Within living memory, political polarisation had at least something to do with issues, but in the age of social media, it’s almost entirely about social type. It’s about finding and spreading the viral soap operas that are supposed to reveal the dark hearts of those who are in the opposite social type from your own.
It’s about finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing him to oblivion.
You don’t have to read social theory on this phenomenon; just look at the fracas surrounding the Covington Catholic High School boys.
For those of you vacationing on Mars this past weekend, a video went viral showing a group of boys, many of them in MAGA hats, surrounding an older Native American man who was banging a drum.
The man, Nathan Phillips, told two different versions of what happened. He told The Washington Post that he was singing a traditional song when the teenagers swarmed around him, some chanting, “Build that wall, build that wall.” He decided the right thing to do was get away. “I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation.”
He told The Detroit Free Press that the incident started when the boys started attacking four African-Americans. So he decided to intervene. “There was that moment when I realised I’ve put myself between beast and prey. These young men were beastly and these old black individual was their prey.”
Many news organisations ran one of these accounts. Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.
In this one episode, you had a gentle, 64-year-old Native American man being swarmed by white (boo!), male (boo!), preppy (double boo!) Trump supporters (infinite boo!). If you are trying to rub the pleasure centres of a liberal audience, this is truly a story too good to check.
Saturday was a day of liberal vindication. See! This is what those people do! This is who they really are. Reza Aslan, the religious scholar, tweeted a photo of the main Covington boy and asked, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” The filmmaker Michael Green showed the same image and tweeted: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”
The institutions in charge of serving the boys did what institutions always do in the face of a social media mob. They cratered. The school and archdiocese apologised. The mayor of Covington denounced them.
On Sunday, several longer videos emerged showing that most of what Phillips had told the media was inaccurate. The incident actually started when members of the hate cult — the Black Hebrew Israelites — started hurling racist and homophobic slurs at the boys.
The Covington boys eventually asked their chaperone if they could do their school cheers. As they were doing that, Phillips walked into the middle of their circle and banged his drum in the face of one of the boys. Everybody was suddenly confused. Students shouted, “What is going on?” Then there was confusion and discomfort, smirking and verbal jousting.
Everybody involved in the incident was operating in an emotional and moral context that has been set by the viciousness of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Of the major players, the boys’ behaviour is probably the least egregious.
So Sunday was a day of conservative vindication. See? This is what those liberals do! They rush to judgment, dehumanise and seek to expunge us from national life. The main boy wrote a public letter that was consistent with the visual evidence and that was actually quite humane.
In this case the facts happened to support the right-wing tribe. But that’s not the point. The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control.
In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type.
The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment — it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping — I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point. I’m hoping that at least a few people start thinking about norms of how decent people should behave on these platforms.
It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humourless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.