Cancel culture: Dangerous mob rule or new form of accountability?

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Recently both celebrities and ordinary people have found themselves being “canceled” – a new term that loosely means being subjected to public humiliation via the internet, with secondary consequences that might include losing a job, being canceled to speak at an event, or having social media accounts closed.

While some people have criticized this “cancel culture” as a dangerous manifestation of mob rule, others argue that it serves as a new way of holding people accountable for their actions.

Concepts from economics can help analyze cancel culture – and show that while canceling can serve an important accountability role when governments or organizations are too slow to act, it can also lead to dangerous herding behavior in which people follow the crowd regardless of right or wrong.

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How can bad behavior be stopped?

Some actions, such as eating an apple or watching a movie, have “no externalities” – they do not impact the well-being of others. However, other behavior, such as polluting a river or playing music loudly, has “negative externalities” – it negatively impacts other people’s welfare.
Left completely unchecked, behavior that has negative externalities will likely be practiced more than society can tolerate. This is why governments tax gasoline and regulate construction yard noise: to limit activities that have negative externalities.

There are two general methods for dealing with negative externalities. The first is “external enforcement,” whereby a third party is given the material resources and authority to punish people whose behavior has negative externalities: a school principal suspending a child who bullies, or the UN sanctioning a country that commits war crimes.

External enforcement can be very effective if the third party is given sufficient clout, and the size of modern governments – including the police forces and judiciaries that they oversee – is testament to the efficacy of this method of managing negative externalities.

However, external enforcement has two basic flaws. First, it can be unwieldly, especially when it becomes as large as a modern government. The result is a slow or absent response in a situation that require one, such as looting during a natural disaster, or irresponsible behavior during a pandemic.

Second, external enforcers can selfishly abuse their power, such as a corrupt mayor who awards family members tenders at an inflated cost; or for the benefit of a party that has “captured” them, such as the video games regulator ESRB condoning video games gambling because it is financially lucrative to major games developers. Accountability mechanisms can be formulated, but all systems have flaws, rendering external enforcement an imperfect solution to the problem of negative externalities.

Cancel culture: Mutual enforcement

The alternative to external enforcement is mutual enforcement: people policing each other without the involvement of a third party. This can be using “extrinsic” (material) incentives, as in me boycotting a restaurant where a waiter mistreated me; or using “intrinsic” (psychological) incentives, as in my teammates refusing to look me in the eyes if I am always late to football practice.

Cancel culture is mutual enforcement using a mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic incentives. Crucially, cancel culture is inherently spontaneous: there is no central orchestrator composing rules and authoritatively demanding adherence. Instead, like other decentralized phenomena such as language, it emerges and mutates unpredictably, because how people behave depends at least partly on what they imagine other people regard as acceptable, which can be very uncertain during times of flux.

Just as words morph in meaning over time, leading to misunderstandings between people who use a word in its old meaning and those who have adapted it, cancel culture also risks misunderstandings during transition periods in the perception of certain behavior.

Some traditionally inoffensive terms are now coming under scrutiny and resulting in people being canceled for using them. For example, the phrase “blacklist” – an unwanted list of items or people – is currently in a transition phase. Google Chrome and Android stopped using the word due to its association of negativity with Blackness, but many will continue to use it, either out of ignorance or malice, risking punishment via cancel culture.

It is important to note that cancel culture is partially a response to the failure of external enforcement. Waiting for the government to designate words like “blacklist” as offensive is likely fruitless, due to a combination of government sclerosis and inherent biases and abuses within the government’s ranks. Many who have illegally removed offensive statues felt compelled to act after legal channels failed to deliver the same outcome. In this regard, cancel culture’s decentralized and spontaneous nature is a virtue, because it stops powerful bigots – including those who work in government – from derailing the process.

Moreover, the decentralized and spontaneous nature of cancel culture also gives it a much higher degree of flexibility and adaptability than is associated with modern government. For example, the #metoo movement was able to make some women feel safer overnight because abusive men feared sanctions, a much quicker process than anything the government could ever hope to achieve.

Attorney Gloria Allred speaks to the media after the sentencing of film producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault following his trial after the MeToo movement, New York, US, March 11, 2020. (Reuters)
Attorney Gloria Allred speaks to the media after the sentencing of film producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault following his trial after the MeToo movement, New York, US, March 11, 2020. (Reuters)

However, the unpredictability of cancel culture is a double-edged sword. When humans base their behavior on what others deem acceptable, which itself may be unstable and changing because of social transition, they can fall into “herd behavior” – ignoring their own moral compass or understanding of sensible actions and instead following others for fear of straying from the herd. This is analogous to the irrational herding process in financial markets that leads to stock market bubbles and catastrophic financial crises.

In the case of cancel culture, many people may think that an individual does not merit social sanctions, but they fear deviating from the herd. Just like stock market bubbles in financial markets reflect unsound investments, the herding intrinsic to cancel culture during a transition period can lead to unsound social sanctions: people who were incorrectly identified, misquoted, genuinely repentant, and so on. One advantage of external enforcement over cancel culture is that it allows for a formal appeals process: someone who is wrongly sentenced to prison can have their record expunged by the government, but there is little hope for those who are “canceled” online, just as there is little hope for an economy whose currency was ruined by speculators acting on a whim or false “inside information.”

In fact, as is evident in their readiness to impose sanctions without even hearing the accused’s version of events, some cancel culture activists actively reject an “investigation” period where the accused is given a chance to defend themselves before being sanctioned, as a way of making the sanctions more acute, in much the same way that French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre espoused carrying out executions for those accused of opposing the revolution the day after the trial and sentence – an effective way of ensuring that people tried extra hard to avoid behavior that might be perceived as counterrevolutionary.

So, is cancel culture good or bad? In general, during stable times, when misunderstandings and herding are unlikely, cancel culture makes an important contribution to social order. It can make up for the tendency of external enforcement structures to be abused or simply slow. However, during transitional periods, its unpredictability and spontaneity is both a blessing and a curse: it helps us rapidly overcome entrenched oppression, while threatening considerable collateral damage due to the herding behavior that generates financial bubbles. And this probably explains why the British philosopher Bertrand Russel once quipped: “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

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Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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