Tearing Down the Trauma Tents of Cancel Culture, Building a Brighter, Shared Future

“The nuance lies in disrobing large-group identity. Seeing other people as individuals, rather than as two-dimensional cut-outs, opens up room for more possibilities for meaning and connection. Become yourself, and stop confusing yourself with the tent wall. “(Dr. Grant Hilary Brenner) 

Even as we battle another Delta-variant-induced pandemic wave of COVID-19, we are simultaneously fighting another more subtle, but equally pernicious disease that threatens to infect us all: cancel culture. To be fair, there are elements of social justice embedded in cancel culture that are worthy of adulation.

I agree that certain statues, which are directly connected to the institution of slavery, should be addressed, including removing or at the very least relocating them to a proper context, such as a museum. The same goes for the Confederate flag. I recognize how this is a symbol for all that is evil for Black people, and they should not have to be subjected to it.

Toronto-based journalist Sarah Hagi points out, “I’m a black, Muslim woman, and because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before. That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to.” Monisha Rajesh, a British writer, makes a similar point, saying, “Cancel culture is a term bounced around by people afraid of accountability. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.” Both Hagi and Rajesh are correct, and we should support efforts to tamp down on hate because being completely silent about them is tantamount to condoning, and implicitly supporting and validating their existence.

Still, when judging the ethical nature of something, it’s always a matter of assessing the degree to which it is implemented. In the essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell wrote that “known facts are suppressed and distorted to such an extent as to make it doubtful whether a true history of our times can ever be written.” This suppression of historical reality, no matter how painful, is dangerous for all its attendant reasons. We all are familiar with the aphorism that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” Still, there are rational arguments for revising history to be more inclusive, especially the darker aspects that sought to marginalize voices not connected to the power structures. 

Yet, with canceled culture, we are alarmingly approaching a danger zone that not only threatens freedom of speech but is rapidly polarizing society in ways from which we may never recover. So ironically, even as it champions inclusivity, the psychology of cancel culture is dichotomous in nature, breaking us into two camps. Whether you want to label these camps as oppressor vs. oppressed or victimizer vs. victim, is ultimately irrelevant. The larger dynamic being forged is an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. In this world, inclusivity is merely a relevant term to apply within the respective camps, never outside them, thereby rending them as hypocritical creations. 

As Abhijit Naskar, neuroscientist and international bestselling author of numerous books, warns, “In a civilized world even bigots have a voice, but in a bigoted world, the only place where you can find reason and inclusion is prison.” Of course, Naskar is being a bit hyperbolic, but his point is still valid, which is: It’s impossible to find unity, and therefore a sense of peace when we continually demonize one another. The question is, what is the psychological impulse behind this animus? 

If you think about identity as a tent you belong in, then it’s not hard to understand how we identify with a particular tent. Inside the tent, people wear clothing, which is a projection of their values and worldview. This clothing, or outer identity, not only identifies them as a member of the tent, thereby creating security and belonging, it also sends an unmistakable signal to people in other tents: “You, nor your ideas and opinions, belong in this tent.”

As the psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner, writes, “The individual comes to identify with what is on the outside of the tent, adopting not only the views of the culture but typically those of leaders who powerfully voice those views. The deposited ideas are the same in every person in the group, constituting large-group identity by virtue of being shared the same by all. Negative group identity facilitates intergenerational trauma by creating and recreating the perception that the other is the enemy, and must be destroyed, or canceled.”

Beyond the obvious alienation, which makes a connection, and even basic dialogue impossible, this dynamic pushes people further into their respective tent identities. Dr. Brenner argues, “Attempting to rip denial away from people who hold hateful ideologies may provide relief and serve to move cultural progress in more egalitarian directions—often presenting itself as the only viable path forward when dialogue and empathy are impossible—but predictably results in eruptions of violence, galvanizing of hateful ideology, and acceleration of primitive psychological defenses.”

When we see another person and his or her beliefs as not only inherently flawed but fundamentally evil, we will never take a moment to ponder their perspective. Rather, it is easier to label them as a racist, or equally, a “libtard.” The more we insist on a defensive, reflexive posture rather than actively listening to one another, the more we validate the groupthink that permeates our psycho-cultural tents. 

The end result is that we are so sure that our fellow tent companions are unerringly correct in their supposition about all matters that we never venture out of this emotional safety zone. In doing so, we never challenge our thinking, thus potentially transforming it into a type of orthodoxy. This means we fail to learn or grow because growth requires us to periodically challenge our thinking. When we challenge our thinking, we literally grow our brains by increasing our neuronal connections. 

As Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, frames it:  “It turns out that the human brain has a great potential for something called neuronal plasticity, or in other words, being highly malleable. It appears that challenging our brains — for example, by learning a new skill — leads to actual changes in the adult brain. It may create new connections between brain cells by changing the balance of available neurotransmitters and changing how connections are made.” 

However, staying in our tents, never changing the clothes of our thoughts, and speaking only the narrow language of our chosen group causes us to avoid growth. In doing so, we avoid confrontation of our most cherished beliefs, thus stunting the process of neuroplasticity. Ensconced in moral righteousness, we dismiss through labels those that might potentially give us pause, and, God forbid, let in a thought, a belief, or a perception that doesn’t resonate with our self-imposed echo chamber of reality.

In essence, the label is the truth, and this particular narrow truth is the only reality we suffer, lest we endure the unbearable phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. Ultimately, as means of self-preservation of our group identity, we continually act in ways that cut off sources of love, choosing to see our dismissal of others as a form of triumph over people in the “other” tent.

However, this form of success is an illusion that perpetuates isolation, further entrenching us in a form of social narcissism. Dr. Brenner warns of the consequences of this path: “The nuance lies in disrobing large-group identity. Seeing other people as individuals, rather than as two-dimensional cut-outs, opens up room for more possibilities for meaning and connection. Become yourself, and stop confusing yourself with the tent wall.” 

And beyond this isolation, there is another price we pay when we insist on canceling everything and everyone. In our rush to cancel things, we are missing an opportunity to actually effectively resolve our difference by creating allies, rather than opponents in the process. To be sure, this shared building of our future is fraught with complications, tensions, and potentially hurt feelings along the way. But what we build with one another will unlikely be easily torn down because it was a collective effort, a shared vision that we are equally responsible for nurturing.

At the end of the day, this is a form of love at the highest level, not because it is without conflict, but because it overcomes conflict with mutual pain and benefit. Rather than the life-draining polemics of cancel culture and the equally strident responses as a measure of success, we must endeavor to use this version of love as a new yardstick. 

Naskar has it right when he says, “Success for me will be the day when all humans everywhere will stand up with a sense of unity and call themselves humans above everything else.”

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