The Discourse is Poisoned, But You Already Knew That

It occurred to me today that one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories may indirectly teach us something about the dysfunctional dynamics of social media discourse. The story is “Young Goodman Brown,” you may remember it from a high school or undergrad English class. It is one of Hawthorne’s most frequently anthologized tales.

The story is about a seemingly ordinary young man who ventures out to the forest for an undisclosed but apparently illicit errand, leaving behind his newlywed bride, Faith. Along the way, he meets a peculiar but distinguished man, who claims to have known his father and his father’s father. The distinguished gentleman turns out to be the Devil, of course, and, by and by, reveals to young goodman Brown how all of the town’s most upstanding citizens, ministers and civic leaders included, are actually his very own subjects. Brown even discovers that his dear Faith has found herself in midst of the infernal gathering in the forest.

At the climactic point, Brown cries out, “Faith! Faith! Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”

What happens next, Hawthorne cloaks in mystery. Brown suddenly, as if awakening from a dream, finds himself alone in the quiet forest with no trace of another person anywhere. Although he remained uncertain about what had happened to him, he emerged a changed man. Now he could not look on anyone without seeing vice and hypocrisy. He trusted no one and imagined everyone, no matter how saintly, to be a vile hypocrite. “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.”

Hawthorne, who, in my view, is particularly adept in his exploration of intersubjectivity, presents us with a story about knowledge acquired and innocence lost. The knowledge he gains, however, is putatively about the true nature of those around him, but the story leaves the status of that knowledge in doubt. It is enough, though, that Brown believes that he knows the truth. This knowledge, of course, poisons all his relationships and ultimately destroys him.

I recalled Hawthorne’s story this morning as I read Roger Berkowitz’s discussion of a recent essay by Peter Baehr, “Against unmasking: five techniques that destroy dialogue and how to avoid them.”  Berkowitz is the director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and his comments draw on Arendt’s On Revolution:

“The human heart is a place of darkness.” Thus, the demand for purity in motives is an impossible demand that “transforms all actors into hypocrites.”

For Arendt, “the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.” And unmasking is the name that Arendt gives to the politics of virtue, the demand that all hypocrites be unmasked.

The danger in unmasking is that all people must, as people, where [sic] masks. The word “person” is from the Latin persona, which means literally to “sound-through.” A person in ancient Rome was a citizen, one who wore the mask of citizenship. “Without his persona, there would be an individual without rights and duties, perhaps a ‘natural man’ … but certainly a politically irrelevant being.”

For his part, Baehr wrote,

Unmasking inverts people’s statements and makes them look foolish. It reduces a concept or a theory to the supposed ideological position of the writer. It trades on a mistaken concept of illusion. And, more generally, it burdens enquiry with a radical agenda of emancipation that people of different views have no reason to accept as valid. In politics, writers who adopt the unmasking style repeatedly treat other people not as fellow citizens with rival views of the good but as villains. In some revolutionary situations unmasking weaponization is the rhetoric of mass murder. And beyond these extremes, unmasking stokes mutual contempt.

In Hawthorne’s story, Brown ends up an exemplar of just such an unmasking style. He believes that he has seen all of his fellow citizens unmasked, and he treats them accordingly.

If you come to believe that you know the truth about someone or that you know their “real” self, then there is nothing else to learn. There is no need to listen or to observe. You can assume that every argument is conducted in bad faith. There can, in fact, be no dialogue at all. Conversation is altogether precluded.

In a recent essay that was widely discussed, philosopher Justin E. H. Smith explores these dynamics by way of that bingo card meme listing a set of predictable comments you can expect from a person that has been ideologically pigeonholed. The presumption is that such a person’s view “is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running.”

“But something’s wrong here,” he goes on to say, commenting on what is appreciation of William Burroughs does and does not mean:

Burroughs does not in fact entail the others, and the strong and mature part of the self—that is to say the part that resists the forces that would beat all human subjectivity down into an algorithm—knows this. But human subjects are vanishingly small beneath the tsunami of likes, views, clicks and other metrics that is currently transforming selves into financialized vectors of data. This financialization is complete, one might suppose, when the algorithms make the leap from machines originally meant only to assist human subjects, into the way these human subjects constitute themselves and think about themselves, their tastes and values, and their relations with others.

“This gutting of our human subjecthood,” Smith goes on to argue, “is currently being stoked and exacerbated, and integrated into a causal loop with, the financial incentives of the tech companies. People are now speaking in a way that results directly from the recent moneyballing of all of human existence.”

I would add just one more dimension to these considerations. The unmasking style takes on a distinct quality on social media, and I’m not sure that Smith’s essay touches on this.

Imagine a young goodman Brown today venturing out into the dark forests of social media. What would be revealed to him by the distinguished gentlemen is not so much the moral failure or vices of his contemporaries but rather their supposed inauthenticity. It would be revealed to him that everyone is in on the moneyballing of human subjectivity, everyone is in on the attention racket.

Consider the Instagram egg. You know, the stock photo of an egg that quickly became the most “liked” image in Instagrams history. Writing about the account for Wired, Louise Matsakis explained,

the creator is clearly familiar with some of the engines of online fame. They tagged a number of people and publications that regularly cover viral memes like LADBible, Mashable, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, and YouTube star PewDiePie in the egg photo itself. Once the account took off, they began to sell “official” merchandise, including T-shirts that say “I LIKED THE EGG,” which go for $19.50.

Moreover,

The account behind the egg, which has nearly 6 million followers, is also an incredibly valuable marketing vehicle. Brands could spend thousands of dollars to advertise with it, according to sources in the influencer marketing industry who spoke with Recode. When the egg goes out of style, its creator could also sell the account or pivot to sharing another type of content with the massive audience they’ve already attracted.

There’s more, but you get the point. The lesson, of sorts, to which the author brought the articles was this: “The egg and other seemingly meaningless internet fads are beloved because they stand in contrast to the manicured, optimized content that often fills our social media feeds, especially from people like the Kardashians.”

I don’t know. It seems to me that the contrast is actually only superficial. They are all playing the game. Or rather, they are playing the game, the rest of us think we’re playing the game but, in fact, are simply getting played. But the point, for present purposes, is that we take for granted that, whether they are winning or losing, everyone is playing the attention game, which, we reason, tacitly perhaps, implies that they are by definition conducting themselves in bad faith. And that is why, to borrow the title of Smith’s essay, it’s all over.

It is one thing to believe that someone is a moral hypocrite and should not be trusted. It is another thing altogether to believe that no one is ever, whether in matters of politics or in the expression of their most inane affinities, doing anything more than posturing for attention of some kind or another. That poisons everything. And so long as we are engaging on social media, especially with people we do not otherwise know offline, it is virtually unavoidable. The structure of social media demands that we internally experience ourselves as performers calling on the attention of an audience. And we know, whether we hate ourselves for it or not, that the insidious metrics always threaten to enslave us. So, we assume, it must be with everyone else.

We are thus tempted simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, to believe that those we encounter online are necessarily involved in an inauthentic identity game and that we are capable of ascertaining the truth about them, even on the slimmest of evidence. (Viewed in this light, there is, in fact, a dialectical relationship between the kind of subjectivity Smith commends and the consequences of the moneyballing he decries.) Or, to put it another way, we believe we know the truth about everyone and the truth we know is that there is no truth to be known. So our public sphere takes on not a cynical quality, but a nihilistic one. That is the difference between believing that everyone is a moral hypocrite and believing that everyone is inauthentically posturing for attention.

It is difficult to see how any good thing can come out of these conditions, especially when they spill out beyond social media platforms, as they necessarily must.

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