Jeff Bercovici, a staff writer for Forbes covering media and technology, wrote in a blog post that he knew Ms. Sacco and considered her a friend. Over drinks a few weeks ago, he wrote, Ms. Sacco explained that she had recently noticed that “people seemed to like the tweets that were just a little bit risqué or outrageous.”
Maybe that need to impress, to find validation through the people that follow us online, was what led to Ms. Sacco’s inappropriate tweet, and also gave the people who attacked her the justification for their own vitriolic behavior.
the madness of crowds
The Internet is simultaneously perfect for both vile comments and for people who insist on having their outrage over those comments acknowledged. When IAC PR Chief Justin Sacco’s racist tweet about The AIDS hit the Internet last Friday, it only took minutes before she was shredded around the world, a few more minutes for the obligatory defenders of amorphous free speech concepts to counter, then maybe a half-hour before the English majors started penning essays about what this all meant to us as a people.
And thus it was that racism and the scourge of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa were abolished once and for all. Hurrah!
Poor Tauriq. Like a modern-day Diogenes with his lamp, he continues his quixotic quest for a calm, rational commentariat on the Internet. I fear that soon he’ll start hallucinating visits from the ghost of Bertrand Russell just to have someone to talk to who truly gets him.
Certainly, Liberal Puritans understand on some level that things like mass incarceration are bigger problems for African Americans than the way Ted Rall draws Obama’s nose. Rather than simply making that point, I want to discover why we have so many people who know and care far more about a faux pas on race by public figures than they know or care about the war on drugs. What is so appealing about combing through the public sphere, looking for something to be offended by? What I’m trying to identify is a kind of false morality. A morality which is driven by heavily adolescent impulses, like the desire to elevate oneself by tearing down others and setting parameters for a kind of coolness that allows you to be “in,” while excluding others.
…But what the Puritan really desires of their target is capitulation. For the witch to confess to having sex with the devil. For the racist witch to issue a maudlin apology. Jesus Christ, do we love apologies these days. There’s always a great emphasis on forcing the target to speak certain words, because this is a power trip. The target must allow the Puritans to control them. Even if only for a moment, the target must be their puppet. This is an even greater power rush for them than it might seem, because Puritans have faith in a world where saying is more important than doing. So to force a person to speak their words is a huge power boner.
…And what exactly is the fear, here? It seems like the Atlantic argument, which is the most reasonable of the anti-Rall stuff, begins and ends with, “these drawings superficially resemble racist drawings from 1930 and someone might conceivably find that unpleasant.” There’s no “and…” there. What is the bad thing that this is going to lead to, other than offending people who want to be offended?
Well, I guess the implied consequence is that Rall might accidentally revive the depiction of blacks as subhuman. Then a large number of people might revert to the views that those old caricatures represented. We might see a return to slavery.
Well, our mission is to understand here. And no, the Liberal Puritan doesn’t think slavery will return any more than they think we might see a bunch of holocaust denying history professors at universities. However, we should understand that they live in the world of saying, not in the world of doing. They don’t really care about the prison industrial complex all that much. They’re passionate about whether or not Katy Perry conforms to their rules. These are people who live in and for the public square. They’re much less concerned about what happens in the home, the town hall or the battlefield.
All of this is multiplied on the internet, where what is said pretty much is all of reality. The prison industrial complex doesn’t really exist on the internet. Its victims are nowhere to be found. Katy Perry is all over the place. Also, remember that the underlying motivation for all of this is to feel powerful and important and to do so easily. Thinking about the prison industrial complex is depressing and makes you feel impotent and marginalized. Because even if you elect a black Democrat who rides a wave of populist liberalism, that sort of thing won’t change a bit.
So all of this stuff seems to be greatly magnified online.
Yeah, the internet is paradise for Puritans, liberal or otherwise. Some of the reasons we’ve already touched on.
It’s a world where all that exists, is what is said. It’s a town with a public square and little else.
Right, and this is the preferred mode of existence for the Puritan anyway. Gossip, accusations, naked assertions of their own moral superiority. Rules. Narratives about who is breaking the rules and who is obeying the rules. Stories about who is a hero (them) and who is a villain (whoever they say). Identifying and persecuting, or at least harassing people who defy the rules and refuse to accept the power of the Puritan group. Sitting in judgement as part of that group and feeling powerful and superior.
These activities can comprise the bulk of the existence of an online persona. If you want to, you can do nothing but accuse people of being racist witches without ever having to face them and rarely, if ever, facing any repercussions when you’re wrong. Which is great, since right and wrong aren’t the point.
Mobile ice sheds, piranhas, Puritans, combinations of all three — I haven’t seen such a Frankenstein’s monster of metaphors since this memorable instance. Nonetheless, I appreciate the points about implied consequences and the game show-like unreality of the twitosphere, where people sit around all day with their hand above a buzzer, ready to shout out Racist! or Misogynist! to earn useless Internet virtue points. Whoa, now my metaphors are running wild.
…Meant to say earlier: seeing the picture of Rall wearing a hammer-and-sickle t-shirt makes me think yeah, I see your point.
Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like. This is the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.
…Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.
The result is that individuals are exposed to a much wider range of opinions, ideas and people than they would otherwise experience. And because this is done using their own interests, they end up being equally satisfied with the results (although not without a period of acclimitisation). “We nudge users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps, in those issues, while still being relevant according to their preferences,” say Graells-Garrido and co.
See also: Internet Silos.
We Can Act If We Want To. If We Don’t, Nobody Will. And You Can Act Real Rude, and Totally Removed, and I Can Act Like an Imbecile
You see, the point of shouting Ray Kelly off the dais isn’t to get rid of “stop-and-frisk,” which these students are sophisticated enough to understand as merely symptomatic of greater injustices and inequalities in American life. No, the point is to get rid of Ray Kelly, to make the point that he has nothing to say that’s deserving of public consumption, that he is a wicked fellow who ought to be drummed from public life, his opinions, like those of most of us, to be shared grumpily over beers with no one to listen but the other cranks and kooks drinking in the middle of the day. The point is to shame Brown University—admittedly, a difficult task, since the university in the form of its administration is, as noted, shameless—for inviting the weasely little fascist onto the stage in the first place.
The post would be otherwise forgettable were it not for the fact that Freddie deBoer shows up in the first comment to challenge the complacency of such would-be radicals. Jacob — in keeping with his “Great Refusal” ethos, borrowed directly from pseudo-philosopher Herbert Marcuse, consisting of gestures of futile defiance rooted in impractical moralism, where the impracticality is the entire point, indeed, a badge of honor — cheers the students for refusing to respect the bourgeois liberal aversion to unruly mobs shouting down public speakers. Freddie points out that such actions barely qualify as Pyrrhic victories, that they demonstrate impotence rather than power, and that much of what passes for leftism now is in fact a pathetic acquiescence to that reality — they’ve settled for taking pride in “winning” such meaningless skirmishes on campuses and in the twitosphere, winning like Charlie Sheen. Freddie is saying, essentially, that it shouldn’t be good enough to be satisfied with such a smug, nihilistic response to injustice. At Jacob’s former blog, this would have probably gotten Freddie mocked for being one of those naïve shmucks with lingering faith in the system who want to be told what to do to achieve this or that goal. Now, though, Jacob simply responds by saying “I think we agree.” Eh? No, I’m not sure you do.
Say you’re a supervillian. Your goal is not to take over the world, but to create more unpleasantness. So you set out to create a device that would ensnare normal, rational people and turn them into ranting lunatics. What would your Argument Machine look like? How would it work?
…I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.
I’m convinced. I’m also comfortable broadly asserting that no intelligent person with a serious point to make would ever choose Twitter as the forum for kicking off the discussion. (Someone like Richard Dawkins, I assume, is just indulging a newfound love of trolling.)
At its best atheism cultivates a sober, clear-eyed scientific view of the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be, while seeking to improve the fortunes of people, individually and collectively, through the propagation of rationality, tolerance, altruism, personal freedoms, and social responsibility. At its less stellar, atheism inspires smug, self-righteous bombast and cliquish chauvinism.
As many believers can attest, humility, forbearance and altruism aren’t just attitudes; they’re habits. Alas, being an atheist can be nothing but an attitude, and not a pretty one at that.
As recently as a couple years ago, a pugnacious essay like this would have landed upon my sensibilities like the sting of a leather glove across the cheek. Now, though, it only makes me nostalgic. I mean, he’s complaining about what arrogant jerks “New Atheists” can be. New Atheism! Oh, those were the days! I don’t disagree with his opinion — many godless people are just looking for a socially acceptable excuse to be obnoxious assholes — but fuggit, I can’t even muster up the energy for a devil’s advocate defense of atheism as a movement. The rudeness and arrogance of the mid-aughts are nothing compared to how online atheism has recently become a haven for couch-fainting, panty-sniffing, witch-hunting, ressentiment-driven caricatures of political correctness, exemplified, of course, by the psychological basket cases and moral-panic-profiteers that populate the FTB/Skepchick/A+ common area. Atheism’s no more significant to me now than eye color.
To get one’s news in such a highly mediated fashion is clearly dangerous. The ersatz dialogue which occurs on Twitter can give the misleading impression that all opposing opinions have been given a fair hearing, and thus that the dominant opinion at the end of the day must be the inherently superior one. No need to weigh the various arguments yourself, Twitter already did the work for you. Touted for its promotion of decentralized and democratic dialogue, Twitter more often enables the rapid formulation and dissemination of orthodox opinion. At the same time, if you maintain a bit of critical distance, watching the construction of conventional wisdom on Twitter can teach you plenty. You can see which arguments trump others, which positions are taken to be unassailable, what affect works best. Taken as a whole, it’s an unprecedented wealth of sociological data.
Observing Twitter in this way, one quickly notes that an addiction to outrage seems to afflict writers across the political spectrum. Opponents are castigated for being insufficiently scandalized by the atrocity of the hour, and authors of offending posts are roundly demonized and ridiculed. Silver linings are rarely sought in bad news, common ground with adversaries seldom found. The right is arguably more reliant on this Manichaean rhetoric, but the left has a strong habit too. As opinion crystallizes on Twitter, posters become increasingly uncompromising, attracted to whichever position most strongly attributes moral purity to their own side and depravity to the other. Meanwhile, anyone who would criticize an outraged writer’s moralistic tone risks appearing too callous or naïve to realize the enormity of the crime at hand—whether it’s Obama’s visit to an Amazon warehouse or a university’s experimentation with MOOCs. Outrage may look like moral bravery but, on Twitter at least, it is safe as can be.
Twitter, hell; it was always like that on blogs, too. That whole system of social media provides a neverending supply of cheap stimulation for adrenaline junkies, as well as a permanent stage where they can perform their manufactured outrage for an appreciative audience. One of my favorite aspects of this faux-moral performance art is when, lacking the usual visual cues of authentic real-life anger, the performer is required to simulate hizzorher vein-popping, carpet-chewing, spittle-launching fury — in text form, which obviously requires a certain amount of both mental and physical composure. It never fails to tickle my absurdist funny bone, imagining someone sitting quietly at their computer, composing a fictional representation of barely-controlled psychotic rage (with no typos or misspellings, even!), and then taking pleasure in the plaudits. What did these people do before there was a twitosphere to provide them with some semblance of meaning in their empty lives?
But I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how troubling this and other recent dust-ups regarding some giant corporation’s “feelings” about the gays really are on closer inspection. I’m by no means the first person to say this, but being offended (or for that matter, flattered) by an entity whose sole purpose is to sell things, maybe to you or maybe to someone else, is to unavoidably endorse and enliven the insidious concept of corporate personhood. Barilla is not your enemy and Absolut is not your friend; they are just businesses with PR departments that are at different points along the road toward realizing that influential, “taste-maker” minority groups are worth courting, both for direct patronage and easy image-boost-by-association. It’s unfortunate, I guess, that Barilla (or at least Guido Barilla) is behind the times on this matter, but the earnest anger I’m seeing online about that fact is perplexing. I mean, are you really so starved for approval that you need it to come packaged with pasta?
I realize that the previous paragraph probably makes me sound like an Occupy Wall Street, anti-capitalism type, which is really not the case. My concern with this increasingly common “the gays are for/against X corporation” trope is far more basic than that: I simply resent being told I should change my shopping list every time some old C-suite dude runs his out-of-touch mouth or offers to sponsor my next parade.