There is probably no one as beloved by liberals right now as President Barack Obama, but on Tuesday he delivered a message that his supporters are unlikely to heed. At the annual Obama Foundation Summit, the former President called out online “woke” culture, claiming that it accomplishes nothing but making the accuser feel good about themselves:
“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because man you see how woke I was. I called you out.’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.”
Watch the full video of his message here.
The #woke internet mob has become a staple of our Very Online society, where old tweets from nearly a decade ago can take down everything from a viral fundraiser for a Children’s Hospital to celebrities like Kevin Hart.
Obama points out that this tactic is often less about creating real societal change, and more about making the accusers feel good about themselves. In a recent article, feminist journalist Meghan Murphy described cancel culture as a cultural addiction, writing:
“‘Cancel culture’ is a sort of addiction: the addict — outraged members of the public demanding someone’s humiliation and ‘cancellation’ — gets a high, but only temporarily, and the desire creeps back once again and must be fed.”
According to Yale Psychologist Molly Crocket, who appeared on a recent episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, this addictive quality isn’t just a metaphor. There is neuroscience that demonstrates that when a human punishes someone who they feel behaved immorally there is increased “activation in brain areas associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex.”
This makes sense, according to Crocket, when we consider the environment in which this “outrage reward” evolved: a face-to-face culture where people lived and interacted in very small groups. Moral outrage helped prevent community members from engaging in anti-social behavior, but the risk of that outrage had to be measured against the personal cost of discord to the relationship and community. Outrage cost the accuser energy, social capital, and, if wrongly applied, could put their social standing in the community at risk.
Now, the whole world is our community and those who are psychologically rewarded for outrage have no personal risk to help balance the scales. The effort required is minimal, just a few keystrokes, so outrage runs amok — another example of how humans have outpaced our own evolution, perhaps to our detriment.
This moral outrage contains a viral quality since morally-charged words have been found to increase attention compared to more neutral words. Claims of moral outrage spread so quickly across social media because they are essentially hacking our basic psychology.
Crocket’s research also demonstrated that immoral acts encountered online invoke greater moral outrage than those encountered in “real life” or in traditional (print) media, likely due to the attention-economy on these platforms.
According to another Yale Psychologist, William Brady, these sorts of messages are only effectively spread among those who already agree. His research found that messages without a moral or emotional tone were more likely to persuade those who disagreed.
Obama’s claim that “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far,” seems to be supported by science. Yet, his message is unlikely to bring about change, either.
Asam Ahmad, a community organizer in Toronto, wrote in 2015 that modern call-out culture is largely about signaling to the accuser’s in-group in an attempt to gain social acceptance:
“It’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out.”
He further argues that call-out culture is steeped in the messages of the prison-industrial complex, favoring eternal banishment over rehabilitation. He’s not the only one to draw connections between modern internet culture and prison systems.
Beth Tucker theorized in a whitepaper for Leeds Becket University that the modern internet call-out culture can trace its roots to Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison architecture in which inmates may constantly be surveilled by a central tower, but do not know for sure at any given moment if they are being watched. This system leads to fear and paranoia, and therefore to increased performance of morality under the watchful eye.
The internet mobs, Tucker claims, serve as the new central tower — keeping the masses in a state of watched paranoia, policing their own behavior for fear of being punished. Those who are scapegoated serve as a warning to us all — stay in line, or else you’re next.
Those who participate in the internet mobbing are just as afraid as everyone else. As Murphy wrote, participants in cancel culture want “to feel that boot on someone else’s neck — perhaps in order to avoid the boot itself.”
Cardi B knew this when she expressed her distrust of the male industry producers who were suddenly coming out for women’s rights in 2018, “They’re not woke,” she stated, “they’re scared.”
While those who are the most invested in woke cancel culture may be quick to call out the science-denial of anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, or climate deniers, it’s unlikely they will accept the science on call-out culture themselves since this would involve confronting their own cognitive biases, something at which humans are infamously bad.
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