Cancel Culture: Setting Limits or Going Too Far?

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©2021 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. & Megan Hunter, MBA

What Does Cancel Culture Mean?

Although there is no single definition of cancel culture, it is about groups of people applying pressure to punish a person or group for what is perceived as a wrong opinion. It happens in the workplace, on social media, and in the celebrity community. Professors are boycotted for attending pro-police rallies. Authors’ publishing contracts are terminated for their opinions on other matters. Sports teams are under threat of elimination from tournaments because of religious beliefs. Journalists and others are losing jobs for decades-old social media posts or repeating an offensive word in conversation to clarify what’s being said.

What is behind it? It seems we are in the age of offendedness and the age of tolerance and common sense are a distant memory. Applying pressure to reach a desired result is not a new concept. What is different is the new mob mentality mixed with an all-or-nothing judge-and-jury mentality. Loud voices of the offended attract the like-minded, strengthening the group bond and the volume. They are collectively emboldened and utilize the power and speed of social media to spread the message and add to the ranks. They apply pressure to someone with authority who, these days, usually caves to the pressure, firing the person, canceling the book, or, fill in the blank.

Is it High Conflict Behavior?

At the High Conflict Institute, we teach and write about high conflict behavior all the time. This behavior includes:

  • Preoccupation with blaming others

  • Lots of all-or-nothing thinking

  • Unmanaged emotions and

  • Extreme behavior or threats.

Some people engage in a persistent pattern of high conflict behavior, so we think of them as high conflict people who need different methods of management beyond logical persuasion and criticism.

So the questions are:

(1) Do people who engage in cancel culture present a pattern of high conflict behavior?

(2) Is cancel culture, by nature, high conflict?

We can be fairly certain that at least some who engage in cancel culture fit the high conflict pattern. Cancel culture opens the door wide open to someone with a:

  • preoccupation with blaming others (you don’t agree with me—you are my target of blame)

  • all-or-nothing thinking (the target is all bad and must be eliminated; I’m right, you’re wrong)

  • unmanaged emotions (I don’t agree with the target of blame, so I’m really mad)

  • extreme behaviors or threats (public shaming on social media and outright calls for cancellation)

While we won’t go so far as calling cancel culture high conflict, it is ripe for drifting into that territory in an unchecked society. It isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all good either, and put in the hands of someone with a high conflict personality can be downright devastating.

Setting Limits on High Conflict Behavior

Some people engage in a persistent pattern of high conflict behavior, so we think of them as high conflict people who need different methods of management beyond logical persuasion and criticism. In short, high conflict people need limits because they cannot stop themselves.

We encourage people to set limits with three basic steps (see article on Setting Limits: Setting Limits with EAR™ ):

  1. State what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not.

  2. Let others know what the consequences will be if they engage in the behavior that is unacceptable.

  3. If the unacceptable behavior occurs or persists, then impose the consequences.

Generally, the consequences in daily life are those that a person can impose primarily by no longer providing their own benefits to the violator of the limits. In some cases, this means ending the relationship, such as getting divorced, firing an employee, or quitting a job.

Words Matter

In some cases, the issue is one of words. One of the big issues around words today is values and politics: freedom of expression versus words that hurt people. In the United States, we have the Bill of Rights, also known as the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment says the following:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But this doesn’t mean total freedom of speech, as interpreted many times by the United States Supreme Court. For example, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire is not allowed—it’s not protected by the constitution.

Who Decides?

Twitter has a policy since March 2019 that says:

You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence. Healthy conversation is only possible when people feel safe from abuse and don’t resort to using violent language. For this reason, we have a policy against threatening violence on Twitter. We define violent threats as statements of an intent to kill or inflict serious physical harm on a specific person or group of people. 

Based on this policy, Twitter permanently banned President Trump. One of his sons has stated that this was inappropriate “canceling” of his father. Was it? And who decides?

In the case of Twitter, a private company, it is allowed to set its own policies and follow them. However, even German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is no fan of the prior president, has expressed concern about this: “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance. Given that, the chancellor considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended,” her spokesman said. He added that governments, not private companies, should decide on any limitations to freedom of speech. Germany has restrictions against disseminating “untrue facts” and “abusive criticism,” as well as denial of the Holocaust.

Applying the policy fairly and evenly across the social media platform is a daunting challenge and one no platform will ever get completely right, whether because of sheer mass or internal bias.

Setting Limits?

There is a lot of high conflict behavior surfacing today, which does not seem to be having limits placed on it by traditional authorities, so people feel they must take matters into their own hands. An example of this is the #MeToo movement.

A powerful person, such as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, apparently got away with sexual harassment for decades until many of his victim/survivors came out with their stories. Comments rippled through social media and a movement took hold. While the actual “Me Too” movement started in 2006, it appears that modern social media is what gave it its power. The eventual result was that Weinstein was convicted of sexual assault and rape, and sent to jail in 2020.

Around the same time, actors in movies directed by Woody Allen publicly stated that they would no longer work for him because of allegations of child sexual abuse against him by his adopted daughter. These allegations were first made a dozen years earlier during the separation and custody battle between Woody Allen and the adoptive mother, Mia Farrow. A psychological evaluation back then indicated that no such abuse had occurred and that it was allegations related to the custody battle. In 2021, a TV series by his adopted daughter raised criticisms of the earlier investigations. Cancel culture of an innocent man, or appropriately setting limits where they hadn’t been appropriately set before?

A Canadian professor, Dr. Gad Saad, in The Parasitic Mind (2020) asserts that a culture of perpetual offense and victimhood are contributing to cancel culture. He states, “people are deathly afraid to espouse any opinion that might get them ostracized from the politically correct club.” The threat of cancellation is too great. The cost is too high.

Is Alienation a Result of Cancellation?

A related concern today is children resisting or refusing to spend time with a parent during a separation or divorce. Is this estrangement (the rejected parent has done something inappropriate) or alienation (the favored parent has shared statements and emotions with the child that led to this resistance and refusal)? When the child totally cuts off a parent this way, is it another example of cancel culture or appropriately setting limits? It depends on the facts of the case.

Mobbing in the Workplace

The term mobbing has become associated with workplace bullying, in which someone (usually a high conflict person) recruits other co-workers to gang up on another individual. This can include shutting them out of social activities, like the party on the weekend. Or denying them access to important resources or information (stonewalling). Or making them the target of blame for problems that are not their fault. Is this a form of cancel culture? It can be emotionally overwhelming and, as with other forms of workplace bullying, it can lead to health problems, mental health problems, and job loss.

Social Media Sparring

Cancellation displays itself on social media every single day. Events that happen in the workplace, in other media, or just about anywhere, are immediately carried into the social media realm with a hashtag that can instantly bring thousands or even hundreds of thousands into the hysteria. Social media becomes the gathering place and carrier of information . . . and often the chopping block.

Within the platforms themselves, someone makes decisions to cancel an individual’s account or even a group’ss account, based on internal policy. Some say that more often than not, the policy is biased; however, as privately held companies, the user/account holder is left with little recourse.

Social media has, unfortunately, become a readily available weapon for those with high conflict personalities and because many are emotionally persuasive people, it doesn’t take much to bring others around to the same point of view and beat the cancellation drum together.

Blamespeak

“You’re an idiot!” “It’s ALL your fault!” “Your work on this is a piece of sh**!” “Don’t you have a brain, you hateful ____________________”.

We are living in a culture of blame and disrespect. The language that people use on social media is deteriorating by the day. Many have come to embrace what we call blamespeak. It’s a denial of responsibility and an increasingly routine pattern of impulsively attacking others with little thought or empathy or concern about solving real problems. It is emotionally intense, very personal, blaming, out of context, and often gives you an intensely negative gut feeling that compels you to respond with blamespeak.

Our brains have two basic response systems to problems: defensive reacting and logical problem-solving. It appears that the right hemisphere of the brain is where more of our negative emotions and defensive reactions are processed and that this can occur very quickly (less than a tenth of a second) and unconsciously. We see or hear (or read) a threat, and we are reacting even before we realize it. On the other hand, the left hemisphere of the brain is where language and logical problem-solving are primarily processed, with slightly more time to think consciously and analytically while searching for solutions (Schore, 2019)

The result of this is that you can get emotionally hooked by what someone says or writes to you before you even realize it. Then your response may automatically be protective: “I have to fight back to defend myself,” your brain may decide, even before you have consciously absorbed what said or read. However, you can train your brain to respond differently.

We can choose to respond with hostility and misinformation with a fight, flight or freeze response, or we can choose to respond with logic and information. If we can shift ourselves—essentially from defensiveness to problem-solving—then we can communicate more logically and possibly shift the other person.

Conflict Influencer

It’s all about decisions. You get to decide whether you will be a conflict influencer for the bad or for the good. You get to decide if you will starve or feed the conflict.

We make choices every day. Consciously avoid getting hooked by the emotionally intense, repetitive nature of social media and 24/7 news programs. We need to set limits on these. (See the documentary/docudrama The Social Dilemma.) We have legal systems in place to determine guilt or innocence and appropriate punishment for crimes. We need to be careful that we are not reacting to the emotions of the moment and passing them on, instead of real useful information. Studies have shown that emotional news travels faster and farther than accurate information.

Conclusion

In short, cancel culture, mobbing, alienation, and other forms of exclusion are based on emotional decisions rather than thought-out logical consequences. Whether one situation or another is appropriate limit-setting or going too far may be up to the eye of the beholder—and legal decision-makers.

But the main lesson for us as individuals and as a society—as thoughtful citizens and responsible professionals—is to focus on calm, thought-out decisions of what is appropriate and what is going too far, and not base them on emotional reasoning or mob rule.


BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

MEGAN HUNTER, MBA is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. She developed the concept of the Institute after 13 years in policy, legislation and judicial training at the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Offices of the Court. Along with leading HCI’s international team, she has co-authored several books on high conflict disputes and has trained professionals in the U.S. and seven countries.

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