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Friday 26 April 2019

Filosophy on Friday: The Emerging Online Ochlocracy

The Mob cannot be reasoned with, because it is not rationality that drove them in the first place.

This is to very loosely paraphrase Jonathan Swift, who actually said, "Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired..."

In either case, I've been thinking a lot recently about how we might remove people from toxic environments and/or cultures that they themselves might not see as particularly damaging or dangerous while they are part of them, but that could represent an existential threat in terms of how we would wish a civil society to behave. The secondary thought to this, is rather larger, and is of the scope of 'what exactly is this civil society we are trying to bring people into?' which as suggested is actually much more complex than the first intuition of 'rescuing' those that might not actively request help.

To put it another way, how do we convince the stupid that they should become intelligent?

This is, of course, poorly put and motivated by not a small amount of frustration about many peoples seeming willingness to embrace unreason and eschew fairness, balance, impartiality and kindness for antagonism, cruelty, dishonesty and fanaticism.

However, we have to be careful about who the 'they' are as we can too quickly forget that as participants in modern society that this will include us to, and further to this that we should watch for making too simple a description of things as only black or white, that is, an 'in group' and an 'out group' distinction with ourselves as 'in' and whatever enemy of choice we and our group like as the 'outsider' whoever that may be.

I think that this need to create social groups and within those create divisions are both a strength and a weakness in how we approach things and by 'we' I really do mean all human beings.

So, to begin at the beginning, who or what or where are these 'People of ill Opinion' and what are their toxic cultures? Now, I don't want to look at any of the usual groups of concern, because I'm not sure that these sorts of groups are liable to suddenly and permanently remove themselves from humanity anytime soon. People have been hideous to each other throughout time, so I don't feel the need to scrutinise a particular 'bad' group today. Instead, I want to describe the medium of their collectivism and how this is affecting all parties negatively. We are being drawn into a system of interaction and it is one that has many dangerous qualities, not least because it has been designed specifically to prey on human frailties. I'm describing, of course, the Internet and the recent development of Social Media. Particularly, how this has changed how people think.

Sidenote A.

An apology. As will soon become apparent I don't accomplish or indeed investigate (m)any of the things I set out here, at least, not in the manner I've described them above. I give reasons at the end, but I just thought you should know...

1. The Ironic Youth

I could, of course, look at the alt-right and particularly after recent events seek to portion blame at them and their 'culture' indeed, in part, I already have, but the point of this piece today is not to point out all the negative, unreasonable and cruel things that 'they' do, but to shed a light on the negative, unreasonable and cruel things that we all participate in when we interact online.

As I have said before, the best way to gain an entirely negative view of people online is to purposely look into all the dark places wherein they congregate. However, what is perhaps more sickening is when one sees the aggressively emotional performance that the white supremacist makes being co-opted by other online groups as merely an 'aesthetic'. That aesthetic being irony of a form, diluted through capitalistic ritual, pieced together with immaculate deniability and crowned with an attitude of disdain.

Not that this form of youth culture is anything new, punk was itself a nihilistic rejection of the corruption of the wider 'adult' world in a sense, which fed through the materialism of the 80s and 90s neo-con generations and became (if there was anything like a trajectory at play) the ironic detachment of Generation X throughout that time and particularly in the 90s. David Foster Wallace has made insightful commentary about the corrosive effects of this 'irony' in several essays, one of which I have already quoted on this blog.

 2. Groups of Disdain

So, I've already labelled one group the problem (however naïvely) then surely all that needs to be done is to co-opt this group into acceptable behaviours and otherwise expunge them from the body politic and all will be right with the world again, right?

Well, no, probably not.

As fans of history might note, there is a certain type of behaviour that comes about in many different ways but the end result is almost always the same. The self-described outsiders, the radicals, the free-thinkers, the champions of (true) justice, the defenders of... etc. That is, those that start out at the fringe, later come into acceptance and power after struggles, and then with this power that they eventually wield, exert a massive revenge on the society that spawned them or, more correctly, the scapegoats within (or without) that they blame for their woes.

What is common in these ideologies that leads to totalitarians horrors? Well, actually very little. Looking back only a hundred years of so, there is very little at the outset in common with Russia's Soviet Revolution and Germany's NSDAP movement, or any of the other authoritarian governments in Eastern and Southern Europe at the time following the Great Depression.

This leads me to the conclusion that apart from outright advocating for violence that there is nothing inherent in any ideology that is meant for this purpose. Whether this be a form of religion, of political theory, even of nationalistic identity, that none of these are by themselves seeking to carry out the subjugation and disenfranchisement of an 'other' within or without society that the ideology has designated enemy.

Unless we proclaim that all ideologies lead inexorably towards a dehumanising outcome, in that they have a singular mind-set and outcome. Perhaps. But let's set this aside for now and make the argument for this at a later date.

3. Outliers of Culture

So far a lot of what I'm saying might be understood as, 'those who question accepted society are wrong and they lead towards only bad ends'.

This is not what I mean, as I have a great sympathy for those outside of normalcy that seek to question and challenge the status quo. Indeed, I sometimes think that I am part of this cabal.

It is not then that we question, but how we question and for what reason.

Starting with the second, the motivation behind criticising pervasive everyday behaviours might be that there is some perceived injustice or grievance that is going unchecked or unrecognised that the group or individual seeks to bring into the light. Let us call this the 'activist' reaction, in that there is one certain topic that is the foundation of this evaluation and that otherwise the group or individual is largely in line for how society is structured and functions.

A further reason might be that the group or individual feels that there is some wider error or fault within society that needs correcting. It might be a pervasive mode of thought, a political doctrine, or even a dominant religion. Let us call this the 'rejectionist' reaction and is obviously of greater scope than the 'activist'. Indeed, depending on the focus this sort of motivation might be an endless struggle for wider acceptance. However, some of these views may themselves be taken on-board by wider society and become themselves part of the status quo.

Differing from these specific goal-orientated reactions, we might also think of the analytic outsider, who uses their perspective to critique wider social structures. Let us call this the 'theorist'. In this mode, the 'theorist' is not motivated to a specific end point, but seeks to bring contemporary practice into a type of practice that is more in line with some other motivation. This may be for a more efficient political structure, or one that is more fair and just, one that is instead perhaps more secular or devout. It is less specific than the previous two motivations described and is therefore more changeable for that, to the point that the culmination of their theory might never be fully achieved.

Lastly (and it should be highlighted that this is merely the very briefest of sketches, which holds in itself the possibility for almost infinite variations and arrangements) there is the sort of motivation that wishes to halt or change a perceived path that society has taken. This motivation seeks to bring about social change in a different direction what the 'critic' feels is currently taking place. Unlike the 'rejectionist' there is not a specific error that the 'critic' has their focus upon, they are not seeking to build anything in particular, they are simply of the belief that general betterment can be reached with keeping an analytic focus on those 'norms' that we take for granted.

In summary; a focus on what they want, a focus on what they do NOT want, a focus on a particular theme of society, or no focus outside of ongoing societal criticism.

4. The End of Civility

"Facts don't have Feelings" is a common rebuttal to claims of a particular opinion being overly harsh or cruel or unrealistic. However, a more true depiction of the statement would be more like, "feelings don't have facts" as this is really what is at play.

Seeing your opinion as a 'fact' is the first step into a wider and more damaging delusion.

'But wait! This is not just any divisive personal commentary, this is personal commentary with stats and citations!'

Have we checked these so-called statistics for accuracy, have we looked into the perspective and motivations of those that we cite positively, and where are those that have voiced opposite opinions and made arguments counter to this intuition of ours?

'Well, there's not enough time to consider every angle. Eventually we all have to decide whether this is the hill you want to die on!'

As I've said before, it's becoming all to easy to find a constant barrage of agreement on the internet, which is I think a dangerous way to conduct yourself. Not that we should consider the unending negativity of the 'critic' to be absolute either. We might agree that there has to be a point in which we say 'enough!', but neither do we need to pin ourselves to this last-theory-standing attitude (you don't need to pick a hill to die on, not yet).

For most people, their attitude is to make do with whatever seems the most appropriate mode of existing in general acceptance. Not to say that the majority of the population does not consider existential questions ever, of course they do, all people will do so at some time in their lives, but neither do they spend the vast majority of their time considering them. This is were the activist, rejectionist, theorist and critic are truly outsiders.

All well and good, but how are we dealing with contrary perspectives? In public, much as we ever have. On the internet, with increasing rancour and animosity.

5. The 'Fickle' Crowd (see image at top of post)

An Ochlocracy is itself a pejorative for majority rule people's Democracy as used by Autocrats, but I am also thinking of it here as a threat to Democracy itself. The 'dark-side' of democracy perhaps, one that emphasises herd behaviour, mob violence, and populist crowd control.

However, this fear of the mob, also hides an advantage in that what constitutes a 'free' Ochlocracy is that it is defined without hierarchical structures, which some* think leaves it easy prey to despotic populist rulers. Indeed, history tends to favour this cynical appraisal of majoritivist rule, but I think that on the Web there is a possibility to escape the clutches of these tyrants. At least in the optimistic, borderline utopian, idealism of the original architects of the Web there were similar thoughts.

*This was my assumption. However, doing some brief research into the history of 'mobs', that is, what tends to be working-class group action against the state without a larger leadership or political influence, you tend to see that rather than the control of the group being corrupted by a demagogue with an alternative agenda, that instead there tends to be two distinct phases employed by the antagonistic government against the 'mob'. First, to disparage the group and their motives, directly or indirectly through state-sponsored media outlets (or online!). Secondly, to increase the persecution of the group with 'lawful' arrests and if possible wipe them out but thankfully this choice is less possible by governments and their enforcement arm of the police or the military (mostly).

That the corporate internet has instead used this generation's great technological innovators, not to dream of new horizons for online interaction, nor about developing creative solutions to communication and implications for global online societies, but rather that this intellectual talent has been squandered in creating what is possibly the greatest system of advertising ever conceived. A system that has real practical benefits in the application of how governments can observe and influence their populace covertly. Rather than develop the Web along the lines of an anarchist's egalitarian dream they have instead created another system of control, we have escaped from the 'real world' machinations of controlling governments to an online space where we have again developed these structures of control, surveillance and coercion.

There are still plenty of free spaces online, if one knows where to look. The success of free-to-use knowledge spaces like Wikipedia, the influence of investigative whistle-blowing against corrupt governments by Wikileaks (not matter what one thinks of the individual Julian Assange) and crowd-funding sites that have given artists and intellectuals who would otherwise go unsupported (by companies and governments) the funding to create new works. Not least to mention the benefits of online charities and funding made more immediate and impactful than traditional methods, giving people access to healthcare that would otherwise be denied them due to location or poverty. All of these examples give some hope that this originating anarchic Ochlocracy might yet become a future possibility, but first we have to break with the dictatorship of wants that Social Media has created for us.

6. The People of Ill Online Opinion

While some might point to a shadowy 'human nature' as the reason for belligerent and cruel behaviours exhibited in people online, I instead believe that it is something that is cultivated by repeated cycles of interaction. With these engagements being defined, their boundaries and expectations set, by a commercialised Web space that prioritises competitive individualism over co-operative understanding. It is the capitalistic influence at play in the social sphere again.

Who then are the people of ill opinion?

Those of us who peddle in closed ideas, who keep only within their particular bubble and indeed wear this identity as the product that it really is. Those of us who have forsaken true individual identity for one sold to us online, either by communities who wish to use us, or companies that simply want our money. Both want to drain us without any actual concern for who we are.

What makes an opinion ill is a failure to effectively perform self-criticism, through a misplaced need to belong and a fear of 'being wrong'. This mobocracy, the dark-side of our positive anarchist egalitarian people's Democratic Ochlocracy, is the other possible road that the internet can take us down. Although there are certainly groups online whose attitude and actions makes them more culpable, still, all those who have embraced unreason carry the same hubris for their failings.

7. Summary

Probably you had thought that this post would mostly be a critique of the negative unreasonable mob behaviour by groups on the internet, well, that was certainly my intention in the introduction and I really thought it would be that too, but perhaps I'm getting a little disinclined with the constant stream of negativity that that investigation entails. So, rather than thinking about this subject in purely oppositional lines, and focusing on the collection of hate groups online, I seem to have drifted into what positive things can be taken from the ideas of collective thinking. And the positive manner in interpreting an Ochlocracy seems to me to be very apropos to the hopeful ideals of the Web, which make for more optimistic thinking than focusing again on the dangers of group-think, because we all know this by now. Yet our collective apathy and complacent cruelty has not vanished, so why is that? Look, I know, that I shouldn't be raising more questions in a supposed conclusion, but this isn't an end point for me. It's a spring board for other ideas, as this blog was always meant to be. There are several things I've mentioned here that I will allow to percolate before returning to them, either as a blog post or more privately. As always I welcome comments, questions and suggestions, should anyone ever actually read this that isn't me...

Sidenote B.

A brief mention about Jonathan Swift and that epigrammatic Quote at the outset. It might have been thought that the initial paraphrased quote from Swift was to indicate the tone and the writer's own general opinion on the matter of 'mobs'. Well, it might have been that at one point, but now it seems instead to highlight the view of any non-hierarchical group that has self-organised by a dominant power. And although Swift is undoubtably a great writer and satirist, his politics are hardly what one would describe as 'progressive', for although he often railed against political corruption, he was also a firm believer in the state as was, being a Whig and later a Tory. So, the reason for the mob's apparent lack of rationality might be no more complication than our own failure or lack of understanding as to their motivations, as well as a certain unwillingness to entertain their perspective. Indeed, it's easier to dismiss a contrary opinion if we discount it's validity as an argument at all. Much like we can 'deal with' certain groups if we allow ourselves to engage in and absorb dehumanising rhetoric about them. The 'mob' is comprised of persons, each of whom can be reasoned with if all parties are willing to be reasonable.

P.S. This has been written both in haste and while being distracted on many fronts and while I do not seek to make excuses for whatever errors this post undoubtedly contains, I will use this post-script to highlight any later adjustments, insertions or corrections that I make. [26/4/19] Some spell checking, edited my assumption about the weaknesses of 'mobs', and also an additional 'summary' [27/4/19] Added sidenotes A and B [28/4/19]

Thursday 25 April 2019

Aesthetic Pleasures: Book and Music Pairings #1

A new and spur-of-the-moment posting 'series' that might, like many others, eventually be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas...

But, for the present moment...

I had noticed that some novels tend to drive my listening to a certain type of music

Indeed, that what I'm trying to do in these occasions is to continue or even heighten the feeling of the world being created in the novel with my own selection of music, much like a director does with the score in a film.

The very first time I noted this behaviour was when I was reading Iain M. Banks (The M. denoting that it's one of his Sci-Fi 'culture' novels) and the most apropos music was the excellent Talvin Singh album OK, particularly the 11 minute first track 'Traveller' which seems to fit right into the mood of Banks' world.

So, the first selection comes in the form of Scottish socialist sci-fi and musical Indian futurism...

Iain M. Banks 'Look to Windward'
(click image for description)


Talvin Singh 'OK'

I'll add some more present ones to this 'series' and see where it goes with whatever readings and listenings are prompted by my ongoing existence.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Love is the Law (6): Baby Love

Librarian & Son

He is here.

It is hard to put into words the love one feels for their own newborn child, not least due to the exhaustion (lack of sleep is not something I cope well with), but also because there is a well established general description that, much like romantic love or other human feelings, is a fictionalised narrative of one's actual emotions. It can give someone else, an outsider, an idea of what it 'would be like' but what the real experience of it all is like for me, will always be a deeply individual and personal account. Potentially one that does not chime with our standard descriptions, but is no less an experience of love for all that and also because of that the language to describe this state is found wanting.

I've spoke before (links forthcoming) about how our different connections with animals, friends, art and so forth are all different 'types' of love (under one way of thinking) but are all examples of our care-for others. Other persons, other beings, other things, etc.

My love for my partner is not my love for my friends, or my love for my dog (deceased). How I might approach these relationships are different, but they are not weighed against each other, one is not greater than another, they are different but also the same. They are all love.

Sitting quietly at night with my son resting peacefully on my lap, fills my heart with such utter joy, peace but also fear. Such contradictory feelings, so potently felt, much like variations of other 'loves' that are my other connections that I care-for. Similar components in different combination, acting on the same being and bringing differing results, dependent on circumstance.

This love, like my love for JJ, is one that will develop as we grow together. We will change together as father and son. There is a (hopefully) long road ahead of us and I can't wait to get started.