I just finished Jonathan Rauch’s superb new book, just out. It delineates the set of principles via which we have managed, at our best, to rise above the “state of nature” in which power, selfish interest, dominates rather than empirical reality, clarity, reasonableness, balance.
The second half of the book takes up, in successive chapters, the poisons of our social media era: disinformation, trolling, and canceling/bullying. It all sounds very depressing, but the book aims to be optimistic, emphasizing positive developments occurring as more and more people understand exactly what is going on, and the stakes involved. The final chapter is in fact a pep talk designed to inspire and motivate.
An interview in The Atlantic with the author just appeared which provides a good introduction to the book. There’s a portion of it where he states the dynamics of “canceling” quite well:
The right has latched on to disinformation, conspiracism, and trolling because they have the power to do those things. And they’re really good at them. The left has latched on to canceling because the left has the power to do those things and is really good at them. But they could swap tomorrow, and they probably will. So we mustn’t think of canceling as a left-wing phenomenon. It’s a weapon; it’s an information-warfare phenomenon. And if one side gets it, you can be sure [that] eventually the other side will get it too.
Having made that distinction, I said the second big point of my book is: You’re being manipulated. People tend to think of cancel culture as this bad thing that goes on online or it’s because of repressive ideologies. I want them to say, “No, actually this belongs in the same bucket as the stuff Trump is doing.” Maybe the ideological goals of the people using it are different, but they are also waging information warfare. By information warfare, I mean organizing and manipulating the social and media environment for political advantage in order to divide, dominate, disorient, and ultimately demoralize the people on the other side.
One way to do that is to flood the zone with falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and to cause mass disorientation. Another way is trolling: using outrage to hijack people’s brains. But another way to do that is use social pressure to silence, demoralize, isolate, and shame those who are your targets. And anyone can be the target. It turns out probably the most frequent victims of canceling are progressives who are canceled by other progressives. This is about dominating the information space by shutting down, chilling a whole sector of that space.
So how do they do that? Well, you say something they don’t like, or say anything at all. This really can be quite random. And almost instantly, a campaign of outrage is stirred up. They’re usually organized as swarms. They frequently go after employers so that people’s jobs are endangered. They frequently go after friends and professional associates of those targeted, saying, “If you agree with this person, you’re in trouble too.” They certainly go after the self-esteem of the people who are targeted by saying that they’re just horrible, awful people. They use out-and-out lies; they strip context; they reduce entire careers and reputations to a single word and a single tweet; they organize secondary boycotts; they seek to punish and silence—all of these things are completely hostile to the constitution of knowledge, which is about forcing us to debate other people’s arguments instead of trashing them as people and demolishing their careers. And canceling is effective because no one wants to get on the wrong side of this, and so people are widely chilled.
Surveys now find that 62 percent of Americans and 68 percent of students are reluctant to share their true political views for fear of negative social consequences, and a third of Americans say that they’re worried about losing a job or job opportunities if they express their true political views. Very significantly, that third is about the same across the entire political spectrum. Progressives are just as worried and frightened as conservatives. That’s a really bad information environment. That’s like a town that’s so polluted with smog that you can barely breathe.