Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under This of course kills the democracy

Friend of the blog James Grimmelmann on Emotional Mobilization (or Old Man Yells at Death…), which he starts by wondering whether the basic architecture of participatory democracy is broken beyond repair. The culprit isn’t necessarily Twitter or even mass media, but the forces that have learned how to get us to feel instead of think. As he puts it, “The way to build mass political power is to get something emotionally powerful and politically activating go viral among people who agree with you.”

But this new mode of political engagement is profoundly exhausting. Keeping up with the news requires struggling through a firehose of attempts to activate your passions. They’re pretty effective attempts, too, since the people making them share your values, goals, and premises. They know how to hit you where it hurts, and you count on them to. People who you disagree with are activating too. Deliberately or not, they make you mad at their stupidity and immorality – and the people who agree with you are great at digging up and highlighting the things most likely to make you mad.

Add another emotion: guilt. Every encounter with politics on social media makes me feel guilty if I sit it out: I’m not helping with a worthy cause. It makes me feel guilty if I join in: I’m degrading public discourse. And don’t even get me started on trying to post with nuance: I couldn’t tell you how often I’ve deleted a post because I expected to be yelled at or because I didn’t want to distract from useful yelling.

We are living in a crisis. Hugely consequential things are being fought over and settled daily. The most important election of anyone’s lifetime is probably the one coming up in November. This is the time to act; this is the time when it matters most. But it has never hurt like this.

I haphazardly danced around the periphery of this sentiment with my post on Lady Doritos earlier this year, but this puts the hammer firmly onto the flat part of the nail.