The NY Times published a piece today titled, “Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture.” The story is a series of vignettes looking at how “cancel culture” is looked at by high school students and some college freshman around the country. What occurred to me while reading this was that cancel culture actually seems like a perfect fit for high school. It’s the social justice version of Mean Girls:
It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. “All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,” she said. “Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.”
Months went by. Toward the end of sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.
Within a few minutes she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem. Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.
“This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,” L said. “I was bad. I deserved what was happening.”…
In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. “I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,” she said. “‘Is this annoying someone?’ ‘Is this upsetting someone?’”
“I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,” she said. “That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?”
Not surprisingly, the cancel culture message gets heavily reinforced when these teens go to college:
It was orientation day for freshmen at Sarah Lawrence College, where one new student was unnerved by a social justice group’s presentation. The presenters discussed pronoun use and called on the entering freshmen to “‘battle heteronormativity and cisgender language,’” the student said.
Even if you accidentally misgendered someone, the new students were told, you needed to be either called out or called in…
Fortunately, it doesn’t stick for everyone. For some upperclassman cancel culture has become a joke:
Among the upperclassman’s friend group now, the idea of cancellation is “basically a joke.” Too many people had been canceled. At a recent party the upperclassman had attended, one guy said, “‘If you haven’t been canceled, you’re canceled.’”
It’s a relief that many students are thinking their way out of this nonsense, but clearly not everyone escapes and some embrace it. For a hardened minority of students, cancel culture is what political activism has become. It’s why students around the country with no personal connection have taken to shouting down or shutting down voices they disagree with. But when you think about it, there really is a sense in which this is just high school drama taken far too seriously thanks to a thin veneer of politics.