Cancel culture has taken lots of criticism recently, and in so far as cancel culture means hastily judging people without trying to understand them, I’m on board. But for the same reason I worry about the hastiness of canceling cancel culture. Cancel culture is usually seen as in the cause of things like anti-racism. Given this context, its worth scrutinizing what is going on with white fear of cancel culture.
White people have a great deal to learn from people who experience racism and similar forms of prejudice and injustice. There is no need for that to involve the hasty judgment or feeling hastily judged. But then we have to consider how many people of all sorts are liable to feel quickly judged by the mere assertion of a perspective that challenges their own. This is a failure of critical thinking, a failure to be open to reasons and evidence, willing to evaluate them on their own merits. So called “cancel culture” may be driven as much by over-sensitivity to hearing a challenge to your view as it is by actually being attacked in some way. Worse, the over-sensitivity and the attacking re-enforce each other.
Cancel culture is what happens when beliefs and opinions are treated as matters of personal identity and personal subjective perspective rather than just as ideas that can be inquired into. When we self-identify with our point of view, potentially helpful criticism will be experienced as personal attack. Now critical thinking has been displaced by personal conflict.
Reasons only work when people are sensitive to the force of the reason. Many people feel the force of people trying to persuade them much more strongly than the force of the reasons and evidence. When this happens people feel coerced and of course we all resist feeling coerced. In this context, an unreasonable belief might be clung to all the more tightly as one thing stable in the face of an onslaught. A bit of ground to hold in a fight. It is the social context of attack and parry that leads to impasse. Reasoning always does its work from within. To be reasonable people, we need to be open to reasons. This won’t happen when we feel coerced.
Here’s another approach, the one recommended by philosophy and science: When you share an opinion, you are putting an idea on the table. Fine, there’s an idea. It can be examined on its own merits. That idea being one you rather like doesn’t mean that you are being scrutinized, probed or attacked when others raise concerns or objections. To the contrary, you are being given new evidence and argument to consider. You can use that to improve your point of view.
With good critical thinking skills, there is no need to feel particularly attached to this view or that. Your confidence and sense-of-self become rooted in your ability to figure things out and correct course when you are mistaken, not in your attachment to some view or ideology you have uncritically deemed good.
Insightful editorial over the weekend:
Opinion | The Science of Changing Someone’s Mind – The New York Times (nytimes.com)