Culture war groupishness seems to demonstrate bits of Mimetic theory
Speculations about the summarily cancelled as traditional scapegoats
TL;DR - online activism seems to be designed more as magnet than persuasion tool.
Group cohesion is everything.
Mimetic theory might help to explain some of the dynamics - or at least offer a frame for looking at it.
I may be way off beam.
Criticism of ideological groupishness is a saturated market at the moment, with crazy right wing conspiracies and fanatical social justice activism particularly easy to mock or rail against. It all makes for cathartic reading and writing but seems to be running out of road in terms of explaining much.
What I'm more curious about are any hidden underpinnings for the behaviours we see when people are going mental over their pet causes.
It's fun and often reassuring to attribute these behaviours to things like stupidity, self-righteousness, religious zeal, narcissism and the madness of crowds in general. But I'm interested in finding ways to that may help to account for people being the way they are in a less judgemental way.
We leap to judgement when we're angry and I'm increasingly bored by anger (or I'd still be on Twitter). I have a strong personal propensity to anger and frustration where there is rarely much use for it, beyond self-stroking. And I've noticed that experiencing less of all that has seemed quite healthy.
Mimetic theory holds that once your basic needs and wants are met (like the baseline bits in Maslow's hierarchy - typically biological and survival stuff) you start forming 'higher' desires when you notice other people having them.
Because we're so very social we end up wanting the same things. Desire is modelled for us. As a framing, at least, Mimetic theory often seems to reflect a lot of advertising, which typically shows us other people benefitting from the thing the advertiser wants us to buy.
Memetic theory goes on to suggest that if there isn't enough of the thing to go around, this creates competition for the thing.
Competitive tensions then arise in the group and these are displaced by finding a scapegoat, who can be 'killed' (literally, in history) and which results in a catharsis for the group until the next time tensions have mounted. Rinse and repeat. Human or animal sacrifice is the ultimate instrumentalisation of this concept, which seems to have worked well in managing something for many past cultures or they wouldn't have kept doing it.
That's a very vague synopsis. Obviously there's a wealth of sources if you want to delve into it properly. Maybe start with the Wikipedia bit if you're curious.
It's one of those ideas that is fun to map onto things you notice in ways that seem to work quite well, at least on a surface level.
Here's how it does that in connection with the networked influence and protest that sucks up so much of our cultural oxygen.
Freddie deBoer's recent withering critique of men who really really want you to know how definitely not racist or misogynistic they are is a good scene-setter. In The Good White Man Roster - a database of progressive white men who are thirsty for credit he describes what looks to anyone paying even the scantest attention like a competition. As deBoer frames it the competition is for attention and status.
"These are the guys who look at the discourse about white supremacy and patriarchy and see market opportunity"
It's hardly news that people who spend all day bloviating and airing their principles on the socials are chasing attention, because attention builds clout and clout brings more book deals, more podcast invitations, more opportunities to write for Slate, The Guardian or the NYT and more ad revenue on their YouTubes and TikToks. Nor is it news that such people compete for moral status, now that identification of social justice as a neo-religion has gone mainstream.
But attention and clout are finite, otherwise literally everyone could be famous. So, amid the jostling for status, it seems likely that tensions arise. I'm now wondering whether this may be part of the reason that reputational attacks and attention-throttling are practiced on certain targets. AKA cancellation.
And - in anticipation of the obvious objection that this is only ever practiced against members of the out-group - it isn't, as the trans commentator Natalie Wynn (aka ContraPoints) has observed. For every dozen or so cancellations of people outside the leftish camp there is always a smattering of insiders who are also bullied out of the group. Examples also include the pro-feminist comedian Jamie Kilstein and onetime YouTuber Lindsay Ellis.
All groups seem to do have their moments like this, with people suddenly finding themselves being stoned to social (or even professional) death by words. This episode of Blocked and Reported amusingly goes into the detail of a recent example in 'Medieval Twitter' circles.
Mimicry is baked in to us, as experiments with babies seem to show. A posh name was bestowed on it by researchers Meltzoff and Moore - interactional synchrony.
Look at any of your social feeds and you'll see countless examples of interactional synchrony. In which people with little or nothing new to add on a topic join in by essentially copying each other.
That's the social media pile-on. Interactional synchrony and a chance to indulge in the ancient practice of sacrifice.
So what? Is this an excuse for terrible behaviour?
Well, maybe kind of. Or at least an accounting for terrible behaviour as driven by the same bits of the brain that are activated when an hours-old baby starts sticking its tongue out because someone else did.
It doesn't replace other explanations, mind. It's obvious that narcissistic self-regard is ever-present among highly moralistic attention-seekers too, along with all the other features we've come to know and love. But, as a way of seeing today's internet-enabled groupish mentalities, Mimetic theory - at least on the surface - seems promising.
Way back I reported on the personal project to extract myself from the information bubble I'd never fully appreciated that I was stuck in. It seems to require a hell of a lot of vigilance though, because it can be disheartening and uncomfortable to be exposed to stuff that doesn't feel good or reassuring to your idea of yourself as a well-informed rational being.
It feels like a good time to recommend a couple of things again.
It focuses on American politics, but let's face it - not much that happens in America stays in America and it tends to export every culture war front to the rest of the anglophone world. So try Tangle as a rare instance of a publication trying to navigate hot button stories in good faith.
Amusingly, even Tangle subscribers sometimes don't get the point and founder Isaac Saul wrote about this when a bunch of people cancelled their subscriptions because he wasn't angry enough for their tastes on the issue of parents taking their kids to drag shows.
We really are desperate to be agreed with, aren't we. We will literally pay good money to have our priors reinforced and we will stop paying if they aren't.
And I just renewed my annual subscription to Ground News, which has introduced me to many perspectives - including stone cold facts - that I would never have known if I'd stuck with The Guardian, The BBC, Sky, permitted Twitter opinions and so on.
Ground News does a reasonable (not perfect) assessment of the political bias in every news outlet, which helps you to broaden your outlook. If you can bear to do that.
This week I also signed up to follow the Substack of a Tea Party founder who currently seems to be the only person in the west claiming that Putin has achieved his objectives in Ukraine. Three years ago I'd never have been able to handle this, but when it becomes so clear that you're under narrative control, like a fish that doesn't know there's a world outside water, how else do you break free? I won't recommend him here because I haven't yet determined that he isn't crazy. I imagine he'll turn out to be like Gateway Pundit. Incredibly annoying but sometimes worthwhile.
Speaking of narrative control, I'm amused to notice that Gateway Pundit is simply described on Wikipedia and all the 'fact-checking' sites as a 'fake news website'. So now you know never to go there. This is how it works in late liberal democracy.
Bits and indeed bobs
I had no idea until now that Malcolm Gladwell is so strongly connected with the tobacco industry. I think it matters.
Whoop whoop. My theory that being less certain about everything is kind of better for your mental health just got a boost from scientific people Doing Some Science about it.
“We found that polarized perception — ideologically warped perceptions of the same reality — was strongest in people with the lowest tolerance for uncertainty in general,” said van Baar, who is now a research associate at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction.
“This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.”
Also, did you know that screaming 'racist' or 'misogynist' or 'eugenics' at people who aren't racists, misogynists or eugenicists can bring an entire field of study to a halt? Here's how that's happened in the field of evolutionary psychology. https://www.psypost.org/2022/05/evolutionary-scholars-worry-political-trends-are-impeding-progress-in-evolutionary-psychology-according-to-new-study-63247
Some customary ephemera to end with
My best friend's WhatsApp biog reads 'Just a bunch of biochemicals meandering to oblivion...' which sprung to mind when I saw this curiously comforting little film.
Yes, that’s right etc. Things are costing a lot at the moment so never let it be said that Rarely Certain is adding to the burden. You have until the end of July to take that deal.