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What’s the worst thing about being cancelled? There's something more frightening than threats and online abuse

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

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.

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Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo”, really?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I also leapt on that statement and was going to question it!

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

Me, too. He’s a courageous, fairminded journalist.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Me too. Here we go, I thought, with the preemptive cringe.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Lately being courageous and fair-minded is all it takes to be declared right-wing, a fascist, a Trump apologist (in the American context), or anything else in the long catalogue leftist terms of abuse. And, the turn of the 21st century Left is easily provoked; though uncovering unpleasant truths as courageous journalists usually do is always provocative. Thus, courageous, fair-minded journalists have become a species of right-wing provocateur.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Agreed – I’ve read one of his books, and unless I’m missing something he is neither a provocateur nor particularly right wing.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Everyone not to the left of Jeremy Corbyn is right wing.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

It might be added that he’s gay and, as his last name indicates, of SE Asian descent, which qualifies as a minority in the US. I stopped reading much after that, as it indicates that the author is pretty woke herself. She is, in effect, siding with the totalitarian thugs of Antifa. And that’s a bridge too far for me.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

He was brutally beaten and his family threatened by Antifa so he dangerously provoked them by relocating to UK.

David B
David B
2 years ago

And “Right-wing” is capitalised as if it were something other than simply holding some unremarkable political opinions, something more akin to an identity perhaps, or membership of a group with a proper noun name…
Insidious to the end.

Oliver Williamson
Oliver Williamson
2 years ago

Indeed. Where did that come from?

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

The author probably feels that she has to describe him as a “right wing provocateur” out of fear of being cancelled – in much the same way she so eloquently describes in this article.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rob Britton
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

Quite right, I suspect. Clearly she feels the threat and fears it.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago

The author doesn’t appear to recognize that this is one of the caricatures that fuels this nonsense.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Gunner Myrtle

That one ridiculous, baseless line discredits her whole argument in this article

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

“Cancel culture is bad, BUT…”
A shame really. Otherwise it was an insightful and interesting article.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Watson
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Sarah Ditum really is a bit hit & miss, isn’t she.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

And there I was thinking that the act of cancellation is far, far more prevalent amongst the social justice warriors. But wait, that is still my position.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

“It’s not a manifestation of Left-wing censoriousness or Right-wing rage”.

The author is half right. It’s not a manifestation of Right-wing rage.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I would have been more sympathetic to the author’s plight if I hadn’t read most of her Unherd articles and, as a consequence, researched a little about her work.
Ms. Ditum has written extensively on women’s rights and the alleged discrimination women face in society. In her brand of feminism, the ultimate cause of women’s problems is almost invariably men, aka the collective patriarchy. Men are all tarred with the same brush as misogynists. The possibility that some (many? perhaps even most?) men are not misogynists is not considered. Those advancing a more positive view of men can expect to be vilified, dismissed or even, dare I say it, cancelled.
Now the author finds herself ostracized for allegedly making an ideologically unsound remark. Her pain is doubtless real and I strongly believe her cancellation was wrong and the action of cowards.
As I watched the clip from the Unherd interview on which this article is based, I was immediately reminded of Freddie Sayers’ interview with Suzanne Moore last year. Ms. Moore is a well-known feminist journalist with a long association with The Guardian (as does Ms. Ditum) until she resigned (or was pushed out) for making remarks deemed transphobic. Her interview with Freddie was full of cloying self-pity. Like the author of the present article she seemed to lack self-awareness. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of them that the treatment they have each received at the hands of the ‘progressives’ is not so different to the treatment they so enthusiastically dish out to men. They would happily ‘cancel’ the notion of a decent man, of a man who is not a potential sexual abuser, and the possibility that not all women’s problems can be ascribed to the ‘patriarchy’.
My comment will doubtless seem a bit harsh because Ms. Ditum’s distress is obviously real and I should be more instinctively sympathetic. But her interview also struck me as slightly disingenuous; a moralizer ostracized by more effective moralizers.
I was looking forward to watching the entire Unherd event in which Ms. Ditum participated. I sincerely hope there’s more to it than a bunch of cancelled people sitting in a circle sharing their woes. Whether he, she or they, self pity is unappealing.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The point with which bigots such as Ditum, Bindel, Moore etc will not engage is that this imagined “patriarchy” that supposedly disadvantages women also disadvantages men in equal measure.
In 2020 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs were women, but equally, 32.9 million other UK men and 33.75 other UK women weren’t FTSE CEOs either. 84,000 people are in prison in the UK of whom 80,000 are men, and 142 people were killed at work last year – in both cases, roughly the same men:women proportion as FTSE 100 CEOs.
Ms Ditum and her fellow travellers either know this but won’t acknowledge it, in which case they are too intellectually dishonest to bother with, or they don’t know it, in which case they are too intellectually deficient to bother with. Whichever it comes down to, the appropriate response to their witterings is the same.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Thanks. “And then they came for me”. Sad.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There is something satisfying about feminists getting canceled for their gender critical views – the revolution devours it’s young – but we have to push past that and support their freedom of speech, etc, even though you know they will turn on us at the first opportunity.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I will leave you to your nightmare, I stopped reading a few sentences in….. I have seen enough highly disturbing things in my life that I never can really recover from them – there is no need for a writer to explicitly use sadistic acts and horror to make a point. I am a hard man, and have seen very hard things, so know what it means, and I cannot hear of creatures, or people, to be intentionally tormented so, without it being very painful to me too. Life is hard enough as it is. This made me really sad

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Indeed – agree fully and it was wholly unnecessary.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I concur. I managed to reach the end however, and noted this;
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. 
I don’t think the final sentiment negates the first. Thinking back to Jordan Peterson, perhaps the author was thinking of chimpanzees, not monkeys, since they too are fiercely tribal and also have the tools to rip an interloper to shreds through brutal strength or smartphones, to mix metaphors.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

In an article about the monstrous cruelty, stupidity, and vacuity of the the modern Holy Crusaders, Miss Sarah refers to Andy Ngo as a Right-wing provocateur. Criticism of Antifa can only come from a “Right-winger”? Sarah, you need to have your brain washed out with soap.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

I found this a very strong article and the monkey experiment gave a shocking introduction to psychological abuse.
Whatever Ms Ditum past sins and bias in her articles, I would still agree with the thrust of her article and how Tech Social media and Big Media is fuelling this bullying and psychological torture.
There are many bystanders who are anxious but often baying for blood themselves.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Where I part company with you is that she’s fine with “bullying and psychological torture” as long as it’s people she hates being subjected to it.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

Woke cancellation is just sadism masquerading as virtue, in the Puritan tradition.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Unsurprisingly, since wokeness is in someways a vulgarization of Calvinism by the latter-day idiot children of the Frankfurt School’s Cultural Marxism: there are those predestined to be damned (in wokeness all light-skinned males of European ancestry whose sexual attractions and behavior are likely to propagate the species) and the saints (in wokeness women, “people of color”, people whose sexual attractions and behavior are suboptimal in Darwinian terms, and, unaccountably, Muslims).

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

I have sympathy with some commenters feeling that cancelling is mostly from the left, since social media is mostly controlled by right-on Californians. But I liked this article for its reasonableness (not entirely, Andy Ngo, but mostly). My comment is deplorably old-fashioned I know – young people will learn that they can depend on family and actual friends. Perhaps schools could start teaching that social media may be fun, but family and actual friends are for life.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Found this a really interesting article until Andy Ngo was described as a ‘right wing provocateur’. Antifa have tried to erase Andy from existence, get his books cancelled, even sent him to hospital. In an article about cancel culture the author displays a staggering level of cognitive dissonance.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

Cancel culture has always happened. It used to happen to people who had affairs, were gay, or had babies out of wedlock. Until probably the 1970s divorced people were not allowed to take communion in the Church of England. Literally excommunication. All that has changed is that the targets and reasons are different.

Shunning people who don’t keep the rules is obviously an inherent need in the human psyche.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Very true -as far as i am aware ‘shunning’ has been practiced by humans since pre-history – so all this is just business as usual for the small minded and obsessive angry control freaks (in the true sense of that word). However the difference now is that the shunned can hook up with the many relatively sane people who occupy the planet. SO WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL HERE ??????

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago

Sorry, but this phenomenon is not, even “fundamentally,” ideologically neutral.

franklitton
franklitton
2 years ago

Thank you for an interesting discussion of a disturbing phenomenon. It does suggest that more is going on than a self-righteous, even bigoted defence of truth against wicked error. I propose that ‘cancelling’ is a close cousin to ‘scapegoating’. Rene Girard has put the latter high on the agenda and so deserves to be brought into the conversation. Start, he tells us. with a collection of people. fearful, rivalrous, disunited. An individual is fingered as the source of of the trouble. As they come together to expel him, their divisions fade away, unity is restored, rivalry muted. The identification of the scapegoat cured the disorder so confirming that he was the guilty one. The question is what are the factors that generate the need to cancel, find a scapegoat again and again?

Last edited 2 years ago by franklitton
James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago

Great piece. Pointing out ‘danger element’ thrill of indulging in cancelling so relevant. Cancellers themselves are targets.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Indeed, if you live by cancel culture, expect to die by cancel culture.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Not agreeing with the premise of this thesis. To define yourself at any level in terms of how you are viewed by others is a logical nonsense. If you are lucky enough to be invulnerable to the economic consequences, what others think of you should matter not a jot – and especially not hoards of strangers. Oh, we all participate in the fiction of socialisation to progress the next step in life, but that don’t make the fiction any less of a fiction. It is no different from looking at a low-countries masterpiece where the artist has constructed a fictionalised framework of European lushness complete with waterfall and alpine mountains, while depicting some biblical allegory. The artist doesn’t believe the framework is real any more than they expect their audience to – it is just a backdrop so they can get on with whatever point they are making in the painting.
You stand alone, like it or not.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

Andy Ngo is not a “Right-wing provocateur”. He’s a courageous, honest journalist. Can you in all honesty say that about yourself Ditum?

Amari Nash
Amari Nash
2 years ago

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Jimmy Barker
Jimmy Barker
2 years ago

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Reynaldo Taylor
Reynaldo Taylor
2 years ago

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Lisa Tyler
2 years ago

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Paola Quinn
Paola Quinn
2 years ago

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Brogan Ortega
2 years ago

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Bail Los-Banos
2 years ago

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Presale Launchpad
2 years ago

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Pati Palhares
Pati Palhares
1 year ago

It seems people don’t understand what is “right wing” anymore, “conservatism” IS a right wing ideology, I don’t see where she’s wrong. Andy Ngo is much more than his antifa work, you know. And can’t minorities be right wing??? That is a bad look for people who claim to be rational. The fact you don’t call your ideas “right wing” doesn’t make them less so, leave this lack of clarity to the “millions of genders” crowd. Be proud of what you believe and think is right.