“Cancel culture” has become a reliable way to achieve upward mobility, establish social connection, and identify allies and enemies by isolating people who have violated ideological rules about race or gender. The phrase itself is suggestive: we can cancel Netflix subscriptions or smartphone services, so why not cancel human beings through reputation destruction and social exile? “Cancelling” has become an entertaining hobby—an indulgent, dopamine-feeding activity practiced on social media until its cruel practitioners, ultimately bored, follow the algorithms elsewhere.
I arrived as an undergrad at Yale in August of 2015, the year that Erika Christakis, lecturer and associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, was targeted by student protesters for writing an email to her students, shortly before Halloween, questioning the administration’s costume guidelines. She encouraged students to speak with each other if they found someone’s costume distasteful or offensive. The reaction against Christakis and her husband Nicholas—a Yale sociologist—was fierce. Students claimed that Christakis defended “cultural appropriation” and that her email was an emblem of systemic racism within the university. Hundreds of students marched in protests and demanded that she be terminated. They claimed that Christakis violated the “safe space” of the residential college and that her presence posed a threat to their mental health. Students succeeded in turning her into a pariah on campus. Eventually, she withdrew from her positions. She was cancelled.
As we saw with the mob that surrounded Nicholas Christakis at Yale, cancel culture is not a solitary activity. People enjoy coming together against a perpetrator. While reciprocity can increase the status of one’s group and bring members closer together, it also leads to the possibility of failure. Instead, people search for the misdeeds of others because it offers status and social cohesion at little cost. Even if the group is unsuccessful at cancelling someone, the failure presents additional opportunities for both status and bonding: What or who is preventing you from taking your target down? The group can rally around this question.
Cancel culture allows people to identify who is loyal to their movement. Highlighting the supposed wrongdoings of others forces people to respond. Targets of cancel culture usually commit acts suddenly deemed out of fashion. This is perfect for social coordination because it creates disagreement about whether the person should be exiled. If everyone agreed that the target should be denigrated, then there’s no way to identify friend from foe. But if some agree while others disagree, committed group members can be distinguished from adversaries. Those who ask for evidence of the alleged wrongdoing, question the severity of the transgression, or debate the propriety of cancel culture risk revealing themselves as unfaithful to the cause. Rallying around a morally ambiguous transgression and seeing how people react permits recruitment of assenters and targeting of dissenters.
Cancel culture is thus likely here to stay. The social rewards are immediate and gratifying and the dangers too distant and abstract. “You could be next” does not register for most people because it’s just a set of words. But the social rewards of status and in-group camaraderie instantly resonate. The desire for instant social rewards over distant and uncertain disaster is not a quirk of any particular group—it’s common to all of us.
The term “cancel culture” may be new, then, but the human impulses propelling it are old. When you see groups target an individual for exile, you’re witnessing a foundational ritual. Without understanding such atavistic impulses, we are more, not less, likely to enact them without consideration.
Robert Henderson is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge.