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The Internet Gave Rise to 'Cancel Culture OCD'

Chrissie Hodges, a certified peer support specialist for obsessive compulsive disorder, knows how all-consuming intrusive thoughts can be. Whether someone is fixated on the possibility of contaminating their countertops or spontaneously committing violence, leaving their doors unlocked or suddenly acting on a latent sexual urge, OCD means they can never really feel secure—including in their own morality. When it comes to so-called cancel culture OCD, “people are scrutinizing every single thing they're saying, every single message they’re sending,” Hodges said in a 2020 video on the topic, consumed by the idea that anything and everything “can haunt them.”

Hodges’ content clearly resonates with the more than 11,000 subscribers of her YouTube channel. “It's paralyzing honestly,” one wrote on her cancel culture video. “And the real travesty is for me, at least, it often keeps me from actually working on bettering myself.” Online, such opportunities for self-loathing are boundless, often at the expense of greater goals. “The social justice community dogma can be hell for those of us with OCD,” wrote one Reddit user. “Our brains will interpret everything as a condemnation of us, whether it applies or not.” Without professional support, it’s hard to tame the beast. “Confessing, apologizing, and ruminating—none of these will bring any peace,” another Reddit user wrote.

Today, the phrase “cancel culture” triggers a wide range of responses: concern, frustration, a bit of eye-rolling. There are endless debates about what it is (accountability or censorship?), what’s driving it (context collapse, perhaps, or a new “woke” religion), and whether it even exists. Few public figures have been successfully canceled; even fewer have stayed canceled. Yet online life remains suffused with a distinct air of paranoia and an often-pacifying doubt—and perhaps focusing on the “cancel” part of cancel culture distracts from its rippling effects in our daily lives. The old saying goes, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” But the experiences of people with cancellation OCD reveal another truth: Scrutinize yourself too closely and you can always find something wrong.

There hasn’t been any formal research on the cancel culture theme in OCD yet, says Monica Wu, a clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in the disorder. Yet mounting clinical anecdotes suggest it’s a common preoccupation these days. People may replay events in their head, ask others for repeated reassurance, and check social media comments over and over again looking for signs of trouble.

Spend enough time scrolling and it becomes clear that the looming threat of cancellation affects more than just those with OCD. Online, any misstep becomes ammunition for the opposition. In the absence of a physical realm for real initiative, people are reduced primarily to their speech—and are judged accordingly. Whether that speech reflects mere thoughts, actual behaviors, or nothing at all cannot be easily determined; the distinction is treated as almost immaterial. Because digital speech is permanent, any perceived harm exists in perpetuity.

The result can feel punitive: “Canceling is punishment, and punishment doesn't stop the cycle of harm, not long term,” writes Adrienne Maree Brown in We Will Not Cancel Us. There’s no easy way out. Never posting may seem appealing, but silence isn’t usually an option, either, lest it be mistaken for a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

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For people with OCD, who make up about 2 percent of the population, the solution is clear: exposure response prevention, a targeted therapy that helps patients systematically confront and eliminate their fears head-on. But what is everyone else on the World Wide Web to do? Catholic saints and modern-day OCD sufferers might be able to lend some perspective.

The people in Hodges’ comment section may be outliers, but they have historical precedents. Canceling, after all, is just the latest attempt to make a system out of reflexive feelings of disgust, the often categorical rejection of something—or someone—as offensive. “To ward off disgust, we enact purity rites, like rinsing the dirt from our lettuce or ‘canceling’ a semipublic figure who posted a racist tweet when she was a teenager,” Molly Young recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine. Taboos and corresponding purity rituals have always played this role, according to the British cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, author of the 1966 book Purity and Danger. However arbitrary such rules may seem, symbolic systems protect “the local consensus on how the world is organized” and “shore up wavering uncertainty.”

Unfortunately, cleansing impulses occasionally get out of hand, say Jesse S. Summers and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Duke University philosophers and coauthors of Clean Hands: Philosophical Lessons from Scrupulosity. Since at least the 12th century, the Catholic Church has grappled with the problem of excessive religious scruples. Clergy believed that scrupulosity was the work of the devil, who made one’s “conscience delicate with a view to leading it to excess,” wrote Ignatius of Loyola, who himself struggled with scrupulosity. Priests might refuse to hear their confession or withhold penance when they saw the ordinary pious veering into slavish religious devotion. But plenty of scrupulous people (who might now be diagnosed with OCD) went on to become saints like Ignatius, venerated for their single-minded obsession with moral purity.

Of course, most people are not concerned enough with morals. But veering too far in the other direction has its own downsides, including thinking errors, rigid behaviors in the face of uncertainty, and, perhaps worst of all, a fixation on thoughts, potentially to the exclusion of real action. For people with OCD, intrusive thoughts and corresponding compulsions can consume hours of each day, with little time left to eat, sleep, or socialize. Online, it can overwhelm spaces putatively dedicated to organizing for a better world offline.

While OCD and scrupulosity are diagnoses of the individual, their traits appear at the level of culture, too, and can be helpful for thinking through the uses and abuses of contemporary taboos. In the early 2000s, for example, many Americans expressed a distinctly right-wing and Christian conception of bodily purity in the form of promise rings, worn even by pop stars, pledging virginity until marriage. These days, it seems we are dealing with a leftist spin on “purity culture,” in which immense value is now placed on ideological purity and thinking and speaking perfectly about charged topics. Like its right-wing counterpart, the consequences can be reductive, narrowing the complexity of a human life to a person’s ability to follow a few symbolic and often unsustainable commitments.

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One element of left-leaning purity culture mirrors a symptom of OCD: thought-action fusion, or the belief that thoughts are equivalent to behavior. In moral thought-action fusion, a person holds the conviction that thinking something wrong or immoral is as bad as actually doing it. Therapists call thought-action fusion a “cognitive error”; thoughts, they argue, are largely uncontrollable and morally neutral, as in the case of people with OCD who fear they might become pedophiles, despite feeling no actual interest or intent, and often having a real horror of child molestation. Yet moral thought-action fusion is deeply embedded in Western culture, from the New Testament to Kantian philosophy to the constant call for “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of often preventable tragedy. It’s also a core feature of leftist scrupulosity.

Take implicit bias training. In 1998, three researchers from the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia assembled an online assessment that purportedly told test-takers what unconscious racial or other biases they held. In the intervening decades, for-profit companies began to offer corporate workshops designed to lower participants’ implicit bias through tactics like perspective-taking (building empathy with stereotyped groups) and counter-stereotyping (envisioning, for example, a woman as powerful). By the late 2010s, implicit bias testing and training was being pitched as the solution for America’s original sin.

More recent research and reporting has, however, shown that the claims of the test were overstated. Implicit bias training remains understudied and, preliminary data suggests, potentially counterproductive. While checking in with ourselves about our biases can be useful as we move through life, it’s the idea that racism is primarily a problem with the thoughts of individuals—and, by extension, that mental cleanses are the cure—that has stuck.

It’s clear who benefits most from this line of thinking: corporations, for whom hiring implicit bias trainers costs a lot less than actually dismantling systemic racism and other forms of oppression. Yet this viewpoint remains entrenched online too. When people reveal a problematic viewpoint, it’s seen “as the mask slipping; as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness,” according to ContraPoints, the YouTuber-philosopher also known as Natalie Wynn. But when the callouts begin, the person at the center of the storm is rarely reformed; it’s the bystanders who get swept up in these endless cycles of public purification.

On its most foundational level, OCD is rooted in an unusually low tolerance of uncertainty and, as Douglas wrote, an overwhelming desire to shore it up. To cope, people with OCD spend more and more time trying to eliminate risk—until those rituals become the problem itself. Through this lens, thought-action fusion makes a strange kind of sense: If your thoughts and behaviors are morally equivalent, the rules are simple. You must take responsibility for it all, no exceptions. The same is true in purity culture. It’s easier to invest in sharing “good” thoughts in sanitized online spaces than to engage with the messy deeds demanded by the real world, especially when they’re seen as equally valuable because thoughts, speech, and action have partially collapsed. But as any therapist will tell you, the only place thought-action fusion can lead is away from reality.

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However it’s packaged, purity—of mind, body, planet—doesn’t exist. “There is no primordial state we might wish to get back to, no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and kombucha,” writes Canadian philosopher Alexis Shotwell in her 2016 treatise Against Purity. Purism, in any form, “is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair”—at odds with leftist commitments, which aim to change the world for the better.

Accepting that we are already compromised and always have been can be difficult, but Shotwell argues it can liberate us as we organize for the future. Keeping your mind pure, and refusing to get down in the dirt with others, is a “self-righteous politics,” Shotwell writes. Being unable to move forward in your own life out of fear of cancellation is bad enough; letting it get in the way of self-betterment or collective action is even worse.

Or, put another way: “Self-appointed guardians of political purity” who believe “they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses” only make the hard work harder, writes Black feminist Loretta Ross. While it is possible to care about more than one thing at a time, everyone’s bandwidth is limited. Endlessly refining the message—and, in particular, correcting the speech of mostly cis, white people with large platforms—can come at the expense of the activism and direct action that makes everyone’s lives better.

In this, the internet will continue to play a fraught role. It’s an excellent tool for publicizing issues and raising money, but so far, social platforms have mostly contributed to a politicization of daily life so complete that, paradoxically, nothing political actually happens. Interrogating our worldview, informing ourselves with a more complete understanding of how we arrived at this point in human history, and recalibrating our values accordingly is important work, but there are limits (as many of our thoughts are not within our control), and it is only valuable insofar as it generates change in the real world.

In psychiatry, many people with OCD are said to be “ego-dystonic,” or living with the sense that their intrusive thoughts—and the time they spend on them—go against their values. The same thing seems to be happening collectively: Humans clearly value the planet and each other, even as we see the ongoing harm that we, both individually and collectively, have caused. While we desperately want to fix it, we don’t necessarily think ourselves capable; the problems are big and the current purity standard is just too high. Instead of living according to our principles, come what may, we cancel ourselves—cleansing the timeline of our past misdeeds, and wrapping ourselves in antimicrobial fabrics so tightly we can’t make new ones.

But, as people in therapy for OCD will tell you, “what you resist persists.” The chaos of modern life is not going away. The values we cultivate, even when we fail to live up to them, matter. Doing something is almost always more meaningful than saying something, and online purity culture is keeping people from doing much of either. Though we will never reach a state of purity, in embracing our “complicity and compromise,” as Shotwell puts it, and accepting uncertainty, we might just find the very “starting point for action.”


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