Identity outrage

by jonah sweeney ~

Let me first caveat the following by saying that this is a reflectionist piece, a musing if you will on the phenomenon of identity politics, rather than a condemnation of people and their actions. The fact that I even have to say that is problematic and is indicative of the political landscape that we now inhabit, however, that is now the way of things – civility, understanding and reason left the debate a long while ago now.

No one needs reminding that last year was immensely tumultuous politically, economically and socially. One need not list the events of 2020, but merely look to the present to remind themselves of just how volatile the world we live in is. This year is off to an even worse start than last year, given skyrocketing coronavirus cases/deaths, the realities of Brexit kicking in and to really top things off, the United States has had a seemingly genuine (attempted) coup take place.

All of these phenomena rightly and justly cause reactions of upset, outrage and intrigue amongst the population. Along the whole of the political spectrum (this wording is a futile attempt to extinguish the binary left and right, right and wrong, good and evil dichotomy that plagues all debates nowadays), people have voiced their anger both virtually and physically. The rage is clear to see in physical manifestations and the vitriolic nature of them and/or their reactions are tangible. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the subject about which differing groups exercise their right to protest is inconsequential and although productive discourse in this domain is nigh on impossible, one thing that remains undisturbed is that the separate factions of the arguments are plain to see.

This is not the case however with online displays of outrage. Social media, with particular emphasis on Instagram and Facebook, fall short of the productive end of discourse advancement due to the one simple truth; they are echo chambers. This is nothing novel or revelatory, but it is an interesting point at which one can begin to understand the framework for this unique outlet for moral outrage.

‘Identity politics’ is a hugely laden phrase that is bandied about with the assumption that everyone knows what it means, when in reality it is troublesome to define. The Cambridge Dictionary defines identity politics as “political beliefs and systems that place a lot of importance on the group to which people see themselves as belonging to, especially according to their race, gender or sexual orientation etc.” Many authors, critics and academics attribute much of the divides we see in public discourse to the proliferation of identity politics and the unequal weighting of the collective over the individual. It is a difficult concept to dispute. As people are identified as part of a group, the tribal nature of groups and group identities take over. From there, the zealous protection of the tribe becomes inevitable, just as one would unconditionally come to the aid of a loved one.

As Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan illustrate in their 2020 book Angrynomics, tribal nature is aptly conceptualised in terms of sports game such as football. Football fans show their support for their teams – yes, but interestingly there is a sideshow going on insofar as individual fans are competing with other fans to be the most righteous and outwardly supportive fan.

This analogy is a crude segue into the primary phenomenon that is of interest, namely the moral outrage that takes place within the echo chambers of social media and the purpose and drivers for venting outrage in an environment where there is little, if any, concrete beneficial outcome. Again, I am merely postulating and not condemning as there are certain benefits that come with sharing and ‘using one’s voice.’ Sharing knowledge, links, learning materials etc. are noble reasons in and of themselves. This was evidenced during the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, where there was a tidal movement of re-education taking place amongst swathes of the population.

However, as I write in the immediate aftermath of the Great US Revolution of 2021 (hopefully the sarcasm is obvious), the outrage isn’t quite manifesting in the same way as outlined in the previous paragraph, and nor has it on many other occasions where shocking things happen. My question is why do people really share? Is the answer as simple as people merely want to show others something that they have seen? Or are there greater subconscious (or perfectly conscious) elements at play?

There is much written about the psychology of sharing, the reasons usually revolving around the idea of self-worth. I subscribe to these psychological evaluations, but I also feel that there may also be a ‘political’ angle that can be partially responsible. You can see where the argument is going – identity politics. Firstly, it could be argued that people share because they want to be seen to be fitting in with their tribe. Secondly, they may also fear recourse or retribution for not sharing something, much like football fans who are condemned for being disloyal, when in reality they are simply not screaming as loudly as the condemner.

To elaborate on the first point, one could surmise that it is to show that you’re on the ‘good-side,’ or that you are at least aware of the issues at hand. In addition, though this is an uncomfortable and rather cynical point, it may also be fair to say that people continue to share things within echo chambers (that their followers have shared and have seen from fifty other people) to show a degree of pious superiority. Though uncomfortable it isn’t polemically provocative to say this, as it may account for some of the reasons why people continue to share to people who overwhelmingly come from, and adhere to, the same or similar ideological foundations.

To the second point, though again somewhat uncomfortable, it is reasonable to say that fear of being seen as supine and inactive in the face of some kind of calamity is a powerful motivator to share. This does circle back to the psychological elements, but the common denominator is once again the politics that is associated with being involved in a tribe (of which we all are to some degree). Moreover, the call out culture that has become ever more prevalent in recent years may push people to click share more rapidly and absent-mindedly than they would have ordinarily, such as to extinguish the possibility of being marked out.

My motivation in writing isn’t to condemn, nor do I claim to be novel in outlining the points above, but rather find it useful to look at these issues through the lens of politics as a way of explaining group behaviour and dynamics. To resume, I have sought to open the questions; why do people share things within echo chambers, essentially preaching to the choir, and what is the utility in doing so? I have put forward a mix of ideas ranging from simply sharing something of interest, to being self-righteous, to fearing being called out. All of these or none of these may be the answer. I do believe that we increasingly witness ‘tribal’ tendencies on social media, in the way that people group together to share (usually the same or similar) posts to their (usually similar) audience, largely paralleling the behaviour we see in other facets of life where the politics of identity has permeated. What is for certain, is that identity politics morphs fluidly and dynamically. As individuals increasingly identify with ‘their’ group identity and the sentiments associated with outrage become more politicised, a form of ‘identity outrage’ emerges.