Online activists’ cancel culture tactics threaten us all–and the causes they claim to support.
Last week, an online cancel culture mob came for me.
It started simply. An organization called Stop Antisemitism posted a video of a young woman tearing down posters in a Chicago neighborhood. The posters showed people who had been kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza following the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel. The post quickly went viral, and the video has since been viewed and retweeted over 1.2 million times.
Typically, I’d scroll past a post like this never to think of it again. But, this video was different. Twitter users quickly identified the woman in the video as well as her employer. Which happened to be my company. I am the CEO of a psychiatric urgent care provider called Mindful Care, and this woman happened to work an administrative position at a Mindful Care location in Chicago.
Quickly, my social media mentions exploded. I’m not a big Twitter user, but in a matter of minutes, I was inundated with hate mail and aggressive messages calling me a Nazi and an antisemite.“Why do you hire such filth?” “Do all of your staff hate Jews? I don’t think it’s safe for Jewish people to use your services.” “Why do you hate Jews?” Out of nowhere I was blindsided by these accusations–and publicly.
Though by no means an enjoyable experience, these messages did me no real harm. I am a Jewish man; accusing me of antisemitism over the actions of an employee I’ve only met in passing is absurd. But, I am also a psychiatrist, and my brief experience with online cancel culture mobs left me with deep questions about both the psychological impacts of these experiences and their utility in the fight for social justice.
Though “cancel culture” is a relatively new term, human societies have used humiliation and public shaming to enforce social norms for hundreds of years. We’re all familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter afterall. Many Western legal systems used public shaming to punish those convicted of crimes well into the 19th century. But, over time, modern societies did away with formalized systems of shame and humiliation. Today, we find these premodern practices cruel and inhumane–violations of individual rights and dignity. And for good reason.
Public shaming has significant, lasting mental health impacts on individuals. Humans are social creatures. Personal relationships and a strong sense of community are vital to our wellbeing. Recent social science research has shown that online “cancellation” can lead to isolation, loneliness, and low-self esteem. For some, these symptoms can lead to or exacerbate clinically significant depression and anxiety. They can even increase the risk of self harm or suicide as the limits of an individual’s coping skills are tested.
I had the tools to get through my brief encounter with the cancel culture mob. I’m a mental health professional with a strong support system and numerous other advantages. Plus, I’d done nothing wrong. In the world of psychiatry, we might say I had a lot of “protective factors” or resources that allow me to be resilient in the face of challenges. Still, my experience left me with concern and empathy for those without such resources.
I did not do or say anything publicly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yet thousands of people on social media felt that I deserved harassment and vitriol. They felt empowered to call me a Nazi and an antisemite on the basis of two posts on Twitter. What happens when these mobs are turned loose on more vulnerable individuals? On people with existent depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges? Many victims of cancel culture are not as lucky as myself. When the mob turns on the vulnerable, the mental consequences can be dire. As a clinician, I believe that this kind of stress could significantly exacerbate mental health symptoms, increase the risk of relapse for individuals with substance use disorders, and even lead to preventable hospitalizations in the most at-risk.
Organizations and accounts like Stop Antisemitism, of which there are many, are designed to generate public outrage. StopAntisemitism’s website clearly states that their work is focused on calling out people they deem antisemitic in the hopes that they will face social stigma and material punishment in their digital and real lives. Their goals are “job loss and school explusions.”
I do not wish to single out StopAntisemitism because of my personal experience. They are hardly the only activists using this model of social change. Mom’s for Liberty, Libs of Tik Tok, and many other individuals and groups use these tactics–on both sides of the aisle.
Still, I worry that these organizations’ focus on public shaming and humiliation does more harm than good. Their tools are anger and indignation. There is no room for education, growth, and enlightenment. They call people out but offer no path for atonement, only punishment. I am not a political organizer, and I am not sure if these tactics will successfully reduce public expressions of racism or antisemitism. But as a Jewish man, it is hard to imagine how organizing social media mobs will improve the lives of Jewish people in the United States or abroad. What I can say with confidence is that innocent bystanders will be harmed as these cancel culture activists do their work. These tactics put real people’s mental health and well being at risk.
As a psychiatrist, I am worried about the victims. I take seriously the mental health consequences of public shaming. Given the deep psychological harm public humiliation can cause, I do not believe these organizing tactics are our best way forward. Shame does nothing to promote connection and community or reconciliation and healing. I believe strongly in the fight to stop antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and all forms of prejudice. But shame and humiliation are barbaric, archaic tools. We must do better if we wish to build a truly progressive, modern society.