“Sometimes a scandal isn’t just a scandal, but a biopsy of a society,” said the British author Douglas Murray earlier this year. This apercu was coined in his reporting on the scandal that involved the indomitable philosopher, Roger Scruton, who was fired from his position in the British government for things he never said. This was the product of the crafty editing skills of George Eaton, who distorted Scruton’s responses to make him look like all kinds of politically incorrect bugaboos.
Though the context and character are different, Murray’s phrase can apply to the non-ceremonial ousting of Canada’s beloved curmudgeon, Don Cherry. His defenestration carries with it all the great features of the perfect cancelling. One of them is perhaps the most aggravating: false outrage over things that a few years ago might have disturbed the overly sensitive, but the effects would have been momentary. It would have blown over after a day or two. People would have quickly gained their composure and moved on and left the octogenarian to his work, which many Canadians enjoy. And yes, his cantankerous demeanour is among the many reasons why this has been the case for decades.
But, unfortunately, the culture we’re living in rewards outrage to the point that people will pursue it for the sake of social validation and to feed their own egomania; they’re supposed compassion for the “violated” comes off so contrived and convenient as to be nauseating. Particularly since the things upon which they train their sights are often as frivolous as a sports broadcaster expressing his concerns over people not wearing poppies. One can’t help but take notice of the façade being showcased by many, since if we were to suggest that they do something that would actually make their outrage worthwhile—such as donating property to an immigrant Cherry ostensibly violated—they’d likely disappear quickly from their podium of virtue. When Cherry was on his show earlier this week, Tucker Carlson said that these people are “fascists” with no feelings and are using their “outrage” to “exert power.”
We certainly can argue over the applicability of the word “fascist,” but the gist of what Carlson said is accurate. With the most cursory reading of the avalanche of denouncements, it’d not be far-fetched to assert that many deep down aren’t really that appalled by Don Cherry’s comments. For with the advent of social media, these people have developed even more of an addiction to attaining instant approval from their peers and, upon seeing where the wind is blowing, have shifted their focus to satisfying this addiction through the pursuit of superficial causes they likely weren’t interested in until an hour ago.
What this has created is a generation of moral narcissists who engage in performative outrage, treating takedowns of old-timers like Don Cherry as some great act of bravery and something for which they are owed adulation. They operate in a non-existent universe in which they have had no moments of indiscretion, and they arrogantly impose their new standards of perfection onto people for offences past and present. In a sober-minded world, they’d likely be left standing on a corner rambling like a crazed wing nut and attract only a few supporters. But social media provides them with an obsequious, like-minded tribe who will readily applaud their every utterance and provide them with a constant dose of self-satisfaction.
In a new article for the Atlantic with the fitting title, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks,” Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell provide one of the most insightful analyses of this social malaise. They argue that people have become susceptible to this contagion of “fake outrage” as social media has transformed “communication into a public performance.” The lack of intimacy in the Twittersphere makes interaction with others entirely based upon outdoing the next person with their “grandstanding” and scrutinizing of others instead of actually making an attempt to connect with people by productive, two-way communication. “ Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of an audience,” they observe. “Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The intent of the speaker is ignored.”
With the immediate consumption of mass information, people have lost touch with ideas and principles that have long sustained civil society and have come to see little value in learning about them, while becoming obsessed with dim-witted fights. “Even though they have unprecedented access to all that has ever been written and digitized,” Haidt and Rose-Stockwell write, “members of Gen Z (those born after 1995 or so) may find themselves less familiar with the accumulated wisdom of humanity than any recent generation, and therefore more prone to embrace ideas that bring social prestige within their immediate network yet are ultimately misguided.”
These people deprive themselves of the timeless values that would restrain them—such as reason, curiosity, truth, giving others the benefit of the doubt, decency, pluralism, among others.
People, such as those on The Social, instead become dog whistle specialists, who are incredibly precise when it comes to reading minds and confirming one’s motives without any further questions. They then claim it as evidence of a much larger crisis, though the only ones really “taking offence” are the cultural elitists in the major metropolitans and their Twitter legion of moral narcissists desperate to profit off of outrage.
Don Cherry is only the latest casualty of this insidious enterprise.