I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this whole social media outrage and shame cycle works. Week after week, new people are dragged before the star chambers of Twitter and think pieces and condemned, cancelled, unpersoned. It’s so very black and white. It’s so very binary.
Whether it’s the Covington boys, Kevin Hart, or a local weatherman being mobbed, these stories always seem to resemble unfinished parables. Everything is perfectly set up for a plot twist that would reveal that we should not rush to judgment, but then, instead of receiving the clarity of that revelation, we all just seem to move on and pivot to the new outrage. The protagonists of these unfinished parables either move on and recover, or they don’t.
Any of us could be protagonists in the next unfinished parable. And many of us have antagonized others without even realizing that that’s what we were doing. We need to understand this. We need to observe these moments with clear eyes and the proper context in mind.
The social and professional fate of all of us is in the hands of the progressivists who are currently jangling the keys to the cultural kingdom. To them every grievance, every misstep, every microaggression is the last straw. There is no public redemption possible in the places they populate.
I’m close to forty. Many people my age cannot understand how things that were considered perfectly normal when they were in their twenties and thirties are now matters of extreme panic and hysteria today. On issues from free range kids to drunk sex to edgy, ironic jokes, the new social media-approved rules seem so incoherent to them.
It feels like we’re playing a game according to rules that no longer exist. Many have been retroactively punished based on new rules that did not exist at the time of their cultural “transgressions.” For my generation, the new rules of mainstream and social media have made us social and cultural exiles.
Younger people (the digital natives known as Generation Z) are starting to wake up out of the fog of this safety culture too. They are searching for fresh language and experiences. They don’t want to be defined by the trauma that they were raised to believe they must have to fit in. The things they like are edgier and edgier. In fact, they make a point of “triggering the left” for fun.
We’ve all hurt people. We’ve all been abusive and been abused. We’ve pushed people to the emotional brink and we’ve been pushed to the brink ourselves. We’ve all said things that we regret, used language that we shouldn’t have, made reductions, generalizations that have been harmful. I think it’s fair to say that this describes most people who have family, friendships, partnerships.
It’s wise to avoid simple conclusions about the causes, motivations, and nature of the above. So why has our behaviour trended in the opposite direction? Why is it that public consensus tends to arrive at binary-based conclusions?
The current sacrosanct notion that there is one class of people who are “abusers” and another class of people who are “survivors” is so counterintuitive and counterfeit that it’s genuinely hard to believe that so many people currently subscribe to this false binary. It was popularized in the early 2010s in the form of on campus safe space/trigger warning/sex panic culture. It feels like scripture now.
Other reductive binaries dominate as well, and they all reinforce tribalism. IDW vs. SJW and TERFs vs. Trans come to mind. All of these come down to the basic struggle at the centre of the culture wars: individual freedom vs. identity politics. Within this struggle, there is a lot more ideological diversity than is being presented to us.
I don’t think we will always live in this context. The pendulum always swings back. At least that’s what they say. I believe things will get better because life doesn’t easily fit into binaries (no matter how often they are reinforced on our screens). People cannot be easily defined by the woke, vogue labels of the day, yet they get fooled into believing they can. And the most common way to achieve hero status is to publicly out other another person as your villain.
People who live their lives online are encouraged by the Barnum statements of social media: “This is stunning!” “You’re so brave!” “Your voice is so vital!” “Yaaaasss Queeeeennn!” “This is an important conversation!” “THIS!” etc. The feedback loops of social media are reducing us to living cliches. It’s as if the binary code behind all of this technology has altered the way we view the world and has made us binary thinkers.
One of the things that fascinates me the most about the way we’re not getting along these days is the disconnect between narrative and context. A non-story from 2010 is easily recycled as a major scandal in 2018 because context is not required. In fact, scandals depend on a lack of context. Scandals are like those weeds that thrive in the shade.
When I explain a current social-media driven scandal to an older friend, or a friend my age, they usually respond with something like, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?” I do my best to explain it to them. I say something like, “You can’t say things like that in 2018. People find that language offensive now.” This usually elicits a dismissive eye roll.
When I discuss a current social-media driven scandal to a younger friend I get eye rolls too. These stories have become too familiar and no longer ring true. When we tell the same stories with the same language and for the same purpose, we fall into banality.
Social media (in cooperation with establishment media) is trying to push back our desire for change by endorsing the empty, bland middle. They smear the most popular artists if they appear to endorse behavior that is “unsafe.” They simultaneously try to market sanitized, antiseptic culture as hip and edgy. It worked for a while, but now it seems to consistently fall flat. It always gets down-voted or ratioed. There is hope in this trend.
When I ask my son what he and his friends think about the current cultural climate, he brings up the 2018 YouTube Rewind, the single most unpopular video ever on the internet. Why was YouTube Rewind so unpopular? “Because no one we liked was in it. The people we like were too controversial! They never ask PewDiePie. The safe people are boring,” he says. For his generation, the new rules of mainstream and social media are made to be broken.
For those of us who are sick and tired of this particular cultural moment, there is a common desire for more sophisticated characters and storytellers. We need to embrace complexity and context again. We need to embrace a riskier, more unsafe way of communicating online and off. We need to have more fun. This is how we will break free from binary code and binary thinking.