Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Smash the Control Images, Smash the Control Meme

Well, America, you wanted to "shake things up" with the election.
In the ongoing spirit of shaking things up, perhaps the local butcher can now be your surgeon, a kindergartner with an abacus can be your accountant, and--- this is potentially the only good part---- a veterinarian can now be your social critic. Enjoy!
After years of absence from the blogosphere, I am returning, just so I can punch the internet in the face. Ironic, isn't it?

In the month since the election, there have been a storm of social media posts, ranging from depressed-faced selfies to prayer offerings, to organizational calls-to-action. Many people have shown their outrage over Donald Trump, bigotry, the electoral college, and everything in between.

However, I've yet to see anyone on the internet opine that social media culture (including that of the Left) enabled this unprecedented degree of narcissism to infiltrate the White House, paving the way for even more dangerous forces to exert influence.

Racists, bigots, science-deniers and the like have had a muffled presence in this nation throughout the entire modern political era. Isn't it peculiar that they gained a vocal stronghold now, right in the middle of our most "socially conscious" information age? Many would say it was just bigoted backlash to our recent black president or a woman candidate. Those are legitimate factors. However, we are missing something huge if we don't acknowledge the narcissistic, group-thinking and enabling cultures that amassed themselves on the internet and helped usher a non-presidential, exploitative narcissist right into the White House.

Having been part of the "fringe" animal advocacy movement that exploded into the mainstream only with the dawn of social media, I have seen how technological, sociological, and psychological factors play out in everything - especially in modern politics.

But foremost, I am a veterinarian. So first I will say that our nation at this moment reminds me of a herd of animals with an outbreak of upper respiratory infection. The "causative" virus is rarely the focus of treatment---after all, viruses are everywhere, and have been for ages. The way to combat a virus isn't to focus on the virus. Rather, it is to focus on strengthening the weakened, susceptible hosts and correcting their lack of healthy distance from one other. This is the new American people, who are emotionally crowded and vulnerable in one place: mainly, the internet. 

Theoretically, the information age should be a great thing. It allows nearly everyone with a computer or smartphone to access unlimited knowledge. However, this is only useful if people are being discerning and analytical. Otherwise, the internet-- moreso than even TV-- can be the opposite of great. It can be a system of control, or a gargantuan forum that reinforces groupthink and spreads it faster than it's ever been able to spread before. Modern advertising started blurring the lines between reality and non-reality decades ago. TV escalated it. Now, social media has all but drowned out the difference between facts and opinions --- between lies, hyperbole, and reality.

Because of where I happened to grow up, I know quite a few Trump supporters. If I were to draw an analogy to veterinary clients: just look at how many insist on feeding those over-marketed, neon orange dog foods from the grocery store, and then honestly wonder why their animal is sick. (Trump, of course, is neon orange too, so perhaps it all comes down to color preference.)

Entire books could be written on cognitive dissonance and groupthink as it relates to Trump supporters. But instead of banging my head against "the wall" (pun intended), I'll focus on the other impressionable demographic - left of center Millennials.

Although I'm on the generational cusp and identify as Gen X, I've known enough Millennials and have read their Facebook offerings over the years. I'm not alone in seeing that social media has catapulted America into its worst ever culture of narcissism and groupthink. Social media has also accelerated the spread of baseless information and programmed an intense fear of social derision. Then, as the final blow to character--- it rewards displays of "activism" that have no constructive or didactic value. As time goes on, more and more of the eligible voting population will have had its perception of reality distorted by social media.

Bloomberg recently reported that, "in a departure from past voting patterns, young Millennials were keen on third-party candidates this year—nearly one in 10 voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or wrote in their own candidate." (We can be sure that some voted for themselves, Taylor Swift or Grumpy Cat, the last of whom is clearly the best choice of the three.) Considering that Millennials made up the same portion of the electorate as in the previous election, that is a surprising amount of expected votes that were diverted away from an election of such unprecedented importance.

When I hear anyone say this election "wasn't that important", this is my reaction:

This election was crucially important. It was important to prevent the possible collapse of American democracy and block the path for neo-fascism, which is rising in other parts of this globalized world. It was important to prevent an unqualified, completely inexperienced and unstable anti-diplomat from potentially sending the world into dangerous instability or war. It was important to oppose the bigoted devaluation of language, science, our fellow citizens, and human beings at large. It was important because---as I always say in veterinary practice---it's easier to prevent a serious disease than to cure it.

Many Millennials on the Left seem to regard social media the way Baby Boomers on the Right regard Fox News. If you ask non-voting or third-party-voting Millennials about the election, many will give a knee-jerk response that Trump and Hillary were equivalent. I'm hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 35 to agree with the idea that Trump and Clinton are "equivalent", except for the most irrational Baby Boomers, who wear Peter Pan syndrome on their sleeves and still treat reality like it's some kind of inconvenient option. Among them, and especially among Millennials, there was indeed a social media-goaded movement to "vote for an ideal rather than an actual possibility", or "check out altogether" from the election. This mindset factually affected the election's outcome. In other words, "Trump equals Clinton" must have been a hard-hitting meme.

Speaking of memes, members of the so-called Alt-Right are utilizing white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, and misogynstic memes. It's not surprising, because internet memes are the most viral method that have ever been invented for planting ideas in people's brains. If you stand back and look, our era is ripe to become more Orwellian than anything Orwell could have imagined.

Adding to this groupthink problem, there seems to be a young Millennial tendency to regard atrocities like the Holocaust ---which happened 70 years ago--- to be as distant as events that happened 700 years ago. To the youngest voters, these are things soooo of the past, soooo over and done with, and soooo not happening in their America, where even 911 may not be in memory.
As much as the new multicultural, tolerant Millennial experience is great, it cannot be taken for granted and go so undefended, because the reality is that such tranquility never lasts.

There is a widespread Pollyanna notion that fascism cannot take hold in America. There is a widespread Pollyanna belief that it's "mean" or too alienating to call out atrocious behaviors, even from one's computer. This mindset, more than any specific political figure or group, should be harrowing to us all. Why? Because the morally unhinged, exploitative narcissists in world history --including elected ones--- have only functioned because of their masses of enablers. If enablers evaporated from Earth, narcissists would just curl into the fetal position (their hidden internal state) and become paralyzed.

Yet, now that the election is over, and all the threats are real, there is a continuation of the same  enabling behaviors from much of the Left that got it here. The fraction of the population that used to fiercely protect the rest of society from itself --the young dissenters and strategists---the would-be Susan B. Anthonys, the would-be MLKs, and even those in-your-face Jello Biafras, are no longer engaging in the same degree of impacting dissent. It's simply easier and more validating to generate good feelings and be "liked" in cyber space. No smashing of the control images going on here, Mr. Burroughs.

The American activist persona was always more polite than its oppressors; that's why it evolved strikes, passive resistance, or music and art with a message. However, it's never been so polite that it quaked at the thought of using mere words when appropriate, like "immoral" or "ignorant." This fragile new America seems to fear unfriending and negative "comments" the way people used to fear going to prison, or standing before a firing squad.

The internet may be raising a more socially conscious youth, but it is also creating a more self-conscious youth than ever before. Not only is this new America removed from the memory of tragedy, it is also programmed to need validation like fish need water. That is what makes this new populace the most oblivious and easiest target for exploitative forces yet, in the history of our country.

For example, what happens when clearly ill-intentioned people with zero regard for facts start dominating the media, as they are masterfully doing now? Part of the population will inevitably be distracted and duped. But will even the concerned citizens just hide behind their computers and type statuses about the beauty of love...because that's what generates the most Facebook likes? It sure seems that way.

Young "activist personas" are being conditioned to seek validation and generate warm feelings instead of engaging in real activism, which involves constructive (and often sacrificial) action. What would happen in a world where even "that time-trusted activist persona" engages only in so-called "slacktivism?" Slacktivism is defined as "actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g., signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website."

I didn't make this diagram. Maybe some other Gen Xer did, in which case neither of us knows if it even qualifies as a meme, and neither of us has the remaining eyesight left to read it. Anyhow, it's accurate (even the low positioning of "blogs", which is why I haven't written a post in years). I would replace "Property Damage" or "Sabotage" with "Lobbying", but I appreciate that disinvestment is recognized as the most effective form of activism, while "prayer, thoughts and FB likes" are on the opposite end of the spectrum--- exactly where they belong.

No matter who made the diagram, I would bet anything that a Millennial wrote the feel-good disclaimer at the bottom, out of concern that friends might be offended. I imagine that the crippling Millennial fear of judgment would end abruptly, if this demographic was stripped of its iphones and led off in chains to a barren cell, if even for one evening. 

Given all the hazards of social media, some intelligent people support the idea of abandoning it entirely. However, it seems that voices of reason are needed there as much as in the non-virtual world. The mindsets being established there are affecting outcomes in reality, for better or worse.

Judging from a decade of my own experiences in political advocacy, the most successful movements will be the ones that use social media as a mobilization tool rather than a self-validating forum that breeds petty infighting and disorganization. Sadly, I can foresee the far Right doing more of the (surreptitious?) mobilization, whereas the Left is already guilty of endless emoting and self-validating displays. 

What social media on the Left often "forgets" is that the most effectual changing of the system usually comes from inside the system, not from the bleacher seats. Like it or not, our system is one big baseball game, where lots of players are on steroids and being bought and sold for millions of dollars. Most of us dislike that. However, we will stand no chance of affecting the outcome of the game at all if we don't show up to the game...or if we show up in robes with a magic wand, rather than with a uniform and a bat. (Aside from that, it never, ever hurts to have a bat.)

Whether we're trying to mobilize action for animal protection or for political candidates, we need to be aware of the dangerous degradation of thought, language, facts and truth that is occurring on the internet. We need to resist the rapid decline of individual analysis and pragmatic action.
Otherwise, we are just locked into one space like that crowded herd of animals, becoming increasingly susceptible to the virus.

This presidential election taught us that...or at least, it should have.