The dark triad is the term used to describe the constellation of three maladaptive and socially undesirable traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Machiavellian individuals are cold and cynical, often using manipulative means to achieve their goals. Narcissistic personalities display high levels of entitlement, constantly seeking admiration, attention and status. Subclinical psychopaths are impulsive and are characterized by low levels of empathy. At the individual level, these traits come together to reveal a latent self-interested disposition. Interpersonally, such a disposition motivates an unapologetic expansion of ego, power and dominance through socially irresponsible and exploitative behavior, as well as an effort to attack and punish dissenters. While these traits illustrate an unpleasant character at both the individual and interpersonal levels of analysis, how would one expect them to manifest at the political and societal level?
Political correctness (PC) is generally interpreted as the compassionate social effort to avoid or censor content that is perceived to be offensive or harmful. While such a definition presents itself as a direct articulation of the liberal defense of historically underprivileged groups, the magnitude of the reports recounting progressive attempts to cancel dissenting views suggests a darker, and fundamentally illiberal, underbelly.
Any reader of this article will be familiar with the constant attempts of the extreme left to cancel conservative—or, perhaps more accurately, non-leftist—commentators, such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. While the most sympathetic reading allows one to conclude that a direct opposition to conservative views is warranted (provided that conservative values are antithetical to PC ideals) while still maintaining some semblance of an upright posture, one must bend over backwards to try to explain the good intention behind cancelling publicly committed PC leftists. Indeed, the effect that these ideologically compassionate yet practically authoritarian views have on the political environment has led to an increase in self-censorship and political anxiety among the general American population. According to a recent survey by the Cato Institute, 62% of Americans are afraid of expressing their political views. This number is higher for “strong conservatives” at 77%, but remains at 42% even for “strong liberals.”
If the motivation underlying PC is the promotion of the underprivileged, one would expect that advocates would celebrate the celebrities and commentators who use their platforms to promote progressive ideals. Instead, such figures are promoted only insofar as it is politically and socially expedient, and if ever an ill advised word is spoken—intended or unintended, now or years ago—they are excoriated by their previously adoring fans (see J. K. Rowling and Scarlett Johansson). This get in line or get out mentality cannot be understood under the compassionate liberal framework to which advocates of cancel culture pay lip service.
Philosophically, liberalism is concerned with securing equal opportunities at the individual level, through the democratically mandated removal of externalities. Psychologically, liberal attitudes represent an individual’s openness to new ideas and compassion for others. Cancel culture, by contrast, is primarily concerned with attaining equal outcomes at the group level through immediate, autocratic means. Therefore, while there is a clear compassionate and democratic motivation behind the liberal propensity to promote the welfare of minorities, its authoritarian nature suggests that cancel culture is motivated by darker traits. It is possible that cancel culture does not necessarily represent the typical liberal position but indicates an emerging fragmentation among the attitudes found on the far left.
Such considerations led Peter O’Connor and I to investigate the role that the dark triad traits and entitlement have on extreme political attitudes (see study). We recruited a sample of 511 participants, who roughly represented the demographics of the American population as a whole. We gauged their level of agreement with three non-traditional political attitudes: 1) political correctness authoritarianism (PCA: essentially, cancel culture); 2) political correctness liberalism (PCL: the liberal concern for minorities and emotional safety); 3) white identitarianism (WI: the subculture representing white nationalist attitudes typical of the alt-right). PCA items asked participants to assess the statement, “when a charge of sexual assault is brought forth, the alleged perpetrator should have to prove his or her innocence.” PCL items asked respondents if they agreed that “there are no biologically based differences in personality, talent and ability to reason between racial groups.” WI items asked participants if they believed that “there is a progressive conspiracy against white identity.”
The data revealed that, while extreme right-wing white identitarian (WI) and extreme left-wing politically correct authoritarian (PCA) attitudes are generally considered to reflect opposing ends of political opinion, adherents to these attitudes have a considerable number of personality traits in common. Both WI and PCA were adopted by individuals high in dark triad traits and entitlement. That is, individuals high in authoritarianism—regardless of whether they are on the political left or right—are statistically more likely to be high in Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and entitlement. However, such traits did not contribute to politically correct liberalism (PCL).
These findings may not be particularly surprising. The authoritarian tendencies of the extreme left have been noted by political commentators for some time. However, in confirming this assumption, our study brings into question the legitimacy of conceptualizing political opinion on the traditional left–right scale. While they validly measure traditional political attitudes, the emerging set of attitudes measured in this study do not lend themselves to this univariate analysis. The results provide support for the horseshoe hypothesis: that, though there are significant differences between the political left and right, as one moves further towards the extremes, differences between left and right decrease and similarities increase. At a psychological level at least, this appears to be plausible.
This study also suggests that there are real differences between individuals who report a propensity to care about the wellbeing of minorities and traditionally underprivileged groups and those who report an affinity toward cancel culture. However, it is important to clarify that this study does not indicate that liberals do not collaborate with the extreme, cancel culture left. Indeed, although it represents only a small proportion of attitudes within the general population, PCA appears to have a disproportionate amount of political influence. It is possible that the compassionate guise of cancel culture motivates traditional liberals to forward the PCA agenda. As adherence to PCA has increased over the past few years, its influence has become inflated.
Without serious opposition, the influence of dark personality traits at the political and societal levels will increase. Advocates of cancel culture will continue to designate themselves the moral arbiters of the west. Using the front of compassion to entice traditional liberals, their ideals will keep on being promoted and will diffuse through society more generally. Such ideals will continue to be insisted upon through authoritarian means, as dissenters are cancelled and attempts to discuss or debate the legitimacy of their claims are dismissed and reframed as attempts to promote an unsafe environment. Such reframing intentionally leads to a political environment in which open conversation is not possible, and only opinions affirming the PC agenda are permitted.
It was already clear that many conservatives are strident in their opposition to the authoritarian left. This study demonstrates the distinction between liberals and cancel culture. There will be real consequences if the left continues to depict PCA in a compassionate guise. Liberals and liberalism are only relevant to PCA while they remain politically expedient. Once the political influence of PCA is great enough, liberalism will be cancelled.
Conservatives will continue to oppose the illiberalism of cancel culture, but it is not clear that liberals will. However, liberals cannot continue to rely on the opposing political party to support their own cause in this.