Fake It Until You Break It – Erving Goffman and Cancel Culture

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[Note: I originally posted this on my Substack profile, but I am not sure I am cool with that platform or the folks posting on it now. I may write on that topic at some point. But as it stands, I do not want to lose the things I have written, so I am going to repost them here. Apologies to anyone who is getting bombarded with my content in their inbox. As you can see, my retirement from blogging is an abysmal failure.]

You must admit: it’s not easy to live with people willing to send you to exile or death, it’s not easy to become intimate with them, it’s not easy to love them.

Milan Kundera, The Joke

In a society in which nearly everybody is dominated by somebody else’s mind or by a disembodied mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn the truth about the activities of governments and corporations, about the quality or value of products, or about the health of one’s own place and economy.

Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

Many years ago, I found myself on an Erving Goffman kick. Goffman was one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, famous for describing the mechanics of how people craft public images for themselves and – perhaps more importantly – what happens when this lifelong project of managing one’s public identity goes wrong.

Goffman wrote extensively about the inner lives of criminals, prostitutes, asylum patients, people who were disfigured or disabled in some way – perceived outsiders of all kinds. Across decades, Goffman’s writing helped change the way marginalized communities were treated. His work articulated what the margin looked and felt like for people who have never been forced to reside there. Goffman was able to explain how stigma can be counter-productive as it introduces negative feedback loops and institutionalizes abuse in communities.

This might sound strange, but for someone working in high finance, Goffman’s phenomenology of alienation had many useful applications when it came to framing transactional relationships and the “double-consciousness” that being an outsider entailed (i.e., the ability to discern concurrently what a social cohort thinks and what oneself thinks). The experience of making contrarian investment calls is not unlike being deemed insane by your peers, especially if it takes weeks, months, or even years for your thesis to be tested and prevail. It is a form of alienation, but more specifically, an alienation that necessarily involves being viewed or portrayed as defective in some way.

The financial markets thrive on weaponized groupthink and mob rule. Even people who believe you are ultimately correct in your reasoning will try to gaslight you and publicly shame you into silence if it means protecting some investment position. This is why functionally insolvent organizations can continue to float along for years after it was clear they should have been reorganized or put down altogether. If they can lie and bully their way into getting an influx of cash, however temporary, they can fake being a going concern for quite a while. There are investment vehicles that are built on precisely this sort of anti-capitalist behavior (i.e., against fair and productive competition). These actors also tend to be entrenched in the political economy, as using theater to pick winners and losers is sort of the raison d’être of modern politics.

Whatever potential payoffs being regarded as an outcast in the financial markets may have, exile always involves some psychological toll that no amount of meticulous research or conviction can ameliorate. Simply put, it sucks to be on the receiving end of an irrational mob in any context, even if you are right and you know it.

Privilege does not make one immune to stigma, which is why stigma has always been useful. No matter who you are, it takes a tremendous amount of character to stand up to being stigmatized. 

With all of the chatter surrounding cancel culture, I decided to revisit Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. It is interesting to see how his theories break down in a society where much interaction is mediated through virtual (as opposed to physical, or face-to-face) realms – particularly virtual realms that are policed by absurd and disruptive cliques, and can involve mobs that aren’t even human.

Imagine telling Goffman that, here in the 21st century:

  • People can be permanently stigmatized via teams of sock-puppet social media accounts procured by some private interest and crudely made to mimic a human mob.
  • The traditional media now regularly runs stories aimed at embarrassing ordinary people, who have never been considered public figures. This genre of “reporting” is more important to the traditional media than covering the details of wars, famines, or scientific developments, and they continue to push it even as their own reputations implode and they are laying off staff.
  • An algorithm can situate someone’s portrayed expulsion outside of the possibility of reasonable debate.
  • After two multi-billion-dollar election cycles have thoroughly exposed this farce, it still continues to be effective for many people – and certainly for the marketing departments of Corporate America – as a recreationally bellicose and self-indulgent minority has successfully convinced the majority of Americans that it is necessary for their survival to conceal what they truly believe or value.

Cancel culture as a social phenomenon that enforces order and compliance with norms is nothing new. Every ancient civilization has possessed some form of stigma. Yet the application of stigma among people with postmodern worldviews is a very curious development. How do you have subcultures that passionately believe truth and experience are private and subjective – and can even be outright constructed or creatively remembered – but simultaneously want to punish and censor others in public and absolute terms? They want to live like Nietzsche but govern like Jonathan Edwards. If you want to understand why it is that social media platforms are tearing the western world apart, this epistemic contradiction is at the center.

Goffman starts off discussing the origin of the term “stigma” in Ancient Greece:

The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term stigma to refer to any bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, a traitor – a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.

The word stigma is taken from the Latin stigmat-stigma, to mark or brand, which was in turn derived from the Greek stizo, to tattoo. This is social rejection as a literal act of violence – that a person’s physical existence should be distorted by public opinion of them, dehumanizing them by rendering their otherness a source of ongoing cultural sabotage:

One of the first recorded uses of the word ‘stigma’ appears in a fragment of sixth-century BC poetry written by Asius of Samos, who uses the word stigmatias to describe ‘a marked slave’; and slaves are henceforth regularly and scornfully referred to with words such as literati (lettered), stigmatici (tattooed), inscripti (inscribed), and graptoi (written upon). Indeed, in the Graeco-Roman world, penal tattooing was a punishment reserved exclusively for non-citizens: slaves, indentured labourers, prisoners of war, other resident aliens or religious minorities. As Plato wrote in The Laws, a dialogue on the ethics of government, ‘if anyone is caught committing sacrilege, if he be a slave or a stranger, let his offence be written on his face and his hands’.

Over time, the term came to connote negative beliefs populations tend to carry about specific groups or individuals, rather than a physical scar. But the element of ritual pollution remains.

The Romans had a corollary concept of “infamia” – from which we get the term infamy – which essentially held that people in certain professions (prostitutes, actors) lose both legal and social standing in Roman society. For example, a prostitute was not allowed to be a witness in court. This extended to people who had been removed from the army or who suffered financial insolvency. Infamia could be transferred from an individual to an entire family, or follow women who remarried.

The Roman concept of infamy was also adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and integrated into canon law. There are offenses in the Catholic Church that could prevent a man from being ordained as a priest or result in a formal loss of standing with respect to the exercise of church rituals.

In modern society, it is not socially acceptable to brand someone physically for their perceived misdeeds or shortcomings, but folks who regard themselves as cultural gatekeepers can scar someone’s Google results instead. The human cost of being stigmatized is losing the ability to conduct ordinary, life-sustaining activities either way.

What is the motive of ritual pollution? What do self-appointed gatekeepers receive from this behavior? Does there even need to be a purpose at all? Or is this behavior innate and instinctual, like how dogs behave differently when they are running in a pack versus sleeping peacefully in front of a fireplace?

The participants in this behavior no doubt believe they are performing a public service. They can rationalize their behavior with the suggestion that they are preventing some future harm for a hypothetical third-party. But, in general, it seems more like what they want is some form of revenge that endures. Rather than lashing out at a perceived injustice in equal measure, they want pain and dysfunction to metastasize in a stigmatized individual’s life. It is not enough to take to the barricades alongside bot militias in the outrage du jour; they want to make someone unemployable, unattractive to date, get them unaccepted to college. They want the experience of being discredited to be complete in its ruinousness.

You don’t tattoo a slave because you want their slavery to be a fleeting situation. Proponents of modern cancel culture likewise do not want their handiwork to be fleeting. They want to obliterate conditions for rhetorical disagreement through a form of personal violence, and the tech industry and political establishment largely enable them in this endeavor. 

Goffman would tell you that the way to improve society in this formulation is not to treat truly abhorrent behaviors as if they were good, but to be more charitable in providing and identifying ways for stigmatized people to make it back into the fold. It is difficult to walk away from Goffman’s cold dissection of stigma with the sense that any level of dehumanization is justifiable. Indeed, the message of his work is that if people understood the actual scope of damage stigmatizing activities involve, they would see that it is healthier both for individuals and societies to make space for grace and redemption.

It is unfortunate that Goffman did not have the opportunity to observe tribal stigma in the age of social media, because in a way, social media has inverted Goffman’s normals-and-the-stigmatized formula.

Most Americans do not share the beliefs and ideals of the people who participate in cancel culture (pick any topic) – rather, they are horrified at this behavior and organize their online life around not becoming a target. According to a March 2021 Harvard – Harris poll, 64% of Americans believe cancel culture is a threat to freedom in the country. Social media has made it possible for an intolerant minority to apply pseudo-tribal stigma to a generally tolerant (or at least apathetic) majority, something that could only occur when substantially all forms of encounter happen online. This situation creates a significant amount of chaos and unnecessary conflict in a society where majority rule ostensibly drives public policy.

In Goffman’s social environment, and the social environment of the ancients, the evolution of normative claims was relatively clear, as were the situations that would convert someone into a pariah. This does not mean these claims were always fair in some cosmic sense, or that they could not change over time or sometimes be applied inconsistently. In fact, many infames openly associated with Roman elites.

But before the stigma associated with some activity could be erased, there had to be an authentic shift in public opinion. Norms exist to reenforce consensus. However, there are good and bad approaches to building consensus around new ways of looking at something in free societies. There has to be some legitimate common ground surrounding what represents socially acceptable behavior for a society to function at even the most basic level.

In the age of social media, oddly, the concept of a norm can be aspirational. It is possible to “enforce” imaginary norms in imaginary social encounters, as social media has become a sort of moral Ponzi scheme where people believe their online posturing and performances generate dividends in the real world. There are sectors of our society that now treat “normal” as a verb without a hint of irony. You hear activist pleas to “normalize” some behavior that many in society disagree with.

The only reason our virtual gatekeepers feel so empowered is they mostly interact with avatars, which are somehow even more derivative and contrived than the maintenance of public images in everyday life. That minority recognizes their position is not persuasive morally, logically, or rhetorically, so they attempt to use the mechanics of stigma as a means to snuff out any discussion to the contrary. You have real people moving out of real cities because they can no longer tolerate the social landscape, and all politicians care about is what has been “normalized” in their fantasy worlds, not their real tax base walking away.

This is likely the most prominent divide in American society today – not wealth, politics, culture, religion, or geography, but the division that exists between people who are aggressively online and people who are not.

Perhaps it’s the very unpopularity of a principle that drives the desire to manufacture stigma, otherwise these folks would seek agreement in some less detestable manner. There is a reason why censorship is a feature of totalitarian societies and not democracies – if you are confident your positions can withstand scrutiny, you do not need to fear dissent. It is the same with cancel culture. It does not matter if 360 million Americans agree with a principle – something that requires time, effort, and compromise to bring about. They merely need 30,000 people to pile on and ruin the life of anyone who disagrees with them, and social media makes it easy to locate 30,000 people (“accounts” would be more accurate) who will respond belligerently on pretty much any topic.

In sociology circles, academics and activists now describe stigma as a pragmatic way of pushing their narratives on society – that one is justified in dehumanizing their interlocutors if it is effective in altering what they perceive as an unfair power structure in society. The fact that so many people have contempt for their behavior is a feature, not a bug, of their worldview. If dehumanizing dissenters bothers you, it is probably because you belong in the tainted group.

The idea here is that stigma could potentially have a redistributive purpose. If the minority can successfully stigmatize the majority according to their imaginary norms, they are not only seizing the social credit and reputation of people with opinions or backgrounds they loathe – they are seizing all of the financial, economic, and cultural advantages that a good reputation provides. They are reducing competition from “normals” in the workforce, among possible romantic connections, in education and training, etc. Thus, cancel culture among some activist groups is not only about picking fights online, but about the volume of stigmatizing activity necessary to change the entire power structure of society as a practical matter. Their perceived need to accomplish this volume of discrediting activity is why cancel culture has become a feature of our daily lives. 

(Whether this is actually working the way they envision it, or perversely hurting their favored groups as people are reluctant to bring cancel culture onto the floor of their company, would make a fascinating economic query. If polls are correct and a majority of Americans think cancel culture is destructive, it seems unlikely they are going to hire a Twitter activist for an open position. But what’s important here is this is what culture warriors think the promise of cancel culture involves.)

What is interesting is how comfortable people who abide in these vocal minorities are with the false impression of consensus their tactics involve. What is it that makes a false impression of consensus desirable? The civil rights icons of past decades, for example, genuinely wanted to change people’s hearts and minds. They were not motivated by hate or revenge. They were not nihilists who wanted to destroy functioning social institutions, but to improve them incrementally. They sought and were able to build real consensus around an issue, and that is why they have positive legacies. Cancel culture folks do not care if you agree with them, or even if their own beliefs are internally coherent – what they are interested in is obedience. If they can accomplish de facto normativity without changing a single person’s opinion in the real world, they are perfectly fine with that outcome.

Even with this inverted application of stigma, Goffman’s observation that stigma can be profoundly counter-productive remains the same. Cancel culture has made this country utterly ungovernable at every level. It has broken up neighborhoods, families, churches, re-segregated schools and colleges (undoing decades of advocacy and personal sacrifice), and filled generations with contempt for each other. It has made responding to a pandemic a mess, as no one trusts information they receive about matters of fact, as even medical professionals are vilified for recommending different approaches or clarifying important trade-offs, as resources are distributed unevenly according to favored versus unfavored groups, and economic inequality is driven to appalling levels. When a right-wing personality is elected, the left proclaims their election illegitimate. When a left-wing personality is elected, the right proclaims their election illegitimate. Major legislation and appointments across three administrations now have all occurred on party-line votes amid rampant lies and conspiracy theories advanced by all sides. People who are willing to engage in dehumanizing behavior are also willing to believe anything outrageous about the people they are dehumanizing, and that makes them easy to exploit intellectually.

You cannot have a democracy without intellectual honesty and opportunities for bona fide consensus. At its core, democracy is built on the notion that good ideas are also persuasive ideas. To the extent that social media has become a platform that promotes and rewards cancel culture – the triumph, by force, of unpersuasive, not popularly held ideas over those that are both persuasive and widely adopted – it has also become a threat to sound self-governance. You cannot have a democracy where people are not allowed an opportunity to attempt to be persuasive, speak freely, and even given space to make honest mistakes.

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