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Freud And Cancel Culture


The problem with Freud — and I would like to point out that I am not a psychology student, is that his theories were based upon the results of situations, rather than the situations themselves. The ‘Freudian Slip’ theory confirmed peoples’ worst fears about the subconscious breaking through to the conscious. And people love having their worst fears confirmed.

Freudian theories wandered into pop culture because his explanations felt like the truth. Doesn’t it make sense that to say your ex-boyfriend’s name in a conversation with your current boyfriend means you are still in love with him? Hint: re-read the question with a self-important, drawling, sarcastic tone.

Thinking about Freud’s popularity also got me thinking about his lack of popularity. While he remains a large part of popular culture’s understanding of the mind, he was mostly well, kind of wrong. Psychoanalysis is not testable or consistent. Freud lacks the empirical evidence to back up his philosophies because it’s almost impossible to get the empirical evidence.

And so, in the same way that many important pop-culture figures have been, Freud has been cancelled, for lack of a better word — over and over and over again.

It’s interesting that when the idea of ‘be critical of your media’ wandered into popular consciousness, it developed into the accurately termed cancel culture that dominates the internet.

I think this is because there is confusion about what it means to think critically about something.

To be a critical thinker is to subject the things you see, hear and feel to an objective examination. It means to be open to having your beliefs challenged and changed. It means considering multiple perspectives and contexts; being empathetic and emotionally literate. It means always being in pursuit of the truth.

However, society has taken the word critical at face value —ironically missing the point by driving straight past it, a million miles an hour. Most people would hear the word critical and think of the negative connotations: picky, awful, inferior, critical. People think that to think critically about something, they need to scrutinise every minute detail and air only its dirty parts. They think it means to subject the thing to the worst thing we’ve discovered we can hurt people with: online public shaming.

You’ve seen it. I know you’ve seen it. You woke up one morning and looked at Facebook to see gossip websites filling your feed with how ‘Louis CK [was] cancelled by everyone.’ One morning I found out that JK Rowling made some hideous transphobic comments and even wrote an essay extending those comments. And what about when Dr Suess’s estate only decided to recall certain books because of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement?

The issue with cancel culture in this context, is that people like Louis CK and JK Rowling still retain their wealth, influence and lives of luxury. Their reputation may be damaged, but how can that truly affect them, outside of their egos and whether or not they move outside of their personal spheres? Cancel culture hurts people, just as it would have hurt these two significant pop-culture figures. But the cancelling in itself did not achieve what it set out to do, which was to break them.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which is all about this specific topic. Ronson writes, “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high dramas. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?.”

Whilst I personally had some minor issues with Ronson’s writing —I’m an English major, so this shouldn’t be surprising, this quote stands out to me on so many levels. Why do some people crave “artificial high dramas?” Do I crave it, on a subconscious level? What would Freud say about this? Why do we create false dichotomies out of real people, even when we know that to be human is to be neither good nor bad, but the gooey space in the middle?

The point shouldn’t be to stop reading Dr. Seuss books to your children, to throw them out or burn them in a fire. The point should be to read Dr. Seuss books to your children but show them that some representations or portrayals should not be valued or repeated in literature in the future. The point should be that we understand that everything is flawed. We can consume media even though it is flawed because everything is inherently flawed. Just ensure that you don’t promote particular media as gospel. Be wary. But also remember that being wary isn’t a bad thing.

You can still read Harry Potter, but you should read it knowing that the author of the series isn’t some almighty powerful God-like figure with endless wisdom, just a woman challenged by her own internalised prejudices and bigoted beliefs.

As Ronson writes, “Prurient curiosity may not be great. But curiosity is.”

I wonder what Freud would say about cancel culture. He probably would have appreciated the term for its alliteration—it’s catchy.

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