Wendy Mesley, currently suspended from CBC while being investigated with taxpayer dollars for her use of ‘a word’, is the latest casualty of cancel culture. On Twitter, many are posting images of the Ouroboros, the mythological serpent that survives by consuming its own tail, to dramatize the idea of the CBC eating its own. The image also serves as an apt metaphor for outrage as a self-perpetuating cycle that both invigorates and depletes us.
Combine the ease of tweeting your condemnation for #WendyMesley, the rush of getting instant reinforcement from your online community, and the possibility of influencing an outcome, and it’s easy to see how indignation can become addictive.
A few years ago, I interviewed David Brin, an American scientist and futurist who speaks regularly on topics relating to technology and society. When I asked him about the appeal of outrage, he went as far as to suggest that moral superiority triggers an endorphin release that people start to crave. “It feels good to think you’re so right and everyone else is so wrong,” he told me.
While the health risks associated with chronic anger are well-documented, Brin theorized that for some, moral outrage may work like a tonic, lighting people from within and keeping them stoked all day. “Outrage can also be aimed at good and positive causes. Agitating for a cause you vigorously believe in – like equal rights or saving the whales - can give your life meaning and even lead to public accolades,” said Brin.
Legitimate outrage - which requires individuals to pay attention and then issue some sort of social sanction - is an absolute cornerstone of an engaged democracy. When one fit of indignation melts into the next to create a state of chronic outrage, however, the slope gets slippery.
The rush to judgement the immediacy of mediums like Twitter encourage (and magnify) diminishes our capacity for slow, deliberative thinking. It blunts our ability to distinguish between a behaviour that is authentically despicable and a controversy whipped up to serve a private agenda. In the eye of a Twitter storm, can we trust ourselves to mete out punishments that fit the crime, to determine the thresholds that indicate a behaviour is truly egregious?
It's 2020 and we're all equipped to punish one another instantly, at any time. The ease with which a person can be 'cancelled' is as disturbing as it is inevitable.
Which brings us back to Wendy Mesley.
Is the speed with which she walked the plank - issuing an immediate and unconditional apology and accepting her 'cancel' like a trooper - an indication that she acknowledges her guilt and is ready for sentence? Or is she simply cutting to the chase, playing by the rules of a game that she, as a big wheel in the media machine, understands all too well? A game in which, the villains change, but the
ending is always the same.