What if we’ve been looking at this Trump thing all wrong? (we have)

Fifty years from now in an exam room, a year 12 student will open their Modern History paper and nervously read the question:

“Account for the rise of the far right in 2016 with reference to the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and far right European governments.”

Oh boy, would I love an advanced copy of that essay. I wonder what that student will scrawl on their paper, what beautifully crafted topic sentences have been bashed into their heads by teachers and historians who have picked apart this decade and calmly pieced together the chaos.

But more than anything, I wonder what kind of world awaits them on the other side of the exam door.

Will Trump’s election and uprising of the far-right be a brief yet ugly footnote in an otherwise peaceful and progressive time in history — a bizarre story to tell our kids? Or are we unknowingly hurtling towards a period of disastrous global revolution — where students will one day raise their hand in class and ask their teacher “how could they not see that coming?”

Trump isn’t an anomaly. Rather, he’s now a logical progression in world politics.

Perhaps we can explain away Hillary Clinton’s loss with an admonishment of the Electoral College or the FBI or rampant sexism (all of which played their part in Trump’s victory). But none of these helped Brexit get over the line or can explain the rise of Pauline Hanson once again in Australia. The point is — we need to urgently zoom out. Something is happening globally and the better we can explain it, the more likely we can fight it.

If the left needs one thing at the moment, it’s humility. Just watch this video and appreciate how much of a “fuck you” this victory was against liberals and the media.

We are teetering on the edge of a populist, far-right resurgence and unless we work out what went wrong and amend it, we could be facing the reality of far-right governments around the world.

So what caused this? Every journo and politician has had a crack at it but one of the reasons that has so far been largely overlooked is the very nature of the internet. The signs were there all along.


Why, the comment section of course.

The comment section

The comment section of any article or meme on Facebook is a bit like a scene in a rowdy, drunken pub. Everyone’s shouting at each other, saying things they’re probably going to regret in the morning — but if you can sift through the abuse and ignore the objectively horrible people, you can start to see patterns emerging.

Take any article about feminism, safe spaces, LGBT rights or racism and you’ll inevitably get one of these comments:

“I’m a non-binary, pansexual unicorn and this triggered me”.

We’ve all seen these comments. They’re incredibly unoriginal and often shallowly mock a legitimate idea, article or personal experience. But these comments always get a lot of traction, often attracting more likes and comments than the article itself.

So what motivates them? They are symptomatic of a common kind of fatigue with the relentlessness and pace of social change, and more importantly the language that accompanies these ideas.

There’s also another type of commenter that is far more insidious and yet also ubiquitous — the well informed and educated dissenter. Often the best way to counter your opinion of an article or an idea is to read the comments. Yes, there are shallow, racist comments lurking there. But there are also valid arguments from persuasive conservatives too — and by coming to abhor the comment section altogether, we’re inadvertently shielding ourselves from counter arguments that would help us shape and challenge our preconceived ideas.

Super-charged internet culture

The problem that the internet has created is that the ideas we are forced to grapple with are becoming more and more complicated and nuanced just as the internet is taking away the means and time to properly discuss them.

20 years ago, ideas progressed far slower without the internet — with only traditional media setting the pace. But the internet acts as a superhighway with the power to accelerate any issue with millions of voices at all hours of the day on thousands of different platforms. Stories which may have taken years to gain mainstream attention can now puncture the mass media within a few hours.

Take a concept like cultural appropriation. Online, nearly every article or mention of the concept is fraught with intense debate. Say what you will about it, the theory behind it is complicated, rooted in an understanding of cultural history. It took me a semester of university to get my head around it. And I’m still confused where to draw the line in certain circumstances.

Yet you wouldn’t know it on the internet. When an issue like this gets plugged into the internet, this nuance quickly gets lost. As soon as the media gets a sniff of something that will generate clicks, the concept develops a life of its own. Suddenly, from being a relatively fringe social issue — cultural appropriation starts dominating internet discourse. All of a sudden everyone’s calling each other out on cultural appropriation without even explaining why, generating more and more controversy, anger and you guessed it — clicks.

This is just how quickly interest in cultural appropriation has accelerated via Google Trends:

The issue here is not the validity of the concept itself but how quickly and superficially it is dispersed. Like gender fluidity or intersectional feminism — they can’t be explained or conveyed in a sentence or headline. Yet the average internet user doesn’t delve into five articles about the issue or learn it at university — they just glance at a mass of headlines calling out the latest celebrity for breaching the newly formed cultural appropriation guidelines.

Take this Buzzfeed article which calls out someone for appropriating Solange’s hairstylewithout a single explanation of what cultural appropriation is or how black culture is being appropriated in this instance. In the place of a nuanced explanation or justification, random Twitter users are inserted which does little to inform the reader.

What’s left is a deluge of headlines and brief articles calling out someone for a misdemeanour that few people actually fully understand. If there was more time and a more accepting environment, the ideas behind the concept could be more richly discussed so that more people could be informed. But the internet is relentless and doesn’t wait for stragglers. Suddenly, those who didn’t bother reading that first article about cultural appropriation or never got it explained to them by a friend are out of the loop.

Is it any wonder they would react with cynicism when a headline tells them they can’t have a certain hairstyle because it’s racist? On the surface these ideas don’t make a great deal of sense — it’s only when you engage fully and listen to the arguments in depth that you can appreciate them. And yet if someone dare question it on Twitter, they are often shouted down by those who better understand the concept of cultural appropriation.

But this is an issue with nearly every socially progressive idea. We are at a stage in history where we are becoming aware of complex structural inequalities that can’t be quickly and simply explained.

Or perhaps it’s just the sheer amount of it that overwhelms people. With social issues moving so quickly, it can be hard to keep up with the nuances of issues unless you are plugged in 24/7 to the internet. To keep up with these concepts, language is rapidly created and dispersed.

Pansexual. Asexual. Cis. Cultural appropriation. Manspreading. Mansplaining.

A headline I stumbled across this week: “Manxiety needs fempathy — a defence of mansplaining”. Can we seriously not understand how people would scroll past that headline with cynicism?

If you said any of these terms to someone five years ago, they’d barely understand what the bloody hell you were talking about. But they are all important jigsaw pieces of cultural significance now with public shaming as your punishment for transgressing them.

The faster these issues move and morph, the more likely people are going to be left behind.

This creates a progressive fatigue, where things are moving so quickly that people begin to not only lash out against individual stories and ideas but against the progressive ideology more generally.

So how do we rectify it and is it even our job to do so?

The temptation is to say screw them and continue on the path we’ve been going down because we believe so strongly in the logic of the arguments. But the reality is, this is contributing to a rapid and angry revolt against the left in favour of those people and parties who refuse to engage in these issues in the same way. Unless we can somehow help correct it, the same minorities who benefit from these social causes will lose out far more.

So what do we do? Slow down activism? Not a chance. But when we do engage in activism and debate, make sure it is with as much information as possible. If someone disagrees with you, instead of shutting down the debate, explain in more depth so at least they can consider your point. If there isn’t enough characters on Twitter or time on Facebook for a proper explanation of what you’re trying to communicate, then link to something that does take the time to explain it.

And to those news publishers — be responsible in what you choose to write about and publish. Don’t just mindlessly parrot the viral outrage of the day — engage with it meaningfully. If you’re going to delve into the debate, engage writers who actually know about the issues and take the time to explain the rationale well, rather than a quick smackdown.

We all have a limited amount of energy to engage with and deal with the problems facing the world. So let’s cut the petty crap. Stop attacking people for saying something you mildly disagree with and save your energy for those who purposefully and maliciously distort the truth.

The bottom line is the internet is accelerating social issues faster than in any other time in history so we must be more forgiving of those who fall behind, because viciously persecuting them without explanation of what they didn’t understand doesn’t help anyone and further alienates people from the progressive cause.

This article by Cameron Nicholls was originally published at The Vocal.