FAUSTO SERAFINI
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The age of pain

People used to define themselves by their pleasures – by their sexual preferences and lifestyle choices. Today, we increasingly define ourselves by our suffering and our weaknesses.

In the early 1980s, the French sociologist Luc Boltanski conducted an unusual study involving 275 letters that had been sent to Le Monde. All the letters involved a claim of injustice of some kind. What interested Boltanski was not whether the claims were valid, but how the letters editors immediately split them into two categories, basing their decision purely on how the claim was expressed.

In the first category were those letters that counted as protests of some kind: for instance, claims that an economic policy was regressive or that a war was unjustified. These were more likely to be signed by representatives of institutions, such as non-governmental organisations or universities.

In the second category were those letters that were treated, in effect, as paranoid. These saw guilt where others saw innocence, or innocence where others saw guilt. In Britain, they have become referred to as “green ink” letters. Inferences of the writer’s psychological state are tacitly drawn.

The interesting question, for Boltanski, lay in the grey area between the two. At what point do we attribute denunciations to the state of the world, and at what point to the state of the individual making them? The question usually arises most starkly when a mass killing occurs, and often in racialised terms: white murderers are “lone wolves” with a mental illness or repressed sexual desires, while dark-skinned murderers are “terrorists”.

The significance of Boltanski’s study is to remind us that the line separating “public politics” from “private distress” is culturally constructed, and not always very clear, even as we seek to police it. That line has rarely seemed less clear than it does today.

Consider the political phenomenon that has made 2016 such a historic year: populism. Tony Blair admitted in February that he was “baffled” by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn on the left. Policy professionals are exasperated by the “post-truth” politics espoused by Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners, and can’t understand why voters are so easily taken in.

This failure of understanding stems from an exaggerated deference to the norms of the public sphere, as if people engaged with public figures solely for public reasons. Hence pundits can only assume that Corbyn has unearthed several hundred thousand dormant Trotskyites in their sixties or Occupy participants in their twenties.

The reality may be more mundane. Thanks in part to Corbyn’s own uncharismatic persona, the Labour Party and Momentum offer vessels for feelings of frustration, distress and loneliness, from which political participation offers relief. Public arenas potentially help to alleviate personal troubles.

This is even clearer on the right. Support for Trump was known to be most concentrated in areas suffering growing levels of chronic physical and mental pain, as well as rising mortality rates. Recently the use of prescription painkillers has increased sharply in these areas, as have the overdoses that occur once users become addicts. The geographer Danny Dorling has similarly drawn connections between the Brexit vote and mortality rates in England and Wales.

Now consider another matter that has provoked exasperation among liberals of a certain age: the phenomenon of campus “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, which might suggest that some students see their personal feelings as more important than free speech. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that American students are “coddled” and that they are clinging to an infantile vulnerability. In April, Stephen Fry accused victims of sexual abuse who cite their experiences as a reason for avoiding certain arguments of showing signs of “self-pity” (he later apologised).

This is partly a generational phenomenon. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a society that was obsessed with health, activity and ambition. Offered no language with which to articulate vulnerabilities and anxieties, many have reached for the language of mental illness and victimhood. How else to defend ordinary human passivity, in a culture organised around ideals of athleticism and entrepreneurship?

The question still stands whether it is ­acceptable for personal struggles and grievances to become muddled with public intellectual debate. The panic surrounding student-led censorship (which gets enthusiastically amplified in the tabloid press) is now well out of proportion. Yet something new has emerged. Can it be suppressed again? Should it be?

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History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. After the 1968 uprisings in America, there was a shared sense among many Democratic Party grandees that the student protesters lacked political realism, and were letting their hedonism and libidos get the better of them. The economic and social gains made by postwar liberalism were being taken for granted.

This view hardened over the course of the 1970s. Baby boomers and ’68ers became viewed as selfish and lacking in public decorum. Many prominent liberal intellectuals abandoned the left altogether and formed the splinter movement that became known as “neoconservatism”. Books such as The Fall of Public Man (1974) by Richard Sennett and The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by Christopher Lasch, both written from the perspective of the left, presented a view that private sentiment had overwhelmed proper public politics. All the while, the new Republican coalition of big business and the white working class gathered momentum.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that centre-left parties learned how to speak to this generation of so-called narcissists, by which point the work of Thatcher and Reagan was done. Yet one thing that became clear was that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s went far deeper than campus sit-ins or hippie free love. A revolution had occurred in capitalism – especially with the rise of consumer sovereignty – as much as in civil society.

There are obvious analogies here which pose a simple question: will “narcissism” have a similar effect on the left again today, or might political movements find a way of channelling the grievances that
now mobilise people? Would it necessarily be to Labour’s detriment if Corbyn appealed on a “private” level, or if people were joining the Labour Party partly to make themselves feel better?

In one respect, today’s emotional politics is the inverse of the 1960s. Back then, people were coming to define themselves by their pleasures: their sexual desires, consumer preferences, lifestyle choices. Today, many are coming to define themselves by their pains: past traumas, mental illnesses and chronic health conditions. With the breaking of taboos surrounding mental illness, people are increasingly likely to discuss their depression or anxiety, and possibly identify themselves accordingly.

The evidence of rising private distress accumulates weekly. An NHS study published in September showed that nearly a fifth of girls aged between 16 and 24 self-harm; 26 per cent reported some very recent mental-health condition. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have tripled in less than a decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that at any moment a fifth of the working-age population is suffering a mental illness. One culprit always stands out in public discussion of these trends: digital technology.

It is tempting to seek simple cause-and-effect relations between technology and psychology but never very helpful. Rather than ask what Facebook or smartphones are “doing to us”, it might make more sense to ask how patterns of social and cultural life are being redrawn along digital lines. Just as the effect of consumerism in the 1960s changed much more than just how people shopped, so the effect of social media cannot be explained adequately by looking at what takes place purely “online”.

Consider four properties of digital networks which are reshaping the fabric of social life today, each contributing to the new politics of distress. First, they follow us ­everywhere: to work, at home, on holiday and at school. We scarcely find refuge outside of these networks; it follows that people will construct safe communities of empathy within them instead. The alternative would be to spend one’s entire existence in some overwhelming hybrid of work, training and public debate.

Second, they obey a binary logic. One/zero. Follow/unfollow. Like/unlike. It is not that Twitter users are oversensitive or devoted to censoring “free speech”: it’s that “blocking” and “muting” are integral to the architecture of Twitter. The risk is that politics starts to become shaped by an equally binary mentality, reduced to simple friend/enemy distinctions that are the substance of populism.

Then consider the changing status of language. Words shared digitally don’t disappear, but produce a constantly accumulating archive that generates its own anxiety. It’s never clear exactly who might delve into that archive – a market researcher, a family member, a potential employer? The potential of institutions to evaluate our characters remotely is growing rapidly. As one data analytics developer has put it, “all data is credit data”. Idle words carry consequences; or, at the very least, it feels as if they might.

Finally, digital media can operate at any scale of interaction, from the most intimate to the most public. This is in sharp contrast to the newspapers and pamphlets on which the Enlightenment public sphere of the 18th century was built, and around which liberal norms of public debate emerged. Nowadays, one-to-one letters and mass broadcasts share a single medium, with endless intermediary tiers.

A new digital pattern of social life is emerging which extends beyond the reach of any particular digital technology. One consequence of this is a cluster of new strains and anxieties placed on the self. Another is that we can no longer cleanly distinguish between the spaces to which we turn in search of care and compassion (or emotional release) and those to which we turn in search of reasoned argument. This affects “offline” spaces (including campuses) where forums of mutual care and those of debate will simply have to coexist, often with leakage between the two.

The left can refuse the above analysis, just as parts of the left once refused identity politics and feminism. But how might it ­respond otherwise?

The first way is to accept that the repoliticisation of social troubles is welcome but messy. When people participate politically for the first time, they generally don’t turn up speaking like David Miliband but often arrive with a grievance rooted in their own suffering. Sometimes they appear self-pitying – but this can change. The most impressive anti-austerity campaigns have been fought by disability rights activists, demonstrating that day-to-day physical and mental needs can be politicised to considerable public effect.

The second response is to think deeply and widely about the forms of pain that are driving so much of our politics and forging political identities. The medicalisation of psychological distress cannot continue indefinitely: the NHS won’t be able to pick up the mounting bill for much longer, and medicalisation does not address the fundamental causes. The political question is how non-medical institutions (schools, workplaces) might be reformed or invented so as to treat people with greater care in the first place. Providing individuals with social and public routes out of their personal troubles will be critical, as the idea of “social prescribing” hints.

A large, possibly growing, section of the population today might appear as if it belongs in the second category of Boltanski’s letter writers: paranoid, emotional, post-fact. A crucial question is whether to leave them to dwell in their passivity, or whether they might be supported, not only to reduce their distress but to target some of it outwards, turning private pain into protest.

William Davies teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London and is the author of “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.