The cancel club. Credit: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

July 28, 2021   5 mins

You can break a monkey very easily if you have the right equipment. Specifically, you need an item called the Pit of Despair. The Pit comes in two sizes — baby and adult — but both share the same basic design, summarised by inventor Harry Harlow like this: “troughs constructed of stainless steel, open at the top, with sides that slope inward to a rounded bottom that forms one-half of a cylinder.” Once your monkey is contained in its Pit, it cannot escape. It is the ultimate in solitary confinement.

The effects of the Pit are profound, and lasting. “You could take a perfectly happy monkey, drop it into the chamber, and bring out a perfectly hopeless animal within half a week,” explained one historian of Harlow’s work. But while you can’t fault the efficiency of the Pit, you might still be wondering about its utility. Why, exactly, would anyone want to go around psychologically destroying monkeys? And Harlow didn’t stop with the Pit of Despair: his creations also include the Tunnel of Terror, the Wire Mother and the Rape Rack.

The primate experiments Harlow did in the mid-twentieth century are painful to read about, and more painful to watch, if you search for the footage on YouTube. His aim, he said, was “to facilitate production of depression or other emotionally abnormal behaviours” in order to study them, but that barely describes the total dysfunction he created: monkeys raised in this kind of deprivation were so socially incompetent, they didn’t even know how to mate (hence the Rape Rack, since this was before artificial insemination was an option). When females had babies, they either neglected or — in some cases — attacked them.

One way to understand Harlow’s work is that he was interested in love. He studied it by removing it entirely from the lives of his monkeys. He forced them to be absolutely individual, entirely alone, and in this condition they ceased to be anything like their natural selves. Without other monkeys, there could effectively be no singular monkey. Even at the remove of all these decades, there’s something shocking about this insight — about what it means for humans, as well as the monstrous way Harlow came to it.

As primates go, humans are bigger and smarter than Harlow’s monkeys, but still primates. We still need other humans more than we need almost anything else. As a species, we can survive in the most inhospitable conditions. We’ve colonised blazing deserts and sub-zero wastelands. We can even live in space, albeit for short stretches. But what we can’t do is live on our own. Isolation is, simply, dehumanising. Even Ayn Rand, empress of individualism, needed to surround herself with acolytes to really feel that she was Ayn Rand.

When it’s done to prisoners, it drives them to self-harm and suicide. Eventually, they experience “social atrophy”, and like Harlow’s monkeys, lose the ability to interact with other people at all. In the considerably less horrific privations of lockdown, people have still felt the lack of casual contact as a debilitating loss — the absence of those seemingly trivial “weak tie” connections with people you know a bit but not all that well, the lack of occasion for smalltalk with a stranger. Those who seek solitude would still prefer someone to share it with: monasteries began when all the hermits in the desert started coming together to pray.

It’s impossible to talk about cancel culture without acknowledging how fiercely social humans are. As frightening as it is to experience threats of violence, as disturbing as it is to suffer abuse, what’s truly dreadful is the feeling of being ostracised. There’s no “I” without a “we” to reflect it back to you. When the “I” in other people’s eyes is a gross, despicable caricature of who you think you are, that’s an attack on your fundamental sense of yourself as human, broadcast on the inhuman scale of social media.

Taking part in UnHerd’s panel on cancel culture and the arts this week, what was notable was that the participants (artist Jess de Wahls and musician Winston Marshall) talked less about financial costs or lost opportunities than they did about the emotional toll. When the model and influencer Chrissy Teigen jokes about being a member of “cancel club”, and talks about making contact with fellow cancellees, the punchline is that she still longs to belong, even if it is with all the other rejects.


Of course, one of the things about cancellation is that the very fact of it happening to you means you’ve been marked as a person whose feelings are of no account. If you talk about it being painful, you’re either being insincere (as one article argued, J. K. Rowling can’t be cancelled while “still raking in millions a year”) or you’re experiencing a deserved punishment (as the same article argued, all the rape and death threats and the repudiation of her fandom were simply “the consequences of her actions”). There’s no way to argue yourself back into other people’s sympathy, because the reasoning is that unless you deserved it, you would never be in this situation.

And most horribly, cancellation spreads like a black mould, corroding even your closest relationships as people deemed “toxic” by their association with you are picked off. When Marshall left his band Mumford and Sons following attacks on him for praising Right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo, one of the striking things about his statement was how much it focused on the distress his situation was causing his bandmates. Quitting was a way of cauterising their association with him. Isolating yourself further becomes the only way to show your loyalty.

It doesn’t really matter what you think of the reason for someone being cancelled — whether you think they were in the wrong, or a brave truth-speaker, or simply naive on the public stage. What’s significant here is the extremity of the cruelty in the punishment. And it is cruel: I hear teenagers now use the word “cancelled” the way people once talked about “being sent to Coventry”, to describe a particular kind of bullying where someone is declared persona non grata and iced out of the group.

That there may be a spurious political motivation for doing this when it comes to public figures doesn’t make the act itself political. But what gives cancellation its power to wound is the same thing that makes people go along with it. There’s a joy to being one of the crowd — to saying the words you know will win you approval and being raised up by your peers. So what if those words are an attack on someone else’s life, livelihood and friendships? (The act that got Teigen belatedly inducted into cancel club herself was sending death threats to a teenage reality star in 2011.)

But there’s fear as well as exhilaration. The ultimate proof of the bad faith of those who relish taking part in cancellations is that most of them wouldn’t be half so enthusiastic if they weren’t scared of it happening to them. Everyone knows it hurts. That’s exactly why they do it. To fail to participate would mean not only to risk losing admiration from those around you, but possibly to become a target yourself. And nobody wants to find themselves in the Pit of Despair. Nobody wants to feel like a non-human, even if the price of fitting in is doing something fundamentally inhumane to someone else.

It’s a mistake to talk about cancel culture as though it belongs to any particular tribe. It’s not a manifestation of Left-wing censoriousness or Right-wing rage — or not fundamentally, at any rate. It’s what happens when you put several billion monkeys in front of several billion smartphones. What makes it more pernicious is that we all have access to so many more people who can reject us: even if someone would never have crossed your path before they rock up to denounce you, there’s still a sting in it.

And when it happens, you go through it alone, in the privacy that exists between yourself and your handset. Even if you’re in the company of other people, it’s possible to feel entirely separate in the middle of a pile-on. Harlow’s Pit of Despair was precisely tooled for its purpose, but social media means we all carry a potential version of it in our pockets, ready to enclose us whenever we breach some fatal rule of etiquette that puts us at the bottom of that inescapable chamber.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.