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February 5, 2021

Dizzy Righteousness

“…a rising army of impossibly unhappy people, their ambitions both vague and vast, who have come to understand that the dizzy righteousness of that derangement is the point.” —David Roth, “The March of the American Kooks”

For a long time, quitting Twitter—for me— seemed about as possible or likely as quitting oxygen, even if the whole experience was so much less rewarding. I didn’t like Twitter (anymore—once upon a time it had been a source of friendship, inspiration and fun, but that all changed around 2014 or thereabouts) but it was necessary, it seemed. It was true there were things I knew from Twitter that were tremendously worthwhile. If not for Twitter, I might have travelled to the UK at year ago this March, but I was put off by disturbing tweet threads by Italian ICU doctors with perspectives that weren’t yet being reported in the newspaper. Twitter was how I found out about everything, from breaking news to pop culture scandals to political developments. It was the platform from which I interfaced with so much of the world…and then it began to occur to me that this was the problem. That while the world was difficult, Twitter only made it worse.

There was a reason that I quit Twitter, finally, but now I can’t even remember what it was, and perhaps this is the point. When I finally logged back onto Twitter a few weeks after my first break—I still have an account but check it every 60 days instead of 60 times a day, which is a big shift for me—Scott Baio was trending for arranging mugs in a department store, and that really just clinched it, because what if I’d never found out that had happened? What else could I have done with those brain cells?

I had spent the last three years on Twitter being furious, mainly about our provincial government and various terrible things they’d done, and while I found solidarity and community with other people who felt the same on the platform, the platform for practical purposes wasn’t useful to me. All my online fury actually gave me a peculiar sympathy for the kind of person who gets radicalized through online groups and decides to drive his truck from Manitoba to Ottawa to smash into the gates at the entrance of the Prime Minister’s residence. Because online rage is a self-perpetuating spiral, and spitting one’s feelings into the online void only underlines how impotent most of us really are, and that only makes you angrier (and the cycle begins again). My furious responses to the Minister of Education’s tweets were not useful to me, nor him or anybody, and it wasn’t like he was even reading them. This performance could not be more similar (or futile) than screaming into the wind. The only entity that profited was the social media platform because it seemed I couldn’t quit it.

Sometime last summer I began to insist that I could no longer view our government as an adversary. Which is not to say that our government was not an adversary, but this arrangement was making me irate and unhappy, and it didn’t make anything better. Further, my children were to be heading back to school in September, and I really decided that having some trust in the system was necessary for me to be a functioning citizen. Like, I’d rather trust and be wrong than end being that guy in a tinfoil hat. And I realized too that my online interactions were so much of the reason why I was angry all the time. That normal people didn’t necessary function this way, and maybe there was something more targeted and effective I could do with my energy than be constantly furious or full of anxiety, waiting for the next calamity to come across the timeline. And that if I just decided not to be furious all the time about the government, flicked it off with a switch, would that make an iota of difference to how the government functioned? It wouldn’t make anything better, but it also wouldn’t be worse.

“I feel like everybody on social media is always yelling at me,” I said the other night to one adult person I spend all of my time with these days. Trying to articulate just what it was that was making me uncomfortable—not just with Twitter, but the Facebook and even Instagram with its weird powerpoint social justice stories. I can’t stand them. “And it’s not that I don’t care about social justice,” I continued, but I am beginning to think of “social justice” as an abstract principle as an ambition that’s also vague and vast. I am still really tired of social justice memes and wish that people would write their own stories, feel their own feelings, share their own ideas instead of parroting somebody else’s.

This is not an “everybody on the left is brainwashed, it’s a cult, cancel culture, blah blah” kind of post. I still stand by guiding principle that one should never do anything for which Jonathan Kay or his mother might leap to their defence. A lot of people who’ve spent less time online than I have imagine themselves bravely rallying for free speech, due process, and against slippery slops, and they don’t know that they’re being manipulated by so many bad-faith actors. I’m not “just asking questions” or wondering if political correctness has gone too far. And I am definitely not saying “Goodbye to All That” to “the church of social justice” (as one viral essay once put it), or talking about “both sides.” I know what side I am on, and it’s the side of anti-racism, alleviating poverty, supporting marginalized people, lifting up the oppressed, supporting workers’ rights and helping make the world a safer, more gentler place for weirdos to be who they are. But I just have recently become dissuaded of the notion that social media is the place to make all this happen. (Blogs, on the other hand…) Considering that there are other ways to be engaged. That perhaps what social media is isn’t even actually engagement.

David Roth’s “The March of the American Kooks” is one of the most interesting, succinct and illuminating pieces I’ve read about the lunacy of American politics at this moment, articulating so much of what I was trying to get at as I rambled on about everybody yelling at me on the internet. And there is no doubt that the far-right fringes have become a clear and present, violent danger. When there are people marching in the streets with literal Nazi flags, and you’re still going on about “antifa,” I think you’ve missed the point, or you’ve been watching the wrong television channels. I am still confused about how after Nazis went marching in Charlottesville in 2017, perfectly reasonable people wanted to remind us that the left has its extremism too. January 6, 2021, my dudes. This is what comes of both-sidesing. The threat and danger is clearly situated along one specific branch of the political spectrum, full stop.

But part of the reason it’s especially threatening and dangerous is that “dizzy righteousness of derangement” which stretches right across the board, that is not just specific to conspiracy theorist kooks. Which makes it difficult to turn vast and vague ambitions into anything tangible beyond clicks. Fed by social media platforms designed to stoke our rage (Elamin Abdelmahmoud writes about this here), we’ve all bought into this idea that righteous online fury is the way to the change the world—but I think we’re being played. This notion has given us nothing substantial or useful to meet the moment—and its clear and present danger—with. It’s also profoundly uninteresting.

From Roth’s essay: “The politics these people profess is not about helping anyone, lord knows, or really about any kind of ideological program at all. It is about an obsessive and even loving taxonomy of and fixation upon enemies and problems, and the way it works is through relentlessness, and through a refusal to ever stop performing weird arias of anger and umbrage.”

The outcomes are different, and perhaps so too are the extremes, but the symptoms are the same, and I’m done with it. When you can see yourself in an article about a bunch of conspiracy Q-uacks, it’s time to close the browser, turn the page.

2 thoughts on “Dizzy Righteousness”

  1. Diane says:

    What?! No comments on this? This is excellent. Excellent I say. I could prattle on about so many of your points (nodding in agreement).
    I can’t help myself though in underlining what you’ve said in that social media is not about engagement. Oh boy is that ever true. I said something similar in my recent post on why I quit Facebook. I’ll bring my scattered comments to a close by again underlining your words in reference to social media,
    “and wish that people would write their own stories, feel their own feelings, share their own ideas instead of parroting somebody else’s.”
    Page turned.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks, Diane! The post was kind of long and convoluted, me working out stuff for myself (and I also didn’t share the link anywhere, because I kind of DON’T CARE what anybody else thinks, which is sort of the point of the post…) and so I appreciate that this resonated with you.

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