My good friend Phil Jourdan wrote a very thought provoking post on his blog about responsibility, blame, and maybe morality, depending on how you look at it.
You should read that before reading this because I’m just going to talk about it with the assumption you’ve read it.
His post is excellent and the points he makes are stellar, though my view on this is probably unsurprising for regular readers (ha!) of this blog. I find myself often discussing our collective responsibility for the horrors of the world, but I’ll come back to that later.
A choice quote from Phil’s post:
There is also no more opportunity for you to delight in condemning other people. There is no more “us versus them” and the pernicious, sadistic, narcissistic delight that comes from elevating one group of people above another, appearing to be good because other people are bad, feeling helpless because most things are not your responsibility but someone else’s — the government’s problem, the terrorist’s, the people of the pasts’s. There is no more pretending to be rational while your enemies are irrational. There is no more being liberal while your enemies are illiberal. There is no more being more mature than somebody else. There is no more public recognition of your greatness, kindness or intelligence. There is no more being noticed weeping when an important human rights leader dies. There are no more important human rights leaders, because everyone is responsible for everything. Now what?
This is what I want to talk about first.
While Phil is making an excellent point and there may be a lot of people who read it (I hope there are), but this brings us into the problem that he’s also discussing in the paragraph above. For everyone who reads it and nods their head, agrees with the thesis and the arguments, there will be very few, I imagine, that will meaningfully change the way they inhabit or observe or interact with the world and people around them. That’s not a slight on Phil’s writing, mind, but just something a bit deeper and maybe more unpleasant about humans and the way social media has defined the way we frame the world and ourselves within that frame.
I’ll unpack this a bit.
We live in a strange time on social media. Clicks are all that count for companies, which is why clickbait is even a word that makes sense to as many people as it does. One of the indirect and troubling aspects of clickbait’s ubiquity is that it’s somehow made its way down into normal human behavior online. We share links and information in the search for reshares and likes (or favorites on twitter or reblogs on tumblr and other blog sites). Not everyone, sure, but for a lot of people, the search for likes is a real thing. And social media becomes about the likes, about the clicks, about the recognition.
This is probably more widespread than people admit. I know people who share articles they don’t read. Who share things they did read without critically thinking about what the article or essay or meme is really saying about topic A or B or X or what the implications are for groups F or L or Z.
It’s not a problem of comprehension that we have when we read the news (or even just share the link without having read the article), but an issue with meaning. We’re inundated with so much stuff and it all means…something…This is where the narcissism that Phil mentions comes into play. The meaning we’re looking for–especially on social media, but also off it–is a meaning of self. What I mean by that is that we want others to perceive us in a specific way or as a specific type of person (I use type there very purposefully, since we are currently obsessed with being a type of some kind–one of the most popular websites seems particularly devoted to allowing people to define the type of person they are). We want to be perceived as thoughtful, political, kind, inquisitive, adventurous, anti-establishment, apolitical, punk, goth, fun, pick your own descriptor and fill in the blank. Social media was designed to bring us together (if you buy into the story told) but what it’s really done is allowed us to cultivate how we want people to perceive us. We turn ourselves into a brand, into a type, and those are actually more important than the connections that the platform was designed to enhance. We fit ourselves into a type or create our own type and bring others of that type to us, which may lead to genuine connection, but it may just as easily lead us into a recursive feedback loop or insular bubble of information and influence, wherein we believe we’re part of a larger conversation about the world, when, in reality, we’re stuck in a very small subset of a small subset of the world that’s uniformly ignored by anyone outside of that subset.
What this really means is that even sharing Phil’s excellent post becomes a tool for us to shape meaning about ourselves as perceived by other civilised people rather than a roadmap for us to find meaning in the wild (offline).
Our online behavior has, for many people, become about creating personal meaning. Or, to say that another way, it’s about creating meaning for ourselves about ourselves. This meaning is buttressed by the reactions (likes/favorites/reshares) we receive from our circle of online friends (which may be very different from who your friends are offline).
And that’s fine. That’s human! Or at least what human has come to mean. But, throughout the history of our species, we’ve always sought approval from others. Society and civilisation is more or less built around people trying to be perceived or approved or judged by others. Because, like it or not, we are who people observing us say we are. Our identities are determined by other people, no matter how we may wish the opposite.
That’s not a bad thing! And it’s okay to do things because you want others to approve or recognise what you’ve done!
The problem with social media is that this meaning and this approval and this identification can come through to you without you meaningfully changing your behavior or even doing anything beyond sharing a link that you may or may not have even bothered to read. And we get that same meaningful feedback and reaction from other people, which reinforces this kind of shallow behavior. I actually don’t mean shallow in a derogatory way. I just mean that it’s a behavior without depth. It’s on the surface and the meaning it creates is a personal one, which is, to a degree, selfish.
But this is all a bit abstract.
Let’s talk about the other aspect of Phil’s post.
Responsibility and blame.
Because I’m less of the philosopher than Phil, I’m going to get more concrete.
Like I said, if you come here often (no one does, so don’t feel bad), you’ve probably read how I feel about responsibility and blame several times, since it seems to be the topic I keep coming back to in this time of fingerpointing and blamegaming.
But let’s talk about Charlie Hebdo and Donald Trump. Two things people would probably not often put together. But if you read Charlie Hebdo’s most recent editorial, you’ll find that it falls pretty well in line with Donald Trump’s stance on Islam.
Of course, there’s no single link I can forward you to about Trump’s specific stance because he’s not that kind of person or politician. Not the kind who says, in a clear way, what he means about anything. But I shouldn’t have to point you in a direction. If you’re reading this you’re probably someone who follows the news, even if not closely.
So we have Charlie Hebdo, lauded and awarded for its bravery, writing and publishing this piece about how all Muslims are to blame.
Isn’t it odd how easily this could fit into a GOP debate? How Fox News could spend weeks patting themselves on the back, because even this alleged left wing provocateur has come to the same conclusion as they did about Islam, but it took the left wingers an extra decade and a half to realise what they’ve known since 9/11/2001!
And we love to blame the idiots who created Donald Trump.
But the truth is that we all created this. We all allowed Donald Trump to thrive and grow and become the political juggernaut that he’s become (a note on that link–certain points it makes are…tenuous, but I don’t think it should be ignored either).
What we learn from Charlie Hebdo (and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and any Western news organisation) is that hating Muslims is not a fringe political stance. It’s not even just a mainstream topic to be argued about. It is an acceptable belief. You’re not only allowed to privately think that the only good Muslim is a dead one, you’re implicitly encouraged to think that. Depending on which major news organisation you watch/read, you’re either encouraged to think that but keep it to yourself, or encouraged to say it loud and proud and maybe carry guns to a mosque and just stand outside to let them know they’re not only unwelcome but that you’re willing and capable to harm them.
I even recently wrote about how the Good Liberal is just as likely to tacitly approve of imperial war crimes, tempered by a reluctant shrug.
So while it’s easy and comforting to blame someone else for what’s wrong with the world, it’s not a meaningful way to deal with the world that we’ve inherited and helped create.
Because We are all Charlie. Not just the Charlie Hebdo we approved of for standing up for their (imperialistic and racist) beliefs, but also for the Charlie Hebdo who says things like uninhibited Islamism, and argues that all Muslims, from the baker to the women who choose to express their religion via clothing to the child of Muslims, are to blame for every crime of every Muslim around the world.
You, me, everyone we know, and everyone we don’t know created this world and we are all responsible for it.
And while sharing information is great, it really is bereft of meaning if that sharing doesn’t go hand in hand with actual change. Information is dangerous to power and giving people more information can actually spark real change. We’re seeing it right now with the Panama Papers (since posting this, the Prime Minister of Iceland has resigned), we saw it with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, and we watched the Arab Spring, which many contribute to Wikileaks’ release of the US Diplomatic Cables.
So by all means, share content and information! It can really change the world!
But only if sharing is the first step. It’s fine to share for the recognition or the selfish reasons listed above, as long as that behavior transitions offline.
Sure, we can’t all go out and protest, and you don’t have to. You can donate to causes and artists you believe in, or just be a positive person to those around you, those you interact with on a day to day basis.
And I think that’s the larger discussion that Phil’s pointing to.
We are all the blame.
What are you going to do now?
How are you going to make things better?
How are you going to address the wrongs, the inequalities, and so on?