The authors of a recent book perform a valuable social function by clearly showing cancel culture is an ideologically neutral but highly destructive rhetorical technique that more people of all political stripes are using to demean and ignore those with whom we disagree rather than engaging with reason and persuasion.
In The Canceling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott demonstrate that canceling is “part of a dysfunctional way members of our society have learned to argue and battle for power, status, and dominance.”
The authors claim cancel culture arose a decade ago “when social media enabled the almost instantaneous creation of outrage mobs.”
The trend spread on the left via academia and sites like Tumblr and on the right via “conservative outrage media, from radio to cable news” and sites like 4Chan.
The book includes numerous case studies that show how the ACLU, Dave Chappelle, the Federalist Society, Fox News, Josh Hawley, Liberty University, Jordan Peterson, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom and Milo Yiannopoulos go about canceling — or being canceled — in different ways.
As divisions have widened among Americans, many have erected elaborate “rhetorical fortresses,” argumentative barricades and “tactics that we use to insulate ourselves from opposing viewpoints,” the authors contend.
“If your opponent manages to break through one barricade, another layer awaits,” they write. “Anybody’s ideas can be tuned out” as we hold fast to our prized “Thought Terminating Clichés.”
On the left, conservative arguments are undermined by suspicion about motives, they say. Instead of discussing the merits of a case, “Darkly Hint Something Else Is What’s Really Going On,” then ask this series of questions:
- What’s the speaker’s race?
- What’s the speaker’s sex?
- What’s the speaker’s sexuality?
- Can the speaker be accused of being “phobic”?
- Are they guilty by association?
The right’s rhetorical fortress is based on one simple rule, they add: You don’t have to listen to liberals (and anyone can be labeled “liberal” if they have the “wrong” opinion or aren’t pro-Trump).
While MAGA folks complain about cancel culture, many support using state power to punish those guilty of “wrongthink.”
The Canceling of the American Mind makes clear the temptations we face when dealing with those who don’t share our values or worldview.
There are booby traps and land mines on all sides, particularly these three “cheap tactics:”
- Whataboutism:Defending against criticism of your side by bringing up the other side’s alleged wrongdoing.
- Straw-manning:Misrepresenting the opposition’s perspective by constructing a weak, inaccurate version of their argument that can be easily refuted.
- Minimization:Claiming that a problem doesn’t exist or is too small-scale to worry about.
It turns out the cause of cancellation culture is us, particularly those among us who believe in the central untruth of “us versus them,” the authors say, meaning “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
“This is the most destructive of the Great Untruths, found behind almost every conflict between groups, from politics to genocide,” the authors write. “It is part of humanity’s evolved tendency toward tribalism.”
Lukianoff is an attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School. Schlott is a New York City-based journalist and political commentator. She is a research fellow at FIRE.