In it for the Feels
Back in June 2020, the protests surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement became the topic that flooded social spaces both on and offline. Protestors and activists took to their social media platforms to condone racial injustices. The outrage for social justice became physically felt across continents in a matter of hours. But this didn’t last too long.
A surprising survey published recently by the Pew Research Center shows that support for the BLM movement has significantly decreased since June across various groups. The fundamental question used for this analysis was posed as follows:
From what you’ve read and heard, how do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?
The participants had a range of answers they could respond with such as, “Strongly support,” “Somewhat support,” “Somewhat oppose”…etc. According to the data published, the share of White adults who supported the movement back in June has decreased 25 percentage points, from 60% to 45% today. Similarly, the share of Hispanic adults who support the movement has decreased 11 percentage points since June (77% to 66% today).
The phrasing of the question posed to the participants and the collected results reflect a complex yet fundamental issue concerning contemporary political activism: What caused these people to respond eagerly at first and a few months later, withdraw support? Why did the researchers use the word “feel” instead of “think” when posing the question to the participants? In questioning the stability of emotionally fueled political activism, there emerges a concerning issue surrounding the concept of what professor Eitan Hersch terms political hobbyism.
In it for the feels?
Eitan Hersh argues that when it is easy to turn to social media for politics, the reality of politics transforms itself into a type of diversion, or political hobbyism. Keeping up with the news or even participating in a protest can turn into a sort of sensational pastime just like watching reality TV shows: people get into it for the feels by emotionally attaching themselves to social movements. Eitan argues that this is not about politics or elections, it is about the consumers’ emotional and intellectual needs. He suggests that their political involvement has little consequence in the long-run and lacks sophisticated motivation and organization for lasting change.
Engaging in polemic debates online demonstrating support for a cause does have an immediate effect… but does this type of action truly stem from an authentic desire to individually take responsibility for daily action, or is it a personal desire to earn a sense of justification in the eyes of others?
If this behavior transforms itself into a need to saturate an emotional desire rather than truly educate oneself with facts, the ultimate result will be reflected in people engaging sporadically and impulsively. It may turn out that in the heat of the moment, people are willing to speak out and show support, but without proper commitment and meaningful action, the motivation for activism becomes purely emotional and trivializes the effect of social change.
The consequences of such superficial interaction may also lead to mass-manipulation and unhinged social upheaval. With the passions of citizens around the world being worked up to such a fatal pitch on and offline, the shouts and cries for justice are being drowned out to extremes. The forces at work beneath this mob disorder bemoan symptoms of virulent radicalism that are apt to sooner or later run into anarchy. With such widespread penetration of triggering images, emotional news content and radical ideas piercing the internet, the volatility of opinions and the wild chaos in the streets may stem from a more fundamental issue… is all of this emotionally turbulent and digital activism actually trivializing the essence of civic engagement?
Brave New World revisited: a timely forewarning
Appealing to passion and emotion through the use of political propaganda has been a reality that has existed for decades, if not centuries. Yet, with piercing clarity, this type of behavior has been criticized by intellectuals and authors extensively. One such example is that of Aldous Huxley, a renowned dystopian author famous for his eerily prophetic novel Brave New World.
In an effort to forewarn citizens of the mounting dangers of passion-fueled politics and lifestyles, Aldous Huxley returned to his novel in 1958 with a gripping essay titled Brave New World Revisited. He states:
Impersonal forces over which we have almost no control seem to be pushing us all in the direction of the Brave New Worldian nightmare; and this impersonal pushing is being consciously accelerated by representatives of commercial and political organizations who have developed a number of new techniques for manipulating, in the interest of some minority, the thoughts and feelings of the masses.
— Aldous Huxley
Sharply articulated, this last line captures with precision the truth behind the confusing emotional propaganda that has fueled the social and political revolutions of the twenty-first-century.
Huxley also highlights what he deems as two forms of propaganda.
- The first form he defines as a legitimate “rational propaganda in favor of action.” This form is based on logic and reason and has been the critical pillar giving foundation to the success of Western democracies and in maintaining freedom of thought: “It is consonant with the enlightened self-interest and appeals to reason by means of logical arguments based upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth.” Individuals who defend and promote this freedom of thought do so on the premise that man is able to recognize and respond to reason and truth.
- The second form of propaganda defended by Huxley is called “non-rational propaganda in favor of falsehood.” This form of propaganda is “not consonant with anybody’s self-interest but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion.” With its distracting mechanisms and appeal to emotion, it repeats catch-words and phrases that confuse and divert rational thought. This form “offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords… and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals.”
The forcefulness exerted by this form of propaganda can be acknowledged in the numbing nature of social media, echo chambers and sensational media reporting. The dynamisms of its influence penetrate into political opinions and haze the essence of rationality. The “catchwords” are easily identified with phrases, euphemisms and slogans that circulate the internet with a popular theme. As Huxley highlights, it is hard to reconcile the fact that logic and reason have been turned into transient emotional propaganda in favor of an agenda that lacks long-term stability, as demonstrated with the results of the recent polling by Pew Research Center.
Practice what you preach
Ultimately, it is easy to confuse the value of political engagement with the ability to act arbitrarily on the basis of emotion and feelings, as if there were no values or principles to provide guidance. With new technologies facilitating this type of behavior, there are signs of perpetual distraction and emotivism. But it must be said that, for centuries, man has been praised for his ability to rise above his emotions and passions and work towards a greater good with an attitude of commitment and service. Human beings have higher capacities precisely because they have the ability to change themselves and their surroundings.
The confusion and tribal-like forces within social media around us today are destroying those capacities. They “impersonally push” honorable diverging opinions or thoughts to the background and create pervasive polarization, anxiety, and fear. The lack of individual responsibility shatters the ability to deeply engage with others in a meaningful way.
With survey questions targeting the emotional attitudes of citizens, Eitan Hersch has a point in saying that politics have become more about self-gratification rather than personal responsibility and commitment. In his new book, Politics is for Power, he outlines a “to-do” list of how to combat shallow, passive political actions that are “technology-mediated activities that satisfy the short-term emotional needs or intellectual interests of participants but do nothing for anyone else.”
In the words of Hersch, “in shallow politics and shallow hobbies, participants are looking for instant gratification, the equivalent of drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day as a symbolic gesture toward one’s Irish identity. In political organizations and serious hobby clubs, participants are in it for the delayed gratification that comes from sustained relationships and concrete goals.”
With precision and depth, Hersch suggests that to change the tide of shallow, emotional civic engagement, it is important to be an active community participant who holds clear ideas and deep-rooted values. In one sentence, it is important to be a good voter.
What does this mean specifically? It means that casting an informed ballot in every election requires commitment, long-term vision, access to relevant news and local policy proposals and a shift in perspective.
This shift in perspective must come from the inside-out: instead of participating in politics as the result of some short-term ideological frustration based primarily on self-gratification, the tide must turn towards a deeper-rooted sense of civic duty that comes from sustained commitment to local level issues.