Trump was elected president; it’s a hard pill to swallow after the promise of the Obama era. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that he has remained, for the most part, untouchable. This, despite the Mueller Report, which didn’t lead to an indictment but, as Robert Mueller himself doubled down on, didn’t “exonerate” him either. Trump remained untouchable even after being impeached by the House and through the Southern District of New York’s investigations into him and his associates. The list goes on. 

Trump has done everything in his power — and even beyond it — to poke his finger in the eye of progressives. Whether it’s by dismantling every environmental regulation, filling the federal court benches with right-wing activist judges, sometimes seeming to fan the flames of white supremacy, attacking racial equality efforts, disenfranchising minority voters and sabotaging every multilateral treaty that he can, is making the left feel insanely impotent. 

Top that off with Trump’s blatant disregard for the truth, vilification of mainstream media, and proclivity to stoke deep state, QAnon conspiracy theories —  all the while mismanaging the worst public health crisis the world has seen in a century — and you can begin to understand their uncontrollable rage.

So, what have progressives done in response? 

In fact, they’ve done many things, including helping to mobilize some of the largest protest marches in the history of our country against misogyny and racism. 

But they, not unlike the Puritans, have also turned on themselves, and in doing so, they got tight. Meaning, more conforming, rigid and constraining. 

In her fascinating book, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: Tight and Loose Cultures and the Secret Signals That Direct Our Lives,” psychologist Michele Gelfand tells the story of how national and subgroup cultures differ in the degree to which they are tight or loose. Extremely tight cultures, like those found in Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore, have very clear and strict rules, norms and taboos for social behavior. When members of their society deviate from the rules, they’re often met with harsh sanctions from other citizens — similar to our online “cancel culture” today. Looser cultures on the other hand, like in Brazil, Greece and New Zealand, may also have rules, but citizens see them more as guidelines or suggestions, and allow much more room for social deviance and individual expression.  

What is particularly interesting about Gelfand’s research is what she learned about how tightness develops within a group or culture. Her studies suggest that tightness comes from living under prolonged states of threat and attack. Nations that have suffered repeatedly throughout their history — from either alien invasion from other groups, or even from natural disasters — tend to become much tighter, mostly out of necessity. When under threat, groups often find that they need to get in sync —  coordinate and communicate more efficiently and effectively in order to survive. This is precisely why military units across the globe have clear rules, tight norms and often brutal sanctioning regimes for rule-breakers. They need stringent standards in order to survive.

Here in the U.S., one could argue that the political left has felt under attack for some time now. The power of unions have collapsed for decades, from a reach of about 30 percent of workers in the 1950s to below 14 percent today. The political right has long been better funded and organized. The Supreme Court has shifted right. Then came the popularity of FOX News, the Tea Party and, now, Trump and “Trumpism.” In response, the left has closed ranks and began to institute clearer standards, purity tests and ever harsher sanctioning of its members — also known as, cancel culture.

One of the more promising conclusions that Gelfand draws about how groups and communities manage to counteract the more perverse effects of too much tightening, is the power of diversity. If only one group controls the public square, then that group can impose its norms and punishments on all those who dare to deviate. But with a diversity of subgroups within a culture, there is often a constant negotiation of rules and norms and, simply, more tolerance for difference. So things get looser.

What does this all mean for the future of cancel culture in the U.S.? It means that the pushback we have been seeing against those who today rule Twitter and Instagram — challenges from others on the left, such as that evidenced by the Harpers letter —  is a good thing. It is the reinsertion of diversity of thought, conflict and dissonance within the tent of progressives.

Tightening and sanctioning of deviance is at times a functional phase in the life of political groups — until it isn’t. The only danger, of course, is if the current form of groupthink that we see evident in cancel culture swings over to what is called polythink, or the disabling of groups due to the cacophony of the diversity of their opinions. But for now, this debate within the progressive tent is a healthy and necessary one.   

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace.

Tags Al Franken anti-Trump Cancel culture Diversity Donald Trump Donald Trump left left-wing progressive policies progressives Rhetoric Robert Mueller

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