The Tusk of the Unicorn

Image: “Narwhals by W. Scoresby, 1820“: Public Domain

“Depending on how you look at it, humans are either marvellously intelligent or amazingly stupid” (Gee, VII, 2013)

Despite the internet providing the greatest number of people in history, access to the greatest volume of information and knowledge, the events of 2016 have proven that human beings have an incredible capacity for disregarding facts and ‘truth’, preferring to live in a ‘post-truth’ vacuum, void of the experts that Gove attests we have all grown weary of (Britain Has Had Enough Of Experts, Says Gove“)

Erving Goffman, writing in the 1950s, states that all social encounters are performances that human beings enact in the company of a given audience, and that those performances can be situated along a continuum of personal conviction – with deeply held sincerity at one end and cynical masquerade at the other (Goffman, 28, 1971)

One could argue that the events of 2016 raise questions about the relevance of this continuum, given how prepared an audience might be to disregard the sincerity of the performance and be complicit in the masquerade. The ‘lock her up’ baying of the Trump supporters, the quick backtracking of the proposed jailing of Hilary Clinton by her opponent as soon as the election went his way – how important was sincerity a factor in the performance we witnessed?

How much more important was kinship and how culpable are digital spaces in incubating distortions of kinship in what Gee terms a ‘pathology of hate’?

Goffman talks of ‘descriptive kinship’ (ibid. 37) where kinship groups, in communities or workplaces, fall into certain patterns of behaviours or ‘fronts’. Gee extends this to the realm of ‘imagined kinship’ where our need to bond with others can lead to distorted polarisation, the binaries of ‘them’ and ‘us’ (ibid, 103) which we saw exploited by both the Brexit and Trump campaigns.

The world in truth is a wedding
(Goffman, 45, 1959)

Although not Goffman’s intended meaning here, traditionally, at weddings, the church is segregated into the bride’s side and the groom’s side – the binary segregation of literal kinship groups. Despite having  access to vast spectrum of opinions and perspectives online we also have the powerful capacity to ‘curate’ our online spaces – to choose who to friend, to follow and unfollow those whose world view does or doesn’t conform to out – to wrap ourselves in a cosy bubble of sameness so as not be troubled by people who are not like us, what Gee calls our ‘sweetspots’ (ibid. 117).

Speaking to US colleagues, post-November 8th, many expressed shock at realising that they shared no affinity or understanding with a huge percentage of the population of their country. One equally felt the same sense of alienation from the greater percentage of voters in the Brexit referendum.

We as humans seek out the things that bring comfort, ‘the mental comfort stories’, that conform and endorse our pre-existing beliefs and therefore make our life meaningful before we seek facts that give us the evidence-based to make reasoned judgement (ibid. 133-4).

The internet gives us an even greater capacity to pursue those mental comfort stories over objectivity and fact. Far from providing us with the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ which one would think would be the logical outcome of all the access we have to information, we are surprisingly adept at filtering out what we don’t want to see or hear and our online spaces are complicit in enabling us to do this.

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