Exploding with anger every time someone criticises someone you like or something you believe is stupid.
We are, it seems, hard-wired to worship something – anything, frankly. For thousands of years, that something was religion, and for many people around the world, it still is. But for those cultures that are increasingly secular, it leaves a void that needs filling.
Now, people probably don’t think that they are engaged in religious devotion when they hitch their wagon to something that is not a god. They will see religion as the refuge of the superstitious and the ignorant, and will never believe that there is a connection between their obsessive devotion to a person, a political belief, an ideology or even a pop group and the kind of people who will lick church steps ‘clean’ with their bloodied tongues or dress in austere and uncomfortable ways because they believe their god has dictated it. But frankly, there’s little difference. If you hurl abuse – or even commit violence – against supporters of a different football team than the one that you’ve decided to follow, there’s probably less of a cultural gap between you and murderous jihadists than you’d like to believe.
The other day, an ill-considered click took me into the frankly terrifying world of Meghan and Harry Superfans. I’m not just talking about those who have previously scoffed at the idea of a monarchy but now tug their forelocks in deference to these ‘rebels’ who have somehow reinvented themselves as victims despite being the very epitome of unearned privilege. No, these fans are another level altogether, the sort of people who you suspect would kill if ordered to – or simply if they thought their new Gods had been insulted. There was a drooling sense of derangement in the posts I spotted, from people who – even in their moment of joy at the birth of another figure to worship – seemed twitchily defensive, ever on the lookout for a blasphemer to stone to death.
Cults – from the smallest oddball community to the long-established religions – become dangerous through the constant reinforcement of ideas. Not for nothing do religious cults often cut followers off from their friends and family; nothing must be more important than the cult and its leader. Sport and pop music tribalism works in much the same way, where everyone who isn’t with us is against us. Social media acts in a similar way, allowing groups of people who might have had a casual interest in something to connect with others, and for that casual interest to suddenly become all-consuming. No matter how esoteric your belief, you’ll find a community of the like-minded, and while much of this is positive, it also leads to the sort of echo chambers that amplify everything to the extreme.
We see this everywhere. Look at what happens if someone criticises Corbyn or Trump, two politicians who transcended mere party politics – something that itself has become ever more divisive and deranged in the last decade – to become almost god-like figures who could do no wrong – or, for their opponents, devils who could do no right. Look at the divisions between trans-rights activists and radical feminists, where the levels of hatred are off the chart on both sides, and anyone trying to see a nuanced middle ground will be howled at by both groups. You are either with us or against us, no compromise allowed. Identity politics thrives on this – the determination to see everything through the lens of what you are, not who you are, and to judge everyone else accordingly.
At least we might think that politics and areas of social justice have some importance – our lives are governed by the rights that are given or taken away, and we are absolutely encouraged to feel oppressed by the new priests of these movements – oppression breeds anger, injustice creates revolution, and holy wars (not to mention regular wars) have been fought over disagreements less intense.
Where it gets weird is when this sort of religious devotion expands to trivial popular culture. But it does. While teenage girls have always been seemingly ready to die for their pop idols, and Mods and Rockers would battle it out at the seaside to the bemusement of others, it’s still odd to see people reacting to criticism of Harry Potter or Marvel movies in the same way that Islamic extremists react to a drawing of Mohammed. Are these things really important? Seemingly so. Given the (hopefully apocryphal, but probably not) stories of people breaking their noses running into the wall at King’s Cross Station because they think it is the entrance to Hogwarts, and you start to see how religions take hold – people begin to take allegory and folklore as fact. John Boorman’s wild movie Zardoz plays on that – the God ‘Zardoz’ simply being The Wizard of Oz. But who really thought that we’d have people at the end of the 20th century who seemed to seriously think of themselves as Jedi?
You know, I understand traditional religion – and even more esoteric religious cults. Their objects of worships are, after all, Gods – or at least the earthly incarnation of God. Most cult leaders claim to be chosen by God, or the second coming of Christ, or some variation thereof. Everything else, though, seems to be simple insanity. Quite frankly, if you feel the need to bombard someone with insults and threats because they don’t like Lucio Fulci films or think Doctor Who is a bit crap, you might want to take a long, hard look at yourself.
That people can get so utterly worked up about the entirely trivial hardly bodes well for our ability to deal with serious conflict. Perhaps it is time to just step back, think about the ten-tweet thread that you are ready to send to someone who has upset you with their shamelessly different opinion and step away from the keyboard. Regardless of how wrong you might think they are, I can assure you that your spittle-flecked vitriol is much worse.
of course, there are people who are objectively wrong – lacking facts, spewing nonsense and woefully ignorant about what they are talking about. Dare I say that even here, there is probably little to be gained from calling them a fuckwitted cretin who should never have been born, though? As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (and yes, yes, even more with shit, but let’s stay focused).
Just remember: contrary opinions are rarely aimed directly at you, and even when they are, it’s as likely to just be a disagreement, not some malicious personal attack. Criticism of someone you see as a flawless human being is not designed to hurt you as an individual, Perhaps the angry people of social media should step back and take their own advice – I notice that the more someone posts #bekind as a public announcement of their human decency, the more likely they seem to be to heap mean-spirited abuse, issue barely-veiled threats and try to destroy lives when they think that they are being righteous. It’s just not good enough to claim that you can do it because you are in the right; your opponents think the same thing, after all.
In the vast millions who are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, you are – sorry to break this to you – pretty insignificant. The things that upset you are not, by and large, directed at you specifically, so stop taking them to heart. Stop feeling as though you need to defend people who you have never met and who, quite frankly, would never give you the time of day. They can look after themselves and they are not divine beings who can’t stand a little criticism. Even the people who are criticising you online have probably never met you, and are simply responding to an online version of yourself that is probably much gobbier and bullish than you are in real life. In short, it’s nothing personal – and if you get furiously worked up every time that someone says DVDs are just as good as Blu-rays, life is going to be a very unhappy experience – and who has time for that?
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I suppose there’s a sense of identification, allegiance, and belonging to whatever material one latches onto, religious or secular… And then in social media, especially in groups and forums, there may be a sense of community, and even authority and hierarchy. Perhaps people need to identify themselves with something: whatever phantasmagoria of images and text are currently on rotation within their minds.
There’s agreeing or disagreeing, but that just scratches the surface. When it comes to the political, we quickly get into who is good or bad; who matters; who deserves to be paid attention to or who needs to shut up for a generation or two or three; who gets a grant, contract or a show; and who gets shut out as irrelevant or reprehensible. There are high-stakes differences of opinion, and those who are perceived as having transgressed against certain popular beliefs are expunged. In this sense it becomes about power and control. A set of beliefs and convictions that is favorable to one person’s self-image, sense of belonging, and future prospects, is destructive to another’s. There’s a war over the dominant narrative that must be inculcated into everyone else, and people seem overly prone to dismiss other people’s values wholesale.
I remember having disagreements with someone who would very quickly accuse that I was going against everything he stood for. I suppose people’s beliefs are like their chess strategy, and the seemingly insignificant placement of one wayward pawn may be a critical or essential part of their defense.
But your example of sports teams really sums it up. Not only do fans that take it to the level of zealotry resemble religious extremists, they ironically most resemble the loyal fans of their hated adversaries.
We can chuckle at their expense, but it might be the very rare individual who doesn’t care about some issue where there’s a fairly clear line that they don’t tolerate people crossing. We might just see ourselves as caring about issues that really matter, not about fandom costumes. I can only really hope I am a less ridiculous example of these human traits. There’s probably a spectrum of what one identifies with, how much significance one places on it, and how worked up one gets over a challenge to it. One doesn’t want to get extremely worked up over the most trivial crap.
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