Psychology Today March/April 2020 pp36-38 “What Propels Cancel Culture?” “Human nature may lead people to magnify moral transgressions” by Rob Henderson
You might remember Carson King the college student whose sign “Busch Light Supply Needs Replacement” was captured during an ESPN college football broadcast. Because he included his Venmo username in what became "viral" he inadvertantly raised $3,000,000. Although, except for buying a case of beer, he donated all that money to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, he was subsequently trolled by Aaron Calvin, a writer for the Des Moines Register. Aaron pointed out that in 2012, “King had tweeted two racist jokes”. “Anheuser-Busch and other companies….then “distanced themselves”. Poetic justice, you might say, as Aaron Calvin was fired after being found to have past racist and homophobic tweets. This is the Cancel Culture.
What motivates such “Pointing out an individual’s flaws”? Rather than doing something positive, which takes work and the chance of failure, cancelling is an easy way posting on social media to increase one’s perception of social status while reducing those of your target and others. It, in a way, “demonstrates your commitment to community” and may force those in your circle and others “reveal themselves”. Is someone a fake friend or real friend to be counted on in a pinch. Today we aren't doing "barn raising", "helping with the harvest" or "hunting together for food" leaving us with few examples to truly know how we align with others.
Is cancelling a one size fit all? As the Carson King story reveals “moral transgressions” are magnified as never before. Research now shows a form of ascertainment bias may be involved in taking the moral high ground and calling out others. If you change the set of behaviors, being evaluated, from major transgressions to minor transgressions, human nature is to nonetheless single out the worse examples.
Henderson closes the article “We crave social status…[but have] evolved the ability to reason, reflect, and consider alternate futures…we can be more mindful of how we respond to bad behavior”.