Interview with Prof. Cass Sunstein on 'lapidations' and online outrage

I had the pleasure of connecting with Prof. Cass Sunstein recently to discuss online outrage, public shaming, group polarization, and the associated challenges for deliberative democracy.

Prof. Sunstein is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University Law School. He is an expert in administrative law, and was previously responsible for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Conformity: The Power of Social Influences.

This is a pretty wide-ranging interview, and it begins with a description of what Prof. Sunstein calls “lapidations”: public stonings in the digital age. This phenomenon is familiar to any keen observer of the culture, but our language has not quite caught up. I’ll borrow liberally from his definition:  

Groups of people, outraged by some real or imagined transgression, often respond in a way that is wildly disproportionate to the occasion, thus ruining the transgressor’s day, month, year, or life. […]

In the most extreme situations, lapidation is based on a lie, a mistake, or a misunderstanding. People are lapidated even though they did nothing wrong. They might have made some kind of misstatement and so have been misinterpreted by reasonable listeners. Even so, they did not intend to say what they were heard to say.

In less extreme cases, the transgression is real, and lapidators have a legitimate concern. They are right to complain and to emphasize that people have been saddened, hurt, or wronged. The problem is that they lose a sense of proportion. They want heads to roll. Someone makes a mistake, or a foolish or offensive comment, and lapidators come out in force, often in a state of frenzy. Usually they are led by lapidation entrepreneurs, who have their own agenda. They might be concerned with self-promotion. They might be concerned with promoting a cause or with defeating an opponent, for whom the lapidation victim is taken to stand, or can be made to stand. […] Lapidation entrepreneurs may unleash something horrific.

For the targets of these online struggle sessions, the experience can be psychologically shattering (here I speak from experience). Public shamings are often accompanied by calls for a person to be stripped of their livelihood or public platform. And because the Internet preserves a permanent record of their public annihilation, they could be rendered unemployable far into the future. Their friends and colleagues may abandon them out of fear or self-preservation. Suicidal ideation is frighteningly common.

So why do people participate in the public destruction of others? 

We addressed a number of possibilities in this interview. One obvious answer is that the performance of outrage allows participants to signal their own virtues and tribal identity. It may also provide an outlet: for people who feel helpless or disenfranchised, it can serve as an ersatz (and ultimately unfulfilling) form of political participation.

Sometimes the outraged are acting on a genuine belief that their political or ideological opponents really are evil or morally abhorrent. Where this is the case, they may convince themselves that any means—no matter how dishonest or cruel—are justified to attack and degrade them. Some ‘lapidation entrepreneurs’ have other, unrelated motives: they may instrumentalize public outrage to achieve a personal objective, to promote themselves, or to settle scores.  

Another possibility is that lapidations are a way to enforce social norms. This is nothing new: every human society employs shame and stigma to signal limits on appropriate speech and conduct. One critical difference is that our modern public shamings are not always used to uphold inherited norms and prejudices, but to create new ones (based, perhaps, on mere abstractions). Small groups of people may treat newly emerged or contested taboos as though they are settled wisdom. And, having skipped over the persuasion stage, they move straight to coercive enforcement. In some cases, it is unclear whether the new values can be justified.

Lapidations exert a chilling effect on open inquiry, as even good faith dialogue can result in the ruination of a person’s career and reputation. When the critical examination of certain propositions is considered off limits, and when our public institutions are beholden to the loudest and angriest voices on the Internet, our capacity for deliberative democracy is at risk.

On writing "Letter from Masanjia"

On writing "Letter from Masanjia"

Last week, Leon Lee and I won a Leo Award for screenwriting on our documentary Letter from Masanjia. I was unable to attend the awards ceremony, but have been so heartened to see the continuing success of the film. One day, when circumstances permit, I hope that the China-based crew is able to share in the recognition for the project.

I began work on Letter from Masanjia about three years ago, when I first pitched director Leon Lee on the idea of a film about China’s notorious Masanjia reeducation-through-labour camp. Over the years I had interviewed a number of refugees who experienced torture at Masanjia, and read the testimonies and accounts of dozens more. The initial idea was to conduct on-camera interviews with as many former Masanjia inmates and guards as could be found living abroad, and piece together the history of the camp through their testimonies. In the mean time, we set about trying to locate the former inmate who smuggled SOS notes out of the camp, setting off a chain of events that culminated with the abolition of the reeducation-through-labour system.

Finding Sun Yi wasn’t easy. He was interviewed by CNN and the New York Times in 2013, but he’d concealed his identity. By the time I approached Leon about this project, he had already been looking for Sun Yi for a couple years without success. There were probably no more than a half dozen people in the world who knew his real identity or where to find him. But we did, and the rest was history. The expansive narrative I initially set out to tell about Masanjia couldn’t compare to the story and the character of this one, remarkable man.

Wall Street Journal: The Cultural Revolution Comes to North America

Wall Street Journal: The Cultural Revolution Comes to North America

“China did not become a tyranny overnight. Too many people in my father’s generation chose not to stand up for their neighbors, friends and even family members when they were under attack. They learned to obey instead of challenge, to pick sides rather than think for themselves. They assented to obvious lies because they didn’t want the mob to turn on them next.

Such practical-minded decisions to place reputation and safety above truth allowed evil to accumulate. Personal compliance became collective complicity, and China was lost to totalitarianism. Don’t let it happen here.”

Podcast: When the Mob Comes for You

“What tactics are acceptable in a political campaign? Are some things out of bounds? When politics become ‘total war,’ what damage is done?”

These are among the questions I discussed recently with Joel Crichton, an Edmonton-based psychotherapist and curator of the Windward Psychological podcast.

It’s a lengthy, deeply personal, and sometimes esoteric discussion. But may be of interest to anyone hoping to understand the comments that precipitated my resignation as an MLA candidate, and more importantly, what my story might tell us about our current political climate.


Until three weeks ago, I was a conservative political candidate running for a seat in the provincial legislature in Alberta, Canada.

I had spent nearly nine months campaigning, winning a contested nomination and meeting thousands of voters. My campaign brochures referenced the need for intellectual humility, a sense of gratitude, a commitment to truth, and the importance of nuanced and thoughtful dialogue across partisan lines. It was a bit unconventional, but the message resonated with voters who were exhausted by divisive and simplistic partisan rhetoric. With the election less than a month away, our internal polling showed a clear path to victory. We had a phenomenal campaign team, motivated volunteers, and we had out-fundraised the other parties by massive margins.

Then, less than 24 hours before the the formal 28-day campaign period began, an NDP-affiliated organization PressProgress published an article accusing me of sympathizing with white supremacists.

Calgary Herald: From human rights, to film, to politics, Caylan Ford is a force of nature

Calgary Herald: From human rights, to film, to politics, Caylan Ford is a force of nature

Last October I was fortunate to be profiled in the Calgary Herald during my nomination run for the United Conservative Party. There is something oddly prescient about this article, particularly this bit:

And now Ford is embarking on a new challenge as she’s running for the United Conservative Party nomination in Calgary-Mountain View […]

Why is she choosing politics?

Ford recognizes that “most normal, sane people wouldn’t do it.” […]

“What kind of person wants to run for office, where everything that they say and do is scrutinized in the worst possible way?” she says. “There are so many assumptions of bad faith.

“To have your views wilfully misstated and misconstrued, it would be infuriating. But then if good, normal, decent people don’t step forward, then you are just ceding that ground to those who seek power for its own sake.”