The Triumph of Pity

Photo: © John Stadnicki, 2020

 

Equality does not exist. It has never existed. And yet, losing it creates a sense of boiling anger that keeps me awake at night. When it gets too unbearable, I pick up a Christopher Hitchens book to feel a sense of vindication; there are people angrier than me, and things could be worse than they are. In the current socio-political context, they will probably get worse, but until then my anger is so seductive that I justify it to myself as well as to people around me.

The academic Barry Richards from Bournemouth University looks at anger against the ‘establishment’ in the context of the Brexit referendum, giving it a compelling psychosocial dimension*: anger as ‘narcissistic rage against otherness of the authority’ (2019). The social ‘rage’ felt in 2016 materialised in a rejection of the EU’s perceived authority, in an attempt to reclaim promised freedoms which, up to that point, people did not even think they had missed. The populist propaganda played an important role in mobilising that sense of anger, but it must have stemmed from somewhere else, at a far deeper level. Richards talks about a range of socio-economic conditions which nurture the collective anger; among them, the growing economic inequality, the loss of institutional sovereignty, the social tensions fitting into the equation ‘them and us’.

Although often (but not always) irrational and misunderstood, anger can become a form of projection of our own sense of humiliation and loss of dignity, a symptomatic difficulty in accepting authority. In social terms, authority can take different forms and shapes and it makes its presence felt in social organisations as well as in leadership structures. Anger projected against institutions and leaders is a weakness in democracy; it makes society receptive to manipulations from charismatic frontrunners (individuals or institutions) who/which place themselves outside the corrupt system that the public is ‘upset about.’

The issue with projected anger in complex democracies needs further attention. With multi-media types of interaction, anger is often, and easily, used as a form of social communication. At the same time, it is an inefficient, if not weak, strategy when it meets well-rehearsed discourses from leadership figures who shout loudly, clearly and repeatedly that they would ‘get things done.’ Going further, the cynical aspect of this theory is that the establishment itself knows this too. The establishment knows that anger:

a). can be projected (therefore it has little impact on the practical aspects of governance) and

b). can be manipulated (therefore people can be given ample new reasons to direct their anger at).

More than that, the establishment understands that if a reasonable proportion of the population has enough material resources to participate in the democratic exercise, the anger simmers for a while without reaching boiling point. And even if it reaches that point, the finger points at the angry, and relatively few, elements within the society, accused of flouting the public duty or the civic responsibility.

In this context, my anger confirms the fact that I am not a good citizen but a narcissistic victim of my own inability to control my feelings. My anger is a symptom of my humiliation and a result of my lack of resources. My anger makes me worthy of pity.

 

© Maria Stadnicka, May 2020


* Richards, B. (2019) ‘Beyond the angers of populism: a psychosocial inquiry.’ Journal of Psychosocial Studies, 12 (1-2): 171-183.

The Burden of an Exit Strategy

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The confusing scandal around Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of personal data have stirred a wide search for a coping strategy post Facebook, once the campaign #Delete started to gather momentum. Over fifty million people have become victims of an algorithm and the finger points in both directions. It points at the corporation and the guilty pact between the rich and the political class to maintain ‘the distribution of wealth’ (Chomsky). And it points at the victims too, as they gave into temptation and filled in the vilified personality test, the intelligence test, the ‘what Disney character are you’ test or ‘is the dress white or gold’ test. And the list could include other hundreds of tests and surveys which were strategically used to collect data and profile the population.

But why did people take the online tests in the first place? Was it out of curiosity, boredom, self-absorption, confusion, insecurity? Possibly, but not exhaustively, being constantly overfed information, the individual, the person behind the computer screen, started to lose the sense of identity and the fear of rejection kept on creeping in. A sign of an increasing collective anxiety.

The need for constant external validation could be a symptom of what de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’. But this is not, by far, a new philosophical discovery. In 1929, Bernays used collective anxiety in his campaign ‘Torches of Freedom’ and successfully convinced women to start smoking cigarettes. One can only see that psychological profiling started a long time ago, when Sigmund Freud clarified the notion of a dark, unconscious self. It comes as no surprise now that among my friends without online social presence there is a sense of ‘told you so’ vindication, whilst the rest is struggling to find a way out.

On a tweet published yesterday by a friend I read a stark and final confession: ‘took a while to decide, but happy I finally cleansed myself. After 11 years I am off…forever.’ But have they actually managed to escape with such ease? Is ‘deleting’ as simple as ‘liking’ or ‘accepting’ the terms and conditions of a virtual contract? There are two immediate identifiable issues here.

The first is that the Facebook license does not end upon the deactivation of your account. The content will only be released from license when all the other users (family, friends, acquaintances, nobodies) have also broken their ties with it. Online freedom will come only after successful negotiations with thousands of friends one gathered during a decade of social media use. The second issue is that Twitter, the online space the online user migrated towards, has a more insidious ‘rights’ clauses. In accepting the terms and conditions, they granted the platform editing rights. Which means the right to edit, modify, translate and format any content posted on the platform. And this can be highly problematic when the content is translated to other languages.

The society’s architecture has dramatically changed to redefine the concept of freedom within the limits of an acceptable platform. It is now symptomatic that ‘deleting’ is a form of virtual social rejection, which leads to real constrains in terms of access to information. But, a while ago, this free access used to be a fundamental attribute of a healthy democracy.

‘The concept of liberty and individual choice are nothing but a mirage’ notes an online user on Twitter who admits that ‘today, Facebook deleted my account because I did use the title DeleteFacebook in one of my paintings’ (TArt). The elite culture is openly biting back displaying the fangs of bigotry ‘as it pretends there is no other alternative’ (Berger).
What facets do we need to explore now in order to redesign our ‘spectre of hope’?

Maria Stadnicka, 1st April 2018