• We live in the age of the internet – careers are made and destroyed online, with the arrival of the phenomenon known as 'cancel culture'

  • Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Dr Ana Mootoosamy explains Sigmund Freud’s concept of the superego and how it might drive some of our online behaviour

Cancel culture and shaming

It is undeniable that we live in the online age, and that this has ushered in the era of 'cancel culture'. There are countless examples of celebrities who have been 'cancelled' because of something they have said or done that is considered to be offensive or otherwise unforgivable. Cancelling usually takes the form of withdrawal of support, which can include a platform, job, power, popularity etc. 

The definition of cancel culture on dictionary.com includes the following: “Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” 

The opportunity for group shaming has never been greater than in the digital world, as individual voices have a far greater reach than they have ever had. This means that people and corporations, who may in the past have been able to weather a scandalous storm, are easier to be cancelled instead. 

But what is it that drives the group and the need to shame and cancel?

Freud and the superego

It goes without saying, that if a crime has been committed, that a person/corporation should be held responsible for what they have done. But this article isn’t about legality and crime, it is about what might be driving some of the group behaviour that we are currently witnessing online that fuels cancel culture. 

One of Sigmund Freud’s many ground-breaking theories was his model of the mind – instead of proposing that we have a mind that is mostly rational and only becomes upset on rare occasions, he proposed a radical theory that we are constitutionally in conflict with ourselves. 

His model of the mind contains:

  1. The id, which seeks pleasure at all times. This is the part of the mind that is not particularly rational – you could consider it your wild side. (One more drink when you’ve already had four – why not? Fries on the side when you’re on a diet – go for it! Fancy your best friend’s boyfriend – bit of harmless fun to see if he’s interested in you! That’s probably your id talking)

  2. The ego, which tries to keep the id (wild side) in check, because we have to live in reality, which means that we can’t always get what we want. (You should go home because you’ve got work tomorrow. Have a salad instead of fries. Nope, your best friend’s boyfriend is out of bounds)

  3. The superego, which is the like the judge and jury of the mind. The superego is harsh and critical of the self and demands punishment. (What are you – an alcoholic, with no control? Why did you think it was ok to have fries, you know you’re on a diet, why are you so weak? You know it’s wrong to fancy your best friend’s boyfriend – you are a bad person!)

Freud believed that all three of the components of the mind can be conflict with each other, with the id attempting to seek pleasure, the ego trying to stay within social norms and what is plausible in reality, and the superego constantly telling us off. 

The superego is not to be under-estimated as a force in the mind; it can be cruel, demanding, and can lead to self-hatred. 

The superego and cancel culture

So what has the superego got to do with cancel culture? Mark Edmundson has written a book called The Age of Guilt – The Superego in the Online World, where he suggests that the internet has become the space where the superego has become manifested in our culture. Instead of the internet being a simple forum for exchange of ideas and information, it has become a place of judgement and condemnation, demanding punishment of those who have transgressed our morals.

Institutions and individuals do need to be held to account, as historically crimes and injustices have been committed that were covered up, or rules were flagrantly ignored. 

Perhaps though, it is also worthwhile considering whether, at an individual level, it is necessary to participate in the latest online demand for punishment. It is possible for an individual taking part in cancel culture to get into serious legal trouble, such as defamation, if they publicly and wrongly accuse someone who is innocent.

It might be worth stopping and pausing to consider things through carefully before riding the latest wave of internet outrage. 

Dr Ana Mootoosamy is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in South West London and online

Further reading

The psychology of fans: why belonging matters more than anything

Elon Musk and free speech: a psychoanalytic perspective

Can we agree to disagree? Tips to improve online communication

Ideas as opiates: the psychology of conspiracy theories

How we become polarised, how we can reconnect