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Cancel culture is so often a political thing, aligned with binding progressive dogmas, that we easily overlook its origin in a wholly apolitical setting. I mean the teenage bedroom circa 2010.
In that little hothouse of gossip, games, photos, texts, videos, peer pressure and youth culture, youngsters learned the ways of cancellation with a cheery exertion of personal power. Here’s what happened.
In the first decade of the third millennium, Web 2.0 took off. Google pushed out Netscape, new sites let customers review products, not just buy them, and marvelous tools unleashed unprecedented ways for people to fashion their identities, build a personal network and publicize their experiences and opinions. Remember the opening motto of YouTube: “Broadcast Yourself.”
That was the social impact of Web 2.0: the personal empowerment, the individual “customization.” In handing so much control to users over the “inputs” in their hours so that they could ever more diligently match consumptions and interactions to their preferences, Web 2.0 promised a more pleasing, less disagreeable engagement with the world.
Users could limit themselves to congenial news sources, consumer goods and fellow human beings. The misfortune of turning on the TV or entering the public square and hearing odious (to you) opinions need no longer happen. You could shut out what affronts you. This was the oft-noted “Daily Me” more and more people constructed, a bubble of self-affirming contacts.
The kids loved it the most. They were the Digital Natives, Early Adopters with the free time and inquisitive energy to exploit the tools well in advance of the grown-ups. The first sentence of a Forbes story from late 2010 went, “The most interesting thing about Facebook’s top trends of 2010 . . . is how much the social network seems to be ruled by the activity of teenagers.”
They were experimenting and innovating while boomers were watching CBS News and paying bills by check just as they had in 1990. If an elder did buy a “handheld,” he turned to a junior for advice on how to use it. That same year, our outfitted teen sent more than 3,300 texts per month.
This added a powerful arsenal to the dynamics of youth society, an environment of up-and-down relations, sore confusions, needy egos and inventive cruelties. The millennial at home could go to her room, shut the door and log on, chat and text, send and receive, talk and watch and listen for hours.
And if a mean girl cut in and threw a slur, she could remove that offender with a simple click. If a news source peddled takes she didn’t like, she could block it, just as she could block unwanted text messages, too. Facebook offered lots of friends and an “unfriend” button as well.
This filtering process went on for hours a day for many years of their lives, years during which a person’s civic sense starts to form. In their little private worlds, millennials saw no reason they should have to put up with noxious persons and ideas. This is My Space — get out!
Very well, but they forgot a crucial distinction: The norms of the bedroom may run on comfort and affirmation, but the norms of public affairs run on the First Amendment. An open society cannot function without high levels of tolerance and citizens with thick skins.
Growing up in the Daily Me, millennials didn’t learn those habits of free speech, freedom of association and rights of privacy. Web 2.0 enabled them to shut down antagonists at home, and it induced them to believe they could do the same outside the home once they left school and joined the adult world.
And they do it now with zeal. According to a 2020 Morning Consult/Politico poll, 40% of millennials approve of cancel culture and 37% disapprove (the rest have no opinion). Only 26% of boomers approve, about half as many as disapprove (49%).
Millennials have been primed for this. It’s not political, really, it’s personal. They have merely transferred the mores of the wired teen bedroom to American society at large.
And don’t expect Gen Z to rebel against cancel culture. They polled at nearly the same approve/disapprove rates as millennials. They are coming of age in the same bedrooms.
The only answer to this is a corps of mentors and a vigorous youth media that reinforce free speech, a pluralistic public square and genuine tolerance. From what we’ve seen, however, that upright defense of freedom is beyond the will or disposition of most college presidents, social-media CEOs, celebrities in sports and entertainment and journalists. The ultra-connected youth is, indeed, the 21st-century American pioneer.
Mark Bauerlein’s new book is “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.”