Cancel Culture and College Student Mental Health (Part 2): Addressing the Behavior to Benefit the Canceled, Those Who Fear Being Canceled, and the Canceler

by Dawn Wiese

In Cancel Culture and College Student Mental Health (Part 1): Crippling the Canceled, Those Who Fear Being Canceled, and the Canceler, I provided an overview of cancel culture and how it affects the mental health and development of those who have been canceled, those who fear being canceled, and the canceler (Douglas, 2019; LeBlanc and Marques, 2019; Seemiller and Grace, 2019; The Jed Foundation, 2020, Wiese, 2020). Now, let’s turn to psychological theorists to understand a little more about what is happening in canceling behaviors and how to switch course. 

Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) posited that there are six stages of moral development:

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation  
The individual is good in order to avoid being punished.  If a person is punished, they must have done something wrong.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange
The individual recognizes there is not just one right view that is handed down by authority figures.  Different individuals have different viewpoints.

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships
The individual is good in order to be seen as being a good person by others.  Therefore, answers relate to the approval of others.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order
The individual becomes aware of the wider rules of society so judgments concern obeying the rules in order to uphold the law and avoid guilt.

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights
The individual becomes aware that while rules/laws might exist for the good of the greatest number, there are times when they will work against the interest of particular individuals.

Stage 6. Universal Principles
Individuals have developed their own set of moral guidelines which may or may not follow the law.   Principles apply to everyone.

After studying those stages, where is cancel culture? Stage 1. I’m not suggesting that the claims made by those doing the canceling are wrong; I am suggesting that the canceling behavior itself is unhealthy. As educators, it’s our responsibility to help students develop and understand that, while there may be “right” and “wrong,” most things in life have shades of grey.  And, in teaching human development, we should be aiming for at least Stage 5. Simply giving in to demand without conversation and thought puts educators at Stage 3, approval seeking.

Or, let’s consider one of the early theorists of “college student development,” William Perry (1970; 1981). Perry’s theory is based on his studies of the cognitive and ethical development in undergraduate students.  Perry posits that college students go through four stages of mental and moral development:  Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism, and Commitment.  

Dualism is typically discussed for people who are very young.  Dualism is the belief that every problem is solvable; students are to learn the right answers.

The second, Multiplicity, suggests there are two types of problems: solvable, and also problems for which the answer is not yet known.  

Relativism is the third stage.  During this stage, all solutions to problems must have reasons, and be viewed within a specific context. The basis for this stage is that every issue must be evaluated because everything is contextual.  

Lastly, Commitment is the stage in which there is an acceptance of uncertainty as part of life. During this stage, students use the combination of personal experience and evidence learned from outside sources to arrive at conclusions. 

Cancel culture again rests at the lowest level: dualism.  Every situation has a right or wrong.   Some situations do have a right or wrong.  Others do not and are more complex.  And that is the lesson we must teach students in our work – whether in the classroom or through policy making.

I realize in writing this I risk being “canceled.” I was even counseled by several friends and colleagues not to write.  I cannot control others.  I can attempt to control my very small sphere of the world … and even that is misguided as anyone who has lost someone very close to them knows. I write because, if what we’re talking about is endorsing “canceling” because of disagreement with a choice of clothing, or the friends with whom they associate, or their political affiliation or religion, or sexual orientation, or race, or the mission of their organization or college or university, then we are not doing our jobs as educators. It’s important for anyone who reads this to realize that the risk I am taking in writing this is that I will be critiqued for relying on social science research and best practices to encourage conversation and dialogue among all stakeholders.  It’s a risk I am willing to take.

So, how do we confront cancel culture? Or, more importantly, how do we best support our students in their own development? As adapted from Hanson (2018), in Psychology Today:

Have Compassion
Someone who is canceling others may have a legitimate claim; they are just going about it in an unhealthy way.  Have compassion.  The canceler may be acting partially out of fear of him or herself being canceled.  Having compassion for someone or some group who is attempting to “cancel” is not approval.  It simply says, “I hear you, and while I appreciate what you’re saying, I don’t necessarily agree with you,” or, “I hear you but, to effectively make change, we must take into account multiple perspectives; let’s work together.” If fortunate, this is where your work begins. But, if the canceler is unwilling to work with others, you have a responsibility to stand up to the canceler, so then ….

Name It
Tell the truth and tell it to others. And, if appropriate or able, tell the truth to those who are attempting to cancel and to those who are enabling those who are canceling. Those who are canceling may acquire institutional authority but not necessarily moral legitimacy. When attempting to cancel others, power is both unjust and fragile. The more uneasy they feel, the more they use their popularity to justify their position. If there are lies, name them.  If there is illegitimacy, name it.  In your messaging, continually work back to compassion, encouraging conversation, and following processes to affect desired change.

Stand with Others
Cancelers target lone individuals or groups to prove their dominance and create fear. Gather allies who will stand with you. Together, stand with and for those who are being canceled. It may make no material difference. But it always makes a moral and psychological difference to those who stand — and to those they stand for. And that’s our job as educators if what we hope to do is diminish anxiety among students – standing against those who may be canceling, standing for those who are being canceled, and for those who live in fear of being canceled. 

Disincentivize Cancel Culture
The act of canceling itself is rewarding even if there’s no concrete benefit. There must be a cost. Enablers also need to pay a price; otherwise, why stop?

There are a variety of ways to disincentivize cancel culture, depending on the situation: 

  • With moral confidence, name the canceling for what it is
  • Dispute false claims of legitimacy
  • Confront lies, including denial of harms they’re doing
  • Build up sources of power to challenge those who cancel
  • Confront enablers; they’re complicit in the canceling
  • Engage the legal system
  • Remove cancelers from positions of power

See the Big Picture
Canceling happens in a larger context of enabling and fueling conditions. A playing field may become unfairly tilted in a cancelers favor; tilt it back. Cancelers draw power from others’ grievances; address the grievances (go back to Step 1: Have Compassion) and reduce their power. 

Cancelers seek attention, and, again, they may have an important message to share.  Always go back to Step 1: Have compassion, listen, and work to affect change through established processes.  Relying on established processes creates buy-in for eventual change.  Ignoring established processes that create buy-in continues to separate and divide.  If the goal of the canceler is to simply cancel and not engage in productive change, then moving to the second step of naming the harmful behavior is important.   Perpetuating canceling behavior focuses on division and, thus, does not encourage higher levels of human development.  

Educators must assist others in creating environments that encourage the Principle of Charity which teaches us to believe what a person is actually saying rather than interpreting meaning that may not be present – it encourages listening for the good rather than assuming ill-intent. The Principle of Charity allows us to recognize that there is a larger world out there than only that of separation and division.  As humans, we are more alike than different – if we choose to converse and find those points of same-ness. So much of life IS working, IS agreeable, IS beautiful, and IS honorable. Disengage from the outrage and fault-finding of others who say not enough is being done. Only then, in your position of leadership, can you break the anxiety-producing cycle of fear that creates depression – for the canceled, for the canceler, and for those who fear being canceled.  Only then, in your position of leadership, are you actually leading.  Merely giving in to the loud voices – without considering the many voices and positions – is not leadership. It is Kohlberg Stage 1. It is William Perry Level 1.  As shared in Cancel Culture and College Student Mental Health (Part 1): Crippling the Canceled, Those Who Fear Being Canceled, and the Canceler, it is your job to both protect Andi Moritz (Zimmerman, 2019) and lead meaningful, inclusive conversations.

References

Depression and Anxiety Among College Students (2020).  The Jed Foundation.  At: https://www.jedfoundation.org/depresion-and-anxiety-among-college-students/

Douglas, P. N. (July 1, 2019).  How the cancel culture is toxic for out mental health.  At: https://medium.com/@patricendouglas/how-the-cancel-culture-is-toxic-for-our-mental-health-c4864e409ccf

Hanson, R. (April 9, 2018).  Stand up to bullies: Bullying at all scales causes much suffering – what can we do? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-wise-brain/201804/stand-bullies

Kohlberg, L. 1927-1987. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice.  San Francisco: Harper & Rowe.

LeBlanc, N. and Marques, L. (August 27, 2019). Anxiety in college: What we know and how to cope.  Harvard Health Publishing.  At: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/anxiety-in-college-what-we-know-and-how-to-cope-2019052816729.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Perry, W. G. (1981).  Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning, in Arthur W. Chickering and Associates, The modern American college.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Principle of Charity: Assume the best interpretation of people’s arguments (2020).  Effectiviology.  At:  https://effectiviology.com/principle-of-charity/

Seemiller, C. and Grace, M. (2019).  Generation Z: A century in the making.  New York: Routledge.

Wiese, D. (July 2020). Cancel Culture and College Student Mental Health (Part 1): Crippling the Canceled, Those Who Fear Being Canceled, and the Canceler. At: http://plaidblog.com/

Zimmerman, J. (November 4, 2019).   Cancel culture punishes young people for speaking their minds.  The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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