Why are armchair activists able to destroy the lives of others for fun and profit?
One of the more depressing developments in the 21st century has been the rise of the online activist, self-proclaimed or not. We live in the age of the self-righteous preacher for the secular religions of the new age, who love nothing more than to evangelise to their unquestioning followers who then go out to spread the word among the unbelievers. Any questioning of the word of these new messiahs will be met with immediate condemnation, the blasphemer accused on the worst of our modern sins, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or any other phobia you can think of. The modern activist is as unwavering in their belief that they are the voice of righteousness and decency as they are in their reluctance to actually get up and do anything about actual major injustices – it’s easier, and less risky, to simply seek out minor heresy and gaffes and blow them out of all proportion. And they are determined to reap the rewards that come from being seen as the spokesperson of a community.
Of course, these activists rarely, if ever, actually represent the communities that they appoint themselves as the spokesperson for. Most people don’t get worked up the things that the opportunist activist sees the possibilities in. Twitter outrage is almost always driven by a small number of people who see the opportunity to promote themselves, and rarely represents wider thinking within whatever group these people have chosen to act as the voice piece of. Sometimes – a lot of the time, in fact – the activist might not actually even be a part of the group that they have decided to tell how they ought to feel – we might question why so many white, middle-class people feel that they can tell black people about racism (and rage at them as though they are ignorant children when they have the audacity to disagree with the white saviour’s assessment of their repressed status). At their worst, activists see themselves above the very people who they want to speak for – any disagreement in those groups will be dismissed as false consciousness and a lack of understanding. The activist knows better than you, even if you actually have the lived experience of a life they can only imagine.
It invariably leads to division – because activists thrive on division. If the media stopped thinking that Twitter even remotely resembled real-life thinking, we might be able to have sensible discussions about things. But instead, Twitter gobshites end up setting the agenda, even though most people do not subscribe to their way of thinking. They get away with it because TV news and current affairs producers, paranoia-driven websites and newspapers feed on what they know is artificially created outrage by attention-seekers and extremists – and because our press and broadcasters are increasingly staffed by activists and their followers, people who unquestioningly buy into identity politics and the rest. While the activist’s mirror image, the QAnon conspiracy theorist, is still persona non grata within the mainstream media, the activist is embraced. The media is very sympathetic and responsive to the vocal pronouncements of people who would otherwise be seen as fringe cranks, elevating them – and their arguments – to a position of importance and treating their arguments as somehow representative of wider opinion. That they do this even when an argument has been roundly demolished by the weight of numbers in Twitter responses – the much-feared ‘ratio’ – or even when the claims being made have been proven to be false because these arguments speak to the sort of people who set discussion topics for news shows.
All this makes activism a very attractive proposition for a certain type of person. Let’s not beat around the bush here – when someone posts a self-righteous complaint about the behaviour of others online, it probably gives a dopamine hit. When people retweet you and follow you, that hit must be hugely increased. Activists like to feel important. They like to be the person who first spots unacceptable behaviour, the one who decides that certain words are no longer acceptable, the leader of the witch hunt and the sloganeering hashtag movement. If they are famous already – an actor, say – then their already vast ego and self of importance will be further boosted by their indignant outrage.
Beyond the sense of pleasure, there’s every chance that you might reap more tangible rewards from your unfocused anger. When you see threads of socially conscious anger at an organisation or individual, clearly aimed at retweets and new follows, you can almost guarantee that there will be a link to a Patreon or a Gofundme or some other money-making opportunity appearing shortly thereafter. Or maybe there is a new book coming out; if there isn’t, the chance of finding a publishing deal for one has probably increased alongside your profile as a spokesperson and campaigner. If you work in academia, then tenure has probably moved a touch closer. Then, there are the interviews on TV shows and the possibility of becoming a regular media talking head. It’s not a bad scam for something that has involved you literally doing nothing more than writing a few tweets from the comfort of your sofa.
This might not matter if it was just a case of cynical opportunism by careerists, but it spills into the real world. People actually lose jobs and livelihoods because someone wants to boost their profile by being outraged at cultural appropriation or some other lunatic, socially separatist idea spawned by bored academics teaching nonsense to impressionable youths. Individuals who have done nothing wrong beyond upsetting some spoiled, bored identitarian who wants to be famous by selling the wrong sort of food suddenly find their businesses gone because other people – say, the people that rent you your retail space – also read Twitter and are now terrified of being accused of isms and phobias, no matter how outlandish the accusation might be.
Every inch we give to these sadistic fanatics, they want another mile. Nothing will satisfy them, because they have built their entire identity around being hard done by – or, more often, about other people being hard done by who need their unique talents to lift them up. The activist will never be satisfied because their whole raison d’etre is to be angry and self-important. Ironically, for people who profess to care so much for others, they seem blissfully unconcerned about the victims they leave in their wake – they are, after all, people who deserve their pain and misery, faceless figures who can easily be dismissed by scrolling past any reference to them. For the activist, sitting in their nice home, flicking through their new iPhone for things to be upset by, this is all a game – their glee when they bring someone down and force an unnecessary apology – that will never be accepted anyway – is probably the only pleasure they ever experience.
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