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Stoicism Offers an Antidote to Cancel Culture

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From a eudaimonic well-being perspective, the act of cancelling those we do not like—more often than not—leaves us worse off, precisely because it robs us of an opportunity to create the best version of ourselves.”

In July of 2020, 150 artists and writers signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying, “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter did not so much ignite a controversy over free speech, as fan the flames of an already-existing conflagration kindled by cancel culture.

The response from some quarters was to mock the concerns raised in the letter and dismiss them as “paranoid,” or as an attempt to dodge the more important issue at stake, which they held was to hold “privileged people accountable.” Moreover, while complaints against cancel culture frequently come from the right side of the political divide, charges also arise about the Right’s own cancellation efforts, via voter suppression laws, calls to ban The New York Times’  The 1619 Project from being taught in schools, and “cancelling NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.”

Philosophy professor and political commentator Ben Burgis summed up the situation nicely when he tweeted earlier this month: “The apparent burning need by so many people on Left Twitter to sort every human being into the Good basket or the Bad basket is just pathological. You can agree with people on some stuff and disagree with them about other stuff.” He only needed to add that Right Twitter can be equally guilty.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, would probably have viewed cancel culture as a form of exile.

Cancel culture, which we define as a spontaneous and collective push by social media mobs and/or custodians of high society to banish heterodox “undesirables” from the presence of polite society, is hardly new. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, would probably have viewed cancel culture as a form of exile. There are clear similarities between being blacklisted on social media or escorted off the premises of university campuses and being kicked off of one’s soapbox at the market square and thrown outside of the city gates. 

Then, as now, some people undoubtedly needed to be cancelled after years of refusing to toe the line for the sake of the common good. Yet, then as now, some people got cancelled precisely because they were fighting for the common good. History is littered with unreasonable people on both sides of the exile equation, as no one is immune to vice and caprice. One of the main challenges we encounter in life is acquiring and cultivating the wisdom to discern who is who. The second challenge is how to think and act virtuously when confronted with the possibility of being exiled or with the opportunity to stop it.  The third challenge is how best to fight cancel culture when one is in neither position but witnesses it becoming a potent toxin that kills debate or dialogue rather than enriches it.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, is perhaps not an obvious antidote to the increasingly observed tendency of angry social media mobs or “triggered” student activists attempting to de-platform people who have breached the boundaries of “acceptable” discourse. However, in many respects, that is exactly what Stoicism was designed to do. Firstly, it offers a mental framework within which both the exiled and those wishing to do the exiling can work through the virtue of taking an (in)action. Secondly, it asks that a budding Stoic develop the mental fortitude required to make an appropriate decision under pressure and/or deal with the consequences of that decision. 

The ethics that underpin Stoic philosophy are anchored on four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. These stand in contrast to cowardice, injustice, greed, and ignorance (the cardinal vices). The Stoic designates the virtues and vices as good and bad, respectively, necessarily making the Stoic a political being. Importantly though, Stoics are not aligned with the Left or Right, regardless of their respective arguments. Consequently, Stoics have historically found themselves in the crosshairs of political factions. This is because Stoics refuse to always or automatically side with one tribe, or another, insisting instead on the virtue of basing their judgments on the conduct and rational arguments offered by all sides. This strategy may be the path to virtue, but it is far from pleasant, given that it often creates more enemies than it does friends. Thrasea Paetus was one Stoic who preferred to be cancelled, in the most permanent way possible, rather than support the whims of the despot Emperor Nero. 

When the latter murdered his own mother for personal gain, the other senators were required to condone and even praise the vile act. However, Thrasea walked out of the Senate in contempt. When Nero attempted to persuade the Roman Senate to unjustly execute someone who displeased him, Thrasea spoke out against it and managed to block the death sentence. When Nero coerced the senators to attend his vainglorious singing performances, once more Thrasea refused. When Nero held a meeting to have his wife deified, once again Thrasea stood up for his personal principles, further agitating the most powerful man in the world and effectively drawing a bull’s eye on his own back. This is not a Stoic who shirked his responsibility and withdraw from social action to preserve his sense of peace or job title. In fact, there are countless examples of Stoics that stood up against nepotism and sacrificed their lives or were exiled in pursuit of virtue rather than the comfort or security of following the crowd. As Roman Stoic philosopher Rufus Musonius states:

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“Evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbour’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbour.”  

Virtue: Neutralizing the Venom of Cancel Culture

A desire to act virtuously—and then consistently to act accordingly—was what the ancient Stoics thought would lead a person to experience a state of flourishing, which they referred to as eudaimonia. The latter can also be translated into English as the “life worthy of being lived” or the “good life,” which in no way guarantees that the virtuous path is nice or pleasurable. 

Eudaimonic notions of well-being, given their focus on the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, lie in sharp contrast to the prevalent hedonic well-being framework that provokes cancel culture and trigger tantrums. The hedonic framing of well-being equates “optimal psychological functioning” with the ability or opportunity to experience pleasure and enjoyment in the physical or emotional sense, while also reducing feelings of harm or suffering. It is worth noting that a hedonic framing does not necessarily mean, or refer to, the attaining of pleasure for pleasure’s sake (hedonism). Instead, it is antithetical to eudaimonic pursuits which prize virtue (or the progress towards it) over, and even at the expense of, comfort or, on occasion, physical safety

If the ability to experience comfort and avoid pain forms the fundamental mantra of one’s philosophical outlook, it is understandable that individuals (and their cliques) would go to great lengths to remove “undesirables” from their “safe spaces.” It also explains why there is a considerable incentive to create more safe spaces and why people guard safe spaces with more zeal than they exhibit in tending to the content of their own character. For if there is truly nothing worse than experiencing pain, why would anyone in their right mind tolerate it? Why would anyone allow someone the freedom to speak painful truths (and sometimes lies) to them, if all it would do is dampen their mood or, worse still, threaten their happiness and undermine their identity (which is also tied to being happy)? Under this system, removing someone we do not like, or trust, from our presence makes perfect sense. In addition, it is not difficult to see why people are so devastatingly quick to label a whole group, who look or appear to act similar, on the basis that it is possible that said group might potentially also cause them harm.

This is also incidentally why whole swathes of the educated middle classes (at least in the English-speaking world) take it upon themselves to defend or persecute someone based on how they feel towards them, in relation to the group values they wish to protect. In our mind, this “knight in shining armour” syndrome also reflects a belief that pleasure is the ultimate good and pain the ultimate bad. It is no secret that we all derive huge amounts of pleasure when we are seen to be doing the right thing by the people we value. Likewise, we all have a huge incentive not to put ourselves in a position where we might become vulnerable to attack. The evidence might show us that we are wrong; however, if we are operating hedonically, we definitely have a vested interest in ignoring it (the truth hurts).

While we can certainly understand the rationale behind cancel culture, that does not mean that it is reasonable. Stoic virtue ethics is very much focused on respecting the truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it might be. For Stoics, it is through observation, i.e. what we see rather than what we perceive, that we come to understand what is virtuous (courageous, just, temperate, and prudent) and what is vicious (cowardly, unjust, greedy, and reckless). Without a firm grasp on reality, we are more likely to follow the herd, naively believing that they cannot all be wrong!

One way in which to conceptualise virtue is to understand it as an active, persistent feature, a characteristic and tendency to be (think and act) a certain way. It is also something that is developed through selective and deliberate responses to a given circumstance or situation. For example, if generosity is a virtue, then a person’s virtue will be strengthened or weakened by his generous or stingy actions, respectively. In this regard, cancelling someone merely because his ideas make us feel bad is the opposite of what the Stoics referred to as the “good life”—precisely because it robs us of an opportunity to build our character and sculpt it accordingly. One must understands that—in most cases—cancelling someone not only distorts one’s view on reality (an echo chamber is a dangerous thing) but also actively undermines his well-being. The need to feel emotionally safe at all costs comes at the cost of the agency and purpose that is acquired when one is not triggered by the threat of the sea storm or sufficiently fragile enough to be broken by the swirl of saltwater should the sea rage.

Detoxing Your Own Mind (and Feelings)

In their 2018 book The Coddling the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that efforts by students on university campuses to remove “triggering” material from courses, or to de-platform controversial speakers, is not the best way to alleviate students’ anxieties. Instead, university students are “learning to think in distorted ways,” which “increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.” Students are increasingly engaged in a kind of “fragility” activism based on what Haidt and Lukianoff call “The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” This premise runs against decades of research in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which indicates the opposite: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; as long as you are able to learn how to cultivate habits of mind which change the way you think for the better

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, was a dark-skinned penniless immigrant.

We can testify to this truth on a personal level, as two authors who have experienced debilitating health conditions, in the form of mild cerebral palsy and brain cancer, respectively, yet who have consciously chosen to rise above our not-so-trivial challenges by accepting our reality. We have done so without being destroyed by our physical limitations or allowing ourselves to be triggered by what “ableist” others think about them. It is also perhaps not surprising that we have turned to Stoicism as our life philosophy, given that one of the founders of CBT was the Stoic-influenced Albert Ellis

Similarly, while the two most famous Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, were rich and powerful, many of the lesser-known Stoics had many challenges to overcome and might have succumbed to them had they adopted a victim mentality or allowed themselves to dive into a “fragility” spiral.  Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, was a dark-skinned, penniless immigrant. Cleanthes, his successor, was a slow-witted ex-boxer who was undoubtedly suffering from brain damage due to the multiple concussions he suffered in his bouts. Both were bereft of optimal social status and could have chosen to be “triggered” in a society that valued Athenian citizenship and intellect. Cleanthes was the butt of many jokes. Most commonly, he was called a “donkey.” It is not a particularly nice thing to call someone now, and it was not then. Those teasing him (some in a friendly manner, others less so) used the nickname to imply that he was dumb. However, he refused to take their words as insults and instead took them to imply that he was tough and stubborn enough to carry the burden of Zeno’s teachings to the next generation of Stoics. His attitude is also summed up in Epictetus’ words:

“When someone acts badly towards you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he is acting or speaking in that way because he regards that as being the proper thing for him to do. Now, it isn’t possible for him to act in accordance with what seems right to you, but only with what seems right to him. So if he judges wrongly, he is the one who suffers the harm, since he is the one who has been deceived…If you start out, then, from this way of thinking, you’ll be gentle with someone who abuses you, for in each case you’ll say, ‘That is how it seemed to him.'” 

While the Roman Stoics Seneca and Marcus Aurelius make similar statements, we are aware that one could point out how economically privileged they were, as well as how unlikely it was that a Roman statesman and Roman Emperor were going to be subject to brazen insults. However, this is most definitely not the case with Epictetus, a slave, who walked with a limp after his ex-master purposefully broke his leg. Epictetus almost certainly would have been subject to attempts at ridicule. Like Cleanthes, he chose not to be triggered by them. This was not only because he did not see insults as having any bearing on what mattered to him (his character), but also because he understood that allowing people’s words to have a debilitating effect on one gives those same people power over him. Seneca puts it in the following manner: “We are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom.” Epictetus explicitly explains why playing the role of the victim is really about surrendering one’s free will and allowing another person to rob him of his agency: “Fetter me? You will fetter my leg; but not Zeus himself can get the better of my free will.”

In sum, student “fragility” activism in particular, and cancel culture in general, run up against centuries of wisdom developed by the ancient Stoic philosophers. From a eudaimonic well-being perspective, the act of cancelling those we do not like—more often than not—leaves us worse off, precisely because it robs us of an opportunity to create the best version of ourselves. By extension, it also prevents us from improving our society through intelligent reasonable debate or dialogue. Ultimately, Stoicism is about sculpting one’s character so that he can flourish amid life’s challenges. It works because freedom and power come from courageously and wisely facing what life throws us at us—not from hiding from our problems or demanding that someone else makes our triggers go away.

Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He can be found on Twitter @kaiwhiting and blogs at StoicKai.com

Jonathan Church is an economist, CFA charter holder, and writer. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as the upcoming book Stoicism and Social Justice: Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics. He has also been published in Quillette, The Good Men Project, Washington Examiner, The Federalist, and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @jondavidchurch