In my year long hiatus from blogging, I’ve been analyzing my relationship to social media and writing, as well as some of the relationships that I see around me, especially with people who talk about feminism, racism, and similar heavy subjects. Social media serves our “monkey brains”. This is one of the reasons why social media is considered addictive and positively correlated with depressive symptoms. Even Silicon Valley employees agree that social media is intentionally addictive. This isn’t to say that social media is inherently bad — duh, but our relationship to social media deserves some extra attention. The question I have is this: When do ideas and opinions popular on social media bleed into real life, and when can this become malignant?
Social media rewards anger. Social media rewards black and white thinking, hence the rise of “cancel culture” which has subsumed the more rational practice of public accountability and appropriate justice. (Whether that’s doled out publicly or not is not my issue.) Like in any community, social media rewards behaviors, thoughts and opinions that are most commonly held amongst members of various sub-communities. For example, we’re most likely to be rewarded for politeness in a culture where most people agree politeness is an important value to have.
Theoretically, from the perspective of activists, enforcing a certain set of community standards would make progressive beliefs more attractive. If you get rewarded for not being a misogynist, you could theorize that feminism would become more appealing. However, unlike communities built through interpersonal interactions where people bond through first hand experiences, physical contact, and in other ways that involve connecting on an empathetic level, social media creates a pseudo-community where a hierarchy of those who can “beat the algorithm” is established in favor of a more equitable community hierarchy. Social media also encourages other ways of “bonding” individuals, such as a shared group of progressive dogma in favor of a shared set of values. Social media communities might reward the idea that “women are equal to men”, but the values that underly that belief are missing from the statement. Treating women with kindness is not actually necessary as long as you believe in the idea.
When this bleeds into real life, jarring and alienating experiences ensue. Someone can hold similar values to you without having the same beliefs and online communities tend to be bereft of this nuance. Those who think differently receive the label of an outsider, a misogynist, a TERF, an ableist scum, you get the point. While yes, there are many people who are misogynists, transphobic, or ableist, these are not necessarily the people to whom these labels are applied.
Progressive activism and the associated beliefs bleed into consumption habits, in the perspective of many members of online communities. Your opinion on prison abolition is as likely to alienate you as your opinion on The Cosby Show, and within these spaces, all “ideas” are given equal weight and important. Your consumption dictates your ethics. If you don’t like Sansa Stark, you’re a misogynist out to personally discredit all rape victims. After all, if you don’t agree with the latest Buzzfeed style “10 Reasons Why Arya From GOT Is A Feminist Sex Pot Polyamorous BAMF”, you can’t possibly have a genuine understanding of… praxis.
In true American individualist fashion, opinions are on an undeserved pedestal and your opinion becomes a shield against self-reflection and change, as long as you belong. As long as you share the “good ideas”, you are “good”, and there is no need to reflect, to educate yourself or to change. Unfortunately, this type of thinking leaves room for propagandizing less-than-progressive ideas, as long as they’re masquerading behind language and tone deemed acceptable. This is one of the many ways “sex positivity” has been co-opted by misogynists with violent sexual practices towards women. As long as what you’re doing has been deemed liberating, and contains the “right ideas” who cares if it’s uncomfortable, painful, degrading or a symptom of deeply violent misogyny. The values behind the activism are lost when dogma takes center stage. Ideas should always be thoroughly questioned and examined against our values — that’s the real measure of a good idea, not how agreeable it is to whomever is winning today’s online popularity contest.
This is not a typical centrist whine-fest about wanting to be freely discriminatory in public. Public accountability is natural in most communities. I view this as an “in-group” problem of well-meaning people who at the end of the day, are human. I am not calling for an elimination to “cancel culture” or for people to “give R. Kelly’s music a chance”.
All I want is for us to ask: who do we empower when we make ideas impenetrable to questioning? Are our communities empowered by dogma, or are we made susceptible to horrible violence and abuse by accepting even an opinion of an artist, a TV show, or a fashion line as incontrovertible proof of someone’s morality?