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?
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)