The Outrage Machine

I don’t spend much time on social media anymore. Part of this is just having too much other things to do, a gym, forests to visit, manuscripts to edit, a husband to enjoy, and all the other beautiful things that make life actually interesting to attend to. The other part is that I don’t really need to anymore, having finally transitioned away from being the site-editor of Gods&Radicals (which required constant social media engagement) to doing more administrative and publishing work.

Being disconnected in this way (but truthfully, being more connected in general to the rest of the world around me) is rather wonderful. But the break is not exactly clean, since I still have to rely on Twitter and Facebook in order to publicize essays. Also, you don’t really “leave” social media that easily, since the hegemonic effects of its peculiar modes of interaction linger in the mental landscape long after you’ve logged off.

One of the easiest ways to explain problems, one quite a few other creative people have attested to, is struggling to shift the way you experience life away from narration. A friend who decided to delete all social media accounts described it to me this way:

“I found myself narrating my life through social media posts, composing them in my head whenever something interesting happened.”

That is, social media trains us to look at our daily lives as raw resources to be transformed into posts for consumption by others. When we think of something funny, we post it; when something bad happens, we write an update. But before the writing part, before the actual posts, we give mental space to the production of that status, doing intellectual labor to re-package our life and thoughts into a 140 character tweet.

None of this, of course, is overt. We barely have the language to understand precisely how machines teach us to act like operators of those machines, nor really even to describe the effects of all this distributed discipline on the rest of our lives. As Zizek said, we don’t have the language to describe how unfree we are, and much of that I suspect is because we subtly lose certain faculties of perception through the very process of becoming socially-mediated.

That is, we don’t even realise we are missing anything in our perception. Similar to those suffering from Alzheimer’s or a stroke, the awareness that something was once there and is now gone itself is lacking. The true horror of those conditions is not that we are forgetting, it is that we have also forgotten that we have forgotten.

Eventually, an entire way of seeing the world becomes impossible, so foreign to the mind that our thoughts degrade to a kind of literalist-fundamentalist way of perceiving the world around us with absolutely no allowance for the possibility that there might be another layer of meaning or that something might be missing from our perceptions.

There’s perhaps a better way to explain this from my own experiences. One example I think of often is when I visited family in Ohio several decades ago. We were in an extremely rural area, and I was staying in the house of a fundamentalist Christian family member who set rules that I was not allowed to drink alcohol while there. Since I don’t really drink anyway, this was not much of a problem until we drove 40 miles to the closest restaurant for my birthday. There was literally no other coffee besides Folgers to be had where I was staying, so I got rather excited that this place had an espresso machine and could make a latte. I ordered one, then added I’d like an extra shot in it.

It took me about five minutes to understand why my family member had gone white-knuckled, her hands death-gripping the edge of the table. Another family member asked her why she was so angry and she finally said: “I said no alcohol.”

I initially didn’t understand what she was upset about until it occurred to me she’d probably never had a latte in her life. “There’s no alcohol in the coffee.”

“But you’re getting shots in it,” she spat back, and I laughed.

Unfortunately, there was absolutely no way to convince her that espresso wasn’t a kind of alcohol and that “shot” didn’t always mean liquor. For the rest of the evening and the rest of my stay, she was convinced I’d flouted her request and drank the devil’s drink. She even had an elaborate theory as to my motives: I’d chosen a public place in order to get drunk to embarrass her and had even talked to the waiter when she wasn’t looking to get him to lie to her with me.

We’d generally be inclined to describe such solipsistic and paranoid thinking as symptoms of mental illness. It may indeed be, but the more relevant and useful critique is to look at the literalism from which she suffered and the society in which she lived. “Shot” in her mind had only one meaning, just as the Bible to her had only one meaning. She went to a fundamentalist church, lived in a fundamentalist village, knew only fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Christianity teaches that there is only ever a one-to-one correspondence between a statement and its true meaning, and more so that this true meaning can be quickly discerned with plain thinking. An unspoken corollary to this “fundamental” truth is that the first conclusion, the most “obvious” conclusion, is the one intended. Any attempt to complicate the meaning by suggesting nuance or contradictory evidence is to be avoided at best or seen as Satanic at worst.

While it’d be too easy to dismiss this problem as being simply the fault of a religious sect, we cannot. Because this same literalism occurs on social media now and affects many more people than the minority of self-described fundamentalists. A great case in point would be the recent furor over a tweet by Barbara Ehrenreich in which she said:

“I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English”

For those who don’t know who either of these people are, Ehrenreich is a leftist writer whose most popular work (Nickel & Dimed: On not getting by in America) details her experience working alongside lower class women (many of them immigrants) in minimum-waged jobs in order to describe how Capitalism harms them and keeps them in abject poverty. Marie Kondo is an author of an animist/shinto-inspired self-help book (and series) who teaches Westerners how to live with fewer consumer goods.

Without any context regarding either of those people, Ehrenreich’s tweet can sound racist or xenophobic. On its face-value, it sounds like it’s some Make America Great Again white woman demanding that a Japanese woman speak English. And to the fundamentalist outrage engines of social media, that’s precisely what it was.

However, knowing Ehrenreich’s politics and work, the other reading was more obvious to me. She’s an anti-imperialist who’s been celebrating the decline of American hegemony, and also a woman who devoted a lot of time drawing attention to the plight of immigrant house-cleaners who are abused because they don’t speak English well and are undocumented. I read it as she meant it, because I had context of who she is and the decades of work she’s done.

But like convincing my fundamentalist family member that an “espresso shot” isn’t alcoholic, those who’ve pointed out that there’s an obvious (to us) meaning intended in the statement get nowhere. One commenter even retorted,

That arrangement of words only has one meaning.”

That is, there can be only a one-to-one correspondence between a text and its true meaning, and the people who are convinced Ehrenreich “really meant” to be racist cannot be convinced otherwise.

Now, to be fair, just as with my fundamentalist family member, I can understand why they reached the conclusion that they did. Not having ever had espresso, nor known anyone who talked about it, having only ever drank mass-produced coffee from the grocery store--of course someone in those circumstances might not have understood what I was ordering. Furthermore, as she knew I was gay and therefore a sinner, her subsequent entrenchment into an elaborate conspiracy theory that I’d talked to the waiter to make them confirm my lie can be contextualized as a mere symptom of her world view.

The problem here is of course that she was wrong. I wasn’t drinking alcohol, nor had I orchestrated a vast conspiracy to convince her otherwise.

But there’s a larger matter here: while I could see how she reached this conclusion and could accommodate multiple ways of seeing the world at once, she could not. It is the same with Ehrenreich’s critics: while those of us who understood Ehrenreich correctly can also see how those who want to “cancel” her as a racist misunderstood, those who are certain she’s a xenophobic person cannot conceive of another possible meaning to her words.

Charitably, I suspect most of the reason they cannot is rooted in their lack of context, just as with my family member. If you’ll indulge me another example, I can explain a little more how this is the case. Last year i wrote an essay regarding precisely this sort of problem, and was amused when a critic obsessed over the image I included, a conceptual drawing for Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

The critic used the inclusion of this image to state that I was “claiming white victimhood.”  As with the matter of espresso, it took me a little time to understand why until it occurred to me: the critic knew nothing of Don Quixote or the meaning of “tilting at windmills.” Not having known the reference, the critic jumped to what seemed to them the most obvious conclusion and, like that family member, entrenched into conspiracy.

One can certainly argue, as many have done regarding Ehrenreich, that perhaps I should have made allowances for the fact that people would not understand the context. That is, public writers should take extra efforts to coddle the ignorance of potential readers and explain every reference (along with context) to avoid potential misunderstandings. This is a rather unsatisfying answer, and one that, even on the most basic level, is utterly impossible.

And anyway, it misses the other mediating aspect, which is the mauvaise foi of the reader. As I said, my family member already assumed I was evil and hell-bound, and from such a perspective she therefore had every reason to assume that anything I said to clarify was a lie. The same mauvaise foi functions in the critiques of Ehrenreich, or really any other public leftist whom the social-media-justice activists crusade against.

In their view, the person they are accusing is already what they accuse them of being. Any good faith attempt to clarify a statement (by the writer or by the thousands of people who understand what she actually meant) will thus not only be ignored, but become elements pasted onto the structure of a conspiracy theory erected to ensure the original false perception can remain.

That such conspiracy theories are more often identified with religious fundamentalists and anti-semitic ideologies should give us deep pause. The fact that these crusades are enacted supposedly by people claiming to do so in the name of social justice doesn’t change the mechanism. The same entrenchment, the same literalist-fundamentalist thinking, and the same mauvaise foi fuels the outrage machine.

Worse, though, it’s social media itself which creates and enforces the kind of thinking in which our sense of outrage is always righteous and correct, and that outrage itself is proof that we are correct. Despite the much-vaunted claims that global media connectedness would enlighten people and help them climb out of their own solipsisms, the opposite seems to be the case. People are more entrenched, more certain their views align with the true Order of the world, and more wiling to conjure ridiculous conspiracies to keep their fundamentalism intact.

All of this feeds into the outrage machine. That machine doesn’t care who feeds it, nor their intentions, only that it can keep you angry, keep you insulted, and prevent you from ever imagining there’s another way of looking at the world. But there’s more than one kind of coffee in the world, more than one use for a shot glass, more than one meaning to a word, and more than one way of being in this world.

But you might have to get off social media to find out.


4 thoughts on “The Outrage Machine

  1. The argument over Ehrenreich is especially frustrating because you could make a different critique of Marie Kondo as appealing to the problematic magical Asian trope.

    1. Indeed. But to have a complicated talk about Orientalism and particularly the Western thirst for foreign wisdom to get them our of their own consumption problems would require more than 140 characters….

  2. This is one of your best. I have certainly been trained by machines and I’ve been in peripheral contact with rabid “de-platforming” pushed driven by folks who are vehemently opposed to context and nuance. “Tunnel vision” comes to mind for both.

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