It’s not about celebrities. It’s about us losing trust in each other.
By Kat Rosenfield
October 16, 2019
Of all the terms to gain prominence in 2019, few have provoked more pontification, more pearl-clutching, or more caustic dismissal than “cancel culture.” Depending on where you get your discourse, you’ve probably already seen the phenomenon blamed on any of several culprits: technology (social media and the internet), pathology (the growing cachet of “victimhood” and its attendant incentives to claims of harm), or even one political tribe in particular (“So much for the tolerant left!”). Or, alternatively, you’ve heard that it’s not a phenomenon at all, and that all this talk of cancellation is just the world’s-tiniest-violin lament of a bunch of cultural dinosaurs, whining as they’re rightly crushed into irrelevance under the wheels of progress.
But the entire cancel culture conversation, including the debate over whether or not it exists at all, has largely missed a crucial point. While celebrities, successful artists, and other too-big-to-fail types can survive a cancellation (or even seek one out as a means of drumming up publicity), the rest of us are trapped in an increasingly deranged surveillance state fueled by the disappearance of our most essential resource: trust.
In a large, diverse country, trust is the thing that keeps us living in harmony and content to let other people live as they wish, but its erosion is an institutional problem as much as an interpersonal one. Three years after Donald Trump won the presidency with promises to “drain the swamp” of untrustworthy, corrupt D.C., Americans have very little faith in the systems that keep the country running, including government, business, and media. Between 2017 and 2018, trust in media, for example, dropped from 47% to 42%. Trust in government declined even more precipitously, with a 14-percentage-point drop in the number of people who said they trusted the U.S. to “do what is right.” While those numbers rebounded by a few points in 2019, Americans’ overall faith in the country remained dismal: A mere 20% of Americans agreed that the system was working for them.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of fake news, along with political polarization, makes it difficult even to establish an agreed-upon set of facts from which to draw conclusions when we talk about this trust problem. We aren’t sure what’s real or true; we don’t know who’s wrong. But increasingly, we suspect that everyone is.
And that’s the insidious thing about a culture where trust is eroding: A majority of people don’t even have to support or participate in cancel culture for it to wreak havoc on society at large. In a recent New York Times article about political polarization, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained how small pockets of concentrated outrage can produce immense destructive force: “You can tell me that 70 percent of Americans don’t participate in the culture war, but it doesn’t really matter,” he wrote. “Events today are driven by small numbers that can shame and intimidate large numbers. Social media has changed the dynamic.”