A few days ago, The Atlantic posted a video showing an audience of two-hundred or so reacting fervently, some with Nazi salutes, when Richard Spencer came on stage and proclaimed, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Spencer is a leading figure in a movement with white-nationalist elements, which he successfully branded as the “alt-right.”
This is, of course, reprehensible; of that there can be no doubt. But what to make of it or, better yet, what to do about it? How to respond? I do not ask that in the abstract, for in the abstract, there are numerous possibilities. I ask it concretely of myself. Or you may ask it concretely of yourself. In my particular circumstances, or in yours, what is to be done in response?
In my particular situation, removed from the event in time and space, having no association with any of the assembled participants, what am I to do?
That question suggests another pair of related questions: why should I do anything at all? Why should I feel compelled to do something?
I ask these questions in a continuing effort to think through, as so many others are attempting to do, the relationship between digital media and the public sphere, particularly in its ethical and political dimensions.
I stress the particularity of my situation and yours with Kierkegaard’s understanding of the Press and the Public in mind. The Public is an effect of the Press. The Press, that is the media, by its “massive distribution of desituated information,” in Hubert Dreyfus’ words, constitutes an audience of “detached spectators.” These detached spectators have no real or meaningful connection to the events they read about.
The intriguing thing about Kierkegaard’s diagnosis is that he imagined that the detached spectator would be bloodless and indolent, desiring nothing more than to be entertained by having something to gossip about. There is a good deal of truth to this, no doubt. But what accounts for the impulse felt by many, myself included, to do something when confronted with a piece of news?
Of course, the specific nature of Spencer’s comments, especially given our political moment, explains why this case may elicit strong feelings and the urge to respond. We’ve heard the old line about how evil triumphs when good people to do nothing, and here’s our chance to do something and prove ourselves good people. In fact, if we query our own feelings a little more closely, we may even find that we are deriving not a little pleasure from doing something to fight the fascists. What we get is a little rush of emotion and a fleeting sense moral superiority, a taste virtuous, noble action in an otherwise mundane and uneventful experience characterized by carefully maintained air of ironic detachment.
But what does action amount to when we nevertheless remain, as Kierkegaard suggested, desituated and detached spectators of events that are not materially connected to us? To be clear, I am not suggesting that there are no cases when we may be materially connected to instances of racism or anti-Semitism. In such cases, our actions may take a variety of forms as dictated by the circumstances and our moral fortitude. But that is not the case here, at least not for me or countless others watching this video online. So what does action look like for us in relation to this one specific case?
More often than not the shape our action will take is a social media post condemning Mr. Spencer and his words. I was tempted to do the same. But I hesitated. I hesitated because it seemed to me not only that I would be doing very little of consequence; that what I was, in fact, doing may be little more than signaling my virtue; and, most importantly, that what I was doing may very well be counterproductive.
It would be counterproductive because of the particular nature of our media environment or our attention economy. I’ve long thought that our best response to certain provocations is to maintain radio silence. If we are nodes in a network of communication and if a message is successful not to the degree that it is either true or good but only to the degree that it continues to exist in the network, then the best I can do is to kill the message in my little corner of the network by remaining silent. In other words, if what people want is attention because somehow attention is their path to influence, if even my outrage and moral indignation is fuel for their fire, then denying them that attention seems the most reasonable and practical course of action.
Let me try to sum up where this meandering line of thought has brought me. In continuity with older forms of mass media, social media constitutes a desituated audience of detached spectators. However, unlike older forms of mass media, social media does not render us passive spectators–it invites action on our part. But the action it invites is action that feeds and empowers the network. We feel as if we are doing something, but the thing we’re actually accomplishing is rarely the virtuous thing we think we’re accomplishing. What we’re undoubtedly doing is sustaining the network. And the network itself is often the source of the problems we think we’re combatting.
Returning to Kierkegaard, he observed the following:
The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg–until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.
Our situation, in the age of social media, appears to be a bit different. The public has itself become the dog and what has been leveled is what we used to quaintly call the truth.
All of the preceding I offer to you, as per usual, in the spirit of thinking out loud. Feel free to tell me just how I may have gone wrong.