The shocking thing about the election has been the severe emotions experienced by Clinton supporters. I, too, voted for Clinton — I made up my mind less than two weeks before the election to vote for the experienced political racketeer rather than the politically inexperienced bully. But now, facing the bully and his gangsters as they prepare to loot the economy and stack the courts, I find myself quite calm, whereas a crowd of people who voted as I did seem to have descended into depression and denial. Many say they feel blindsided. I am distressed at this reaction.
I blame it on poor sampling of the news by readers, something on their own responsibility. People seem to be self-segregating. More and more, they get their news via social media, meaning their friends, and from aggregators and algorithms that give them more of whatever they have indicated they like. It may be best to ignore most of the news altogether. But if you’re not doing that, then I think it’s better to read two or more physical newspapers or organized news sites, and do some with comparative thoroughness. A lot of what you take in will piss you off or bore you, but at least you can gauge the spread of reports on the same topic and pass fair judgment about the neutrality of the different sources, unlike someone who only sees sifted articles. This way of getting news varies your news-diet. Most of the electorate seems news-malnourished to me, eating plenty but lacking a balanced diet.
On self-segregation, here is an item from this morning:
Twitter on Tuesday said it would let users block notifications of tweets that include specific words, among other moves, to combat harassment on the short-messaging service.
Many people now want to be able to silence mechanically anyone they don’t want to hear from. Technology makes it easy. I think naming harassment as the motive disguises what is actually happening.
What is the consequence of people segregating themselves into two large groups, defined by ideology? Unlike most of the people I am among in my second career, I have actually lived for extended periods in societies where political ideology destroyed people’s lives and careers, where martial law in name or spirit was in place, and speech was officially regulated to promote “harmony”. One of my friends in Taiwan spent most of the 1970s in a harsh political prison for being a Marxist. Most of the people I worked with in my Chinese fieldwork were rural intellectuals — schoolteachers, in the main. All had been on the outs politically for decades. There was also one sometime-journalist who in youth had been trained as a mason and gravedigger, and went back to gravedigging and masonry after politics shut down his newspaper — that is, when he was not being flung into pigpens and manure pits by his neighbors.
Friends have, variously, been reading Eric Hoffer’s True Believer (1951), Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto (1995), and Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness (1970; 1990 revision), and I’ve taken up reading them, too. Only Slater’s is new to me, and I find it rambles and its prose reads stiffly. All three texts emerged from the pens of feral intellectuals. All three authors seem angry about trends in society and are indulge in immoderate assertion. Hoffer worked as a longshoreman and spent his off-time in libraries. Kaczynski is a U. Mich. math PhD who abandoned society and eventually began sending home-made bombs to engineers and airline executives; today he lives in a “supermax” prison in Colorado. Slater was a sociology professor who abruptly resigned from academia a year after publishing the book I’ve been reading, and after much swirling about eventually wound up at the Institute for Integral Studies. There’s a revealing late-life conversation with him here.
The most irritating and stimulating idea in this reading is the attacks on technology. Kaczynski and Slater both say technology is the tool of a system pressuring people to conform to rapid social change. Hoffer, writing in 1951, doesn’t mention technology at all, but he is worried about how a mass movement “subordinates creative work to the advancement of the movement” (#117). Kaczynski was much influenced by Hoffer and his innovation is to identify the evolution of technology as a kind of mass movement (#91), which seems to me an original thought. His solution is eliminating “industrial-technological society” so as to allow people more autonomy and freedom, something he considers necessary to human dignity. Slater’s idea of dignity is less autonomy — he wants better communication through smaller, closer communities, cooperative and where everyone has a place.
I think events of the past election year show that most of Slater’s predictions are now undermined. The divide between “individual strivers” and “cooperators” persists, although we’re now 45 years on since his book. The divide hasn’t been overcome and, despite his forecasts, our species persists, too. In the mean time, technology has given us social media and data mining, which together create “communities” possessing the power to make their boundaries impermeable to unwelcome ideas, as Twitter has just illustrated. I’m not sure if these distinct social organisms, which already behave like hostile states, observe the striver-cooperator cleavage Slater describes. But the separateness of the communities is scary — and one of its effects is the reaction of Clinton supporters over the past week.
A pertinent point about technology-media as a source of community was made, in embryo, already in a 1978 review of Slater by Albert Bergesen:
The key problem seems to be that the substance of this new community is composed symbolically, through the mass media. I suppose this is what McLuhan knew. As he said, people don’t read the morning newspaper, they slip into it like a warm bath. That’s a feeling of community! … If your primordial link is with the media, and thereby the collectivity as a whole (and increasingly the world as a whole), then movement from Maine to California, while a geographical shift, is not sociological travel, for you have never left your “local” community. If by local we mean people you are familiar with, see daily, and trust, wouldn’t Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson count as much as your more immediate neighbors? (“Whence Community,” [Contemporary Sociology, 7/1: 18-22], p. 21; http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2065892.pdf)
In 2016 I think you and I know far better what is implied by technology-mediated “community”.