Thursday, March 18, 2021

Online Living

Over at Quillette, which should be your go-to source for discussions of cancellings in journalism and academia, there are two of interest up at the moment. The first is about journalist Jesse Singal coming under attack, and one by Eric Kaufman The Threats to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data documenting the accelerating increase in these witch-hunts over the last few years.  I was intrigued because the latter article mentioned the year 2015 as a clear point of increase. I already have the highschool graduating class of 2014 in the front of my mind on the subject of living online, sharp increases in depression, anxiety, and suicide, and punitive cultures of exclusion.  That was the break point that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff identified in The Coddling of the American Mind, which I discussed in 2019. That is the first class that had personal devices straight through since middle school.  Their lives are thus not only online, but they had much less interactive life with their peers before they got those devices. They had not developed sufficiently to handle the juggling between worlds.

So 2015 would be their first year of college, so an increase in this type of viciousness, and living in fear of viciousness, might not be that surprising. Even if they would have been the most intense version of this culture when they arrived on campus, it is not as if such things were unknown to the classes before them. Also, as the next few classes arrived, by 2019 (another break year mentioned in the second article) the undergraduate population would be fully from that culture, and graduate schools would be beginning to see them arrive. 

The key point to remember about them is that they do not live in quite the same world we do.  Social death online really is a kind of death to them.  The real world is online, in contrast to their boring world of making dinner and doing homework or entry-level job. Adults can respond to cancelling, even in extreme circumstances of losing jobs, by having somewhere else to go.  These are often a big step down, but you have people who you can talk to and commiserate with who recognise the injustice.  These children do not. They could develop such networks, with much less effort than they think, but at the moment they see only the abyss.

However, this young group are not the only ones doing the cancelling.  There are plenty of adults in college administrations or media editorial offices who are doing the same.  How do we account for them? My initial thought is that these are groups, even more than faculty at colleges, which have to be hypersensitive to youth culture, and thus were already online more than most others their age, and are in more danger.  It was either James or JMSmith, both in academia, who pointed out that these cancellings are much more common in industries where there is enormous competition for few slots. Yes, so we should add popular entertainment to the list of those living in cancel culture.

From the Jesse Singal article, we note that the trans community is also front-and-center.  I should be fair: this is the online trans community, which is likely not fully representative. That this group already lives in a fantasy, artificial world about their own identities makes moving to the online unrealities more attractive. My sample is skewed, as most of the trans people I have known are psychiatric patients.  But even among the staff, the few I knew were not well, and not nice.  One was witty, which is a lovely quality until paired with meanness. Yet even if my judgement is unfair and the great preponderance of trans people are just regular folk who have a harder row to hoe than most, it does remain true that the attempted suicide rate among trans adolescents approaches 50%.  Simple responsibility, not to mention kindness, should dictate that we need truthful research about this group and we need it quickly.

It is not black people per se who are participating in cancel culture (though I do think the percentage may be much higher among the young), it is those who are attempting to be black spokespersons.  We are back to the rack of intense competition for slots again, aren't we? As with Siskind's The Toxoplasma of Rage, which I have linked to repeatedly, the competition for attention pushes such folks in the direction of extremism. So they are listening to and reinforcing each other, and they live online.  Others who live online, especially the young are disproportionately affected.

Cancelling is a function of online living, not merely because one has an amplified voice, but because that culture is different, and its social enforcement is more brutal than what we have experienced before.  It goes beyond the storied cultures of exclusion at schools, especially boarding schools, and is moving in the direction of entire villages as engines of enforcement, known throughout history but seen most recently in Communist China. They are dangerous, but also pitiable.


james said...

I wish it had been I who made that good observation.

Texan99 said...

I was in high school long before any of this started, but it's not as though we didn't suffer from cruelly exclusive cliques. As an introvert, I may have been oblivious to some of this--I never expected to be accepted by any group, really--but that also meant that I had only a few close contacts, any breach with whom was quite difficult to tolerate. Still, I could go on to try to establish intimate ties with new small groups. It was a tremendous relief, first, to find other school-nerds when I started college, and later, to fall in with a particularly intense group of lawyers among whom my own weirdnesses were assets for a change.

Would all this have been more fraught if we'd been on social media together? Maybe: an introvert like me would have been more likely to try to engage people in that superficially impersonal context, and then shocked, perhaps, if it became intensely personal and hostile. But there's no denying that high school can easily become intensely personal and hostile on- or off-line. Kids are just barely learning about community, especially if their nuclear families are a bit incompetent on the subject.

I wonder sometimes if a lifelong habit of being in the minority in the general thinking on nearly every imaginable subject is armor of a sort against de-personing. The trade-off is a lot of alienation, but it's hard to shock me too much by making it clear to me that I'm supporting a position nearly alone. My default position is that it's too bad everyone else is wrong.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ james, it must have been our geography professor, then.