Are progressives canceling themselves out?

“Cancel culture” — the mass shaming and nullification of politicians, celebrities and companies (think Al Franken, Ellen DeGeneres, J.K. Rowling) after they’ve said or done something considered morally beyond the bounds — is all the buzz right now.

The term is new, but, argues TC psychologist Peter Coleman in The Hill, the practice dates back to the “shaming and shunning” used to promote social cohesion during Puritan times, and has parallels in what the psychologist Michele Gelfand calls “tight cultures” (examples: Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore) with “very clear and strict rules, norms and taboos for social behavior.” 

Such tactics continue to be common in many conservative religious communities in the United States — but “why,” asks Coleman, “this current ascendance of cancellation from the left?”

[Read Coleman’s full piece in The Hill.]

The answer, he suggests, is that “today, progressives are extremely frustrated and enraged” over Donald Trump’s election and the fact that he has “remained, for the most part, untouchable” in the wake of impeachment by the House of Representatives and investigations by Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York that led to it. “Trump has done everything in his power — and even beyond it — to poke his finger in the eye of progressives,” Coleman asserts, “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.”

To its credit, Coleman says, the left has done many positive things to oppose that agenda — but progressives have also turned against one another, “and in doing so, they got tight, meaning, more conforming, rigid and constraining.” He cites Gelfand’s research (in a new book titled Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World) showing that the societies that are most likely to become “tight” are those that have been “living under prolonged states of threat and attack.” The American left has felt under attack since before Trump’s presidency, but as he has fed their discontent, the left “closed ranks and began to institute clearer standards, purity tests and ever harsher sanctioning of its members,” Coleman asserts.

Citing Gelfand’s contention that societies can counteract the negative effects of tightening by diversifying the mix of voices in “the public square,” Coleman suggests that the left can bolster itself and fight cancel culture by encouraging “diversity of thought, conflict and dissonance within the tent of progressives.” Doing so runs the risk of creating a disabling “polythink” (as some critics of this week's Democratic National Convention have asserted) — but for now, Coleman concludes, “debate within the progressive tent is a healthy and necessary one.”