Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Gen X as the "Reailty Terrorism" Generation

What a sad state of affairs it is that I was off the grid for most of the weekend and when I logged onto the Internet Sunday night and saw references to more mass shootings, I automatically knew that people couldn't have still been talking about the previous weekend's shooting in Gilroy, California.  That one, after all, was "too long ago" to "still" be in the news a week later.

We simply have so many shootings that each one lasts a news cycle or so as they follow a predictable pattern of breathless reporting > anger > fear > sorrow > cries of the citizenry for our legislators to do something, anything to help keep us safe > admonitions to stop politicizing this political issue > thoughts and prayers > and then repeat the next day when yet another man murders people.

Personally, I try not to get too bogged down in generational narratives, particularly the ones that pit generations against each other, but I hope you'll bear with me today as I speculate. Cynicism is supposedly a defining characteristic of Gen X, but in retrospect, I wonder if what has largely been described as cynicism is actually a shocked, numb horror of coming of age just as terrorism and sociopathy were rapidly normalized by both Internet culture and news-as-politicotainment media culture.

The infamous OJ Simpson Bronco chase of 1994, which I remember seeing nonstop coverage of during high school, seemed to help usher in an era of 24/7 "watch the drama as it happens" news that is at once horrific and dehumanizing precisely because it is implicitly presented as entertaining. As a teenager, I remember the hokey slogans ("the Juice is loose") and the trivialities that the media focused on ("Marcia Clark is ridiculous! Her hair!") that seemed to take center stage, much moreso than the grim reality that someone had committed murder. 

Reality TV was not yet a major trend until circa 1992, with MTV's The Real World, and prior to the reality TV fad, I would argue that TV had a more clear separation between news and entertainment. Yes, the news had a point of view, often told from the perspective of white men who were granted auras of objectivity and authority, but what was particularly dehumanizing about the OJ case was that it was like the media companies had found this new way of presenting murder as existing for our collective entertainment consumption. (In 2006, OJ Simpson had a one-episode prank-based reality TV show called Juiced, which was in the "too offensive but entertaining to look away" category that is a pretty good summary of the mainstream media's attitude toward covering/enabling Donald Trump's political rise).

The Columbine school massacre occurred in 1999, which is largely seen as a birth of a new era of young (often white) angst-driven male violence, and the coverage told us that the incident was both incredibly scary and entertaining. There are, of course, very different narratives around, and state responses to, violence perpetrated by Black people. And, since Columbine, the federal government's lack of effective response to white-male-initiated domestic terrorism can only rightly be seen as a continuation of the United States of America's historical, state-sanctioned approval of white male rage, entitlement, and violence.

Contrast the state's casual indifference to homegrown, white male domestic terrorism, for instance, with its over-reaction to international terrorism. After brown men engaged in terrorism against innocent civilians in 2001, the federal government quickly banded together, started a whole entire war, and passed sweeping legislation in response. Coupled with, and perhaps "justifying," this state-sanctioned aggression and erosion of liberties was the fact that we saw the planes crashing into the Twin Towers over and over and over and over again on TV and online and in newspapers. 

We now take our shoes off in airport security lines. We ration our shampoos and "liquids" into TSA-approved amounts. We're urged to "say something" if/when we "see something." These are all things that are done now because that's what's done in America.

We are still reckoning with these issues and traumas in ways large, small, known, and unfathomable, and that's before I've even factored in the rise of Internet culture, social media, and the cottage industry of white male pundits who perform "political news, but as irony/jokes."

Donald Trump stoked the embers of 9/11 as he ran in 2016 on a message of keeping the country safe from immigrants, terrorists, and/or people of color even as he himself was engaging in stochastic terrorism against his political opponent Hillary Clinton. He continues this course of action, often online and often against women of color who publicly stand up to him, with the help of Twitter who tacitly approves of his behavior through its indifference and inaction.

Of note, Trump hasn't promised to keep anyone safe from the white men in this country who commit political violence, and if he had promised to do so, he'd be failing miserably.

When white men go on shooting sprees after leaving rambling, bigoted Internet screeds, we're told to get over it quikcly, that it's not political violence, and/or that their online behavior and bigotries are irrelevant to their acts of aggression. Many commentators still think that what happens online "isn't real life," even though what happens online often has consequences offline. Sometimes, those consequences are "just" harming another user's mental health or ruining their day, but sometimes - in a nation with relatively easy access to guns - it's a mass shooting spree. That's not to say online culture/radicalization, bigotry, or reality politicotainment are the one cause of mass shootings, just that when easy access to guns are added to the picture they maybe all combine to make the killing that much easier.

The fear many of us have upon attending fairs, concerts, religious services, festivals, or doing basically anything at all in the public sphere is just the price we pay for "living in a free country." The same asinine talking points from people committed to the violent status quo that we heard after Columbine are still being uttered today: lone wolf, video games, bullying, the sadness/angst of white boys.

What is discussed less frequently, and this is a special note to people still operating under the delusion that "the young people will save us," are the ways Internet culture helps radicalize people, especially young white men, given that the US is steeped in a brew of racist misogyny, white male supremacy, techbro libertarianism that constantly engages in both-sidesism, and dehumanizing murder-is-entertaining politicotainment.

Online interactions and the normalization of Reality Terrorism have likely led a lot of people into viewing their interactions with people online as "not real" in a way that is profoundly dehumanizing (as I tweeted yesterday, oh the irony). Social media platforms like Twitter reward the toxic pile-ons and endless quote-tweet "dunks" that, once a target has been identified, end up being profoundly dehumanizing once the competition starts for the best "slam."

It's not only white men who dehumanize others on the Internet. In fact, social justice lingo and half-understood concepts are often weaponized on social media in ways that are extremely abusive. But, it is disproportionately white men who go on terroristic murderous rampages in the US and there are, I think, cultural reasons for that.

As commentators left, right, and center scream at each other about gun violence, hypocrisy, which "side" is worse, First Amendment rights, and the Second Amendment as though we're still living in the media and cultural landscape of the 1960s, I note that most of them will actively ignore (or mock) anything progressive feminists say about the links between mass violence, misogyny, rape culture, and Internet culture. (It's the same story with rape and sexual misconduct. Many on the left and right only care about the issue insofar as they can use it against political opponents, rather than for the simple reason that it's wrong and dehumanizing).

In December 2017, I wrote about the content moderation labor we do that has become a built-in aspect of using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook given the reality that some users use these platforms in ways far darker than the creators originally imagined. This moderation labor - blocking, muting, reporting - is just what we do now because sociopathy is normalized online and Internet culture designates you a fascist if you want platforms to be different and better.

And, oftentimes taking actions like blocking and muting other users leaves the harassing, extremist, and/or hateful content still "out there," unaddressed, for others users to see and be radicalized by. It puts the targets of such content in a difficult position of knowing that harmful content is still there, able to seen by others and acted upon for the rest of the Internet's life.

I liken it to an experience I had some years ago having been invited to participate in a conversation with men at an anti-feminist site. The site owners invited me to participate in a conversation about feminism wherein they would host two separate blogposts about my commentary: one that I could ostensibly participate in and that they would moderate for (by their standards) hostility, and a separate post where they would post my article and anti-feminists could say whatever they wanted about me and my opinions.

From my correspondence with them, I was supposed to be very grateful for this extreme generosity, but their setup overlooked the detail that, even if I didn't go visit their hostility-is-okay blogpost, I still knew that they would be hosting a forum for anti-feminists to engage in hostility toward me and that such commentary would exist on their site in perpetuity without being addressed by feminists (because most feminists didn't comment at their site).

A current rule of Internet culture really seems to be that users should just "ignore" online hostility and sociopathy targeting us because thinking of more complicated structural solutions isn't worth the "loss of free speech" or is too hard. Unfortunately, the old advice of just ignoring online bullies doesn't seem to be working out so well for us, as a society, as it seems that approach just normalizes aggression and bystander apathy.

Back in my December 2017 post about content moderation, I wrote:

"I think it's reasonable to say that most Internet users are actually exposed to traumatic content somewhat regularly. We've also largely accepted exposure to this content as 'normal,' without having begun to really grapple with the effects of it as a society.

In a popular piece at Medium, James Bridle wrote recently of frightening videos posted on YouTube to scare children, ultimately saying:
'What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects.'
Bridle concludes that 'responsibility is impossible to assign.'
I think often about the voices we've lost over the years, and there have been many, because of the toxic cultures that thrive on platforms where the performance of content moderation labor falls on us, as users and writers.These harms are not something people in my generation (Gen X, if you're curious) really grew up learning how to deal with, or that, in my experience, many mental health professionals are even equipped to understand. I think many people have simply adapted to living with at least a low-grade state of anxiety about what they might encounter today on the Internet, particularly if they do a large portion of work on the Internet as part of their jobs."

Are we, Generation X, the Reality Terrorism Generation?

Perhaps. And perhaps we will soon be the last generation that remembers life before extremely online life. I'm not sure what the implications are of that beyond, in our own small ways, trying to advance norms that are not centered around the sociopathic norms that currently dominate Internet and politicotainment culture.

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