Our Never-Ending Empathy for Everything Is Backfiring
August 25, 2021 7:26 PM   Subscribe

"A few years ago, I began to observe that the bulk of criticism I got was not about work I had actually done, or words I had in fact written, but about that which I wasn’t saying, or doing. I used to call this free-floating daily disparagement of all that we had failed to write or say aloud “negative spaces”—pun fully intended."
posted by geoff. (29 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
 
I liked to read Dahlia Lithwick’s writing before social media became a requirement for being a journalist or commentator, and I’m sad that all the journalists and commentators I like to read have to spend so much or their time and energy dealing with the bullshit of social media that it takes them away from writing the things I used to like to read.

I’m so glad that my career path does not require me to bolster my brand on social media, so I can take it or leave it as I wish.
posted by ejs at 7:41 PM on August 25 [36 favorites]


As someone who has done more than a bit of writing about and for the [Insert Trecherous Alphabet Soup Here, Don't Leave Out A Letter!] queer community for more than a couple of decades, I can say this is not only a thing, but it has become SO MUCH MORE OF A THING over the past few years it's really scary to put anything out there for fear of....
posted by hippybear at 9:34 PM on August 25 [33 favorites]


hippybear, I’ve noticed the same thing; I’m far more likely to be verbally attacked in a rainbow/queer community for not supporting xyz enough, than by a stranger for being trans. The latter has never happened, but the former led me to button for a couple of years.
posted by Callisto Prime at 10:32 PM on August 25 [25 favorites]


Going into all of the details about why I like this article so much would make me uncomfortable with how much I'm sharing, but let me just say: YES. THIS. I am privileged in many ways but in my sphere I am also one of the few visible and prominent examples of a very marginalised class. So I think about this all the time. The potential for tripping on the dynamics in the article... well, that potential keeps me quiet much more often than fear of pushback from bigots.
posted by sir jective at 12:55 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


This is a timely read not long after Malala—Malala—was being called out on Twitter for not speaking out quickly enough about the plight of Afghan women and girls. (Meanwhile, she was writing to heads of state and organising evacuations while recovering from surgery.)
posted by rory at 1:12 AM on August 26 [49 favorites]


There's a definite sense of maturity level and/or personal pain or baggage that I can detect in people who treat identifying unconsidered biases in a creative piece or absence of action in public to be wholly sufficient as the sum total of their criticism. A lot of that can seem like flexing within the very limited range of power that they perceive to actually have. Genuinely busy/committed people in the work won't have time to do this. Of course practically, on socmed space they look no different than actual bigots. But again, that's the myopia (pegged to one's maturity or psychological state) that won't acknowledge other spheres of action, and only socmedia expressions as the totality of someone's political beliefs.

That individual behaviour of doing mostly nothing but pressing against their pain points in public is one thing, perhaps even necessary in someone's growth, but as a society/community, the trouble seems to be we're still muddling along on what's the conventional response here, especially when the risk of that set of responses gets coopted as it will eventually be (e.g. the standard apology language celebrities use now). In part of course because the larger society do actively perpetuate those biases and discrimination. But that assumes there's only one society, when per TFA and the comments, there are many societies. IOW it's another example of context collapse. Since this is not something that is at the level that requires policy/legal intervention, I wonder if the only available pathway ahead is to codify new norms regarding identifying the space and the people any conversation is actually about (and being fully active in staying out of it when It's Not My Business), and because that requires social consensus, the immediate outcome is us having to suffer similar thinkpieces or callout posts regularly.
posted by cendawanita at 1:22 AM on August 26 [29 favorites]


But also, I do find Book Twitter as a very specific sub-community where this is extremely real (and toxic), at least based on my understanding on how the #ownvoices movement eventually developed into a demand for outing yourself before you can present your work.
posted by cendawanita at 1:25 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


There's a definite sense of maturity level and/or personal pain or baggage that I can detect in people who treat identifying unconsidered biases in a creative piece or absence of action in public to be wholly sufficient as the sum total of their criticism. A lot of that can seem like flexing within the very limited range of power that they perceive to actually have.

Yeah, that seems to be the case in many instances, where it wouldn't even necessarily be a diversion if whatever issue was simply mentioned as yet another thing to be considered, but instead the issue is wielded more as a way to deflect all conversation to that single end point, to effectively end the discussion rather than enrich it or further participation.

More worryingly this kind of interruption is also sometimes used to claim a kind of status of oppression for groups that don't have a history of marginalization to seek a kind of like space of written reprisal which erodes the boundaries of historical oppression by seeking to get one's own group included as victimized or ignored. There was a FPP on Congressional stenographers back in February where the first link hit on a lot of those notes. It isn't that the occupation isn't deserving of notice for what they do, but that the attitude taken is a "How dare they slight the courageous stenographers!" when that job is a highly specialized and esoteric one.

This is something that seems to be increasingly common among some individuals who would be considered historically privileged by normal standards, but their association with some narrow sub-group allows for righteous indignation when they perceive themselves as being slighted. It starts to feel a like another form of cultural appropriation in a lot of ways but it also can serve the end of just shutting conversation down. Good faith conversations and social media really don't mix well.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:12 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


Plus: it gets tedious to talk about "in public" or bigger spaces because of course there will always be the one dude who cleverly points out that "now all of a sudden you're against cancel culture when it is someone you like."
posted by dominik at 2:17 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I find your comment very insightful, cendawanita, thanks. As for this particular part...

...I wonder if the only available pathway ahead is to codify new norms regarding identifying the space and the people any conversation is actually about...

I often think that part of what were going through is figuring out how to be a properly cosmopolitan and post-modern society. In the absence of a total set of norms for a particular, closed society, people need to learn how to regularly interact with groups, societies, and norms that are beyond their moral framework and understanding. My own view and hope is that a deep humanism of tolerance, patience, and empathy can develop that allows us to move humanely in these ethical frontiers.
posted by Alex404 at 2:48 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


Part of the trouble is that these virtual communities have ways of reinforcing their ties and identities which are easily toxified in a kind of one-upmanship that demands more than civility, but increasingly passionate input, reinforcement, and conformity. It seems to become performative more than substantive. Rating systems such as likes and upvotes magnifies the dynamic, providing positive feedback for the loudest and most zealous. Even strong moderation tends to step back when everyone is equally shitty and in agreement in their shittiness.

It's easy to see how simply sitting out a discussion for any reason, let alone communicate without the the absolute clearest moral intention, can turn one into a monster.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:53 AM on August 26 [24 favorites]


Social media, especially Twitter, also has the dual problems of rewarding quick takes and removing the space for nuance. There's only so much you can put into 280 characters, and only so much time to get in a reply to something while it's still spreading around the platform.
posted by SansPoint at 6:22 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Social media, especially Twitter, also has the dual problems of rewarding quick takes and removing the space for nuance. There's only so much you can put into 280 characters, and only so much time to get in a reply to something while it's still spreading around the platform.

But let's face it, we have this problem here on Mefi too. It's not only a function of the character limit (as far as I'm aware we don't have one, since I once wrote a comment that came out as a 2000+ word essay and nothing stopped me).

To me it feels like an issue around expected levels of time and attention. People read things in seconds, that were written in minutes or hours, but expect them to have nuance that would require weeks or months of thought behind them.

Is it something about communicating in writing? After all, published authors do pore over their books for years, and expect to be criticised for deep nuances in their writing by people who read them in hours.

When we moved so much of our transient, ephemeral communication from verbal to written form, did we unconsciously import the standards we associate with published books?
posted by automatronic at 6:43 AM on August 26 [25 favorites]


I think this piece makes an extremely legitimate point and I also hate that my first reaction is to be skeptical of it because of all the bullshit handwringing about "cancel culture" and similar; there is a real problem here and it's been coopted by bad actors such that it's hard to have an appropriate and productive conversation because people (including me!) get immediately defensive because of bad faith attacks on marginalized people for expressing their concerns on issues affecting them.
posted by an octopus IRL at 6:48 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


To me it feels like an issue around expected levels of time and attention. People read things in seconds, that were written in minutes or hours, but expect them to have nuance that would require weeks or months of thought behind them.

The first thing that came to mind when I saw this post were the comments excoriating a comedian for not referencing the Jan 6 insurrection in a comedy video, as if it were a deliberate elision out of malice. As if everything has to address everything every single time, in full.

Of course then, even better--it turned out she HAD, just not in that specific video snippet.

it's cliche at this point to say that combining internets and people is the second worst idea ever (only to the idea of an internets that runs itself) but it isn't less true for being a cliche.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:47 AM on August 26 [18 favorites]


I think there is also a thread of groups being always prepared to tear down members. Joanna Russ' essay "Magic Mamas and Trembling Sisters" was written about feminist groups in the 70s (maybe 60s, too) where women with particular talents and drives were urged (willingly or not) into leadership positions which the reserved the right to "revoke" at any point for a wide range of reasons. So there was a tendency for the groups to get caught up in the churn of the rise and fall of these leaders rather than effectively advocating for the change they wanted.

I think things get worse when the groups are dealing with unprocessed (and maybe even unnoticed) trauma. The last 4 years have been especially rough with bad news battering us endlessly, preventing us from any kind of emotional focus, and the easy release of social media right there....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:10 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


The problem isn't the twitter character limit since people are willing to do linked series of tweets.

I see it as people on the left need to let each other specialize, but I have no idea how you can get from where you are now to there.

A cartoon from the point of view of someone who isn't letting himself specialize.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:12 AM on August 26 [8 favorites]


I think online, especially in those book circles, there's this tendency when you link to a piece of writing to need to find something to criticize about it. And that's partially coming out of the need to "review" the writing and reduce it to a yes/no vote for whether the people following you should read it - maybe originally because they would need to buy the book or wait 10 hours for the movie to download, and now because people will need to expend the precious currency of their attention. So you are kind of putting yourself in the position of passing binary judgement and acting as gatekeeper, and signalling in advance whether this expense will be worth it to the people who follow you. And I also think there's also this need to add negative commentary,even if you overall like something, in order to "add value" to the link you're passing along.

Like you know the saying, if you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything? If you can't think of anything in the piece that requires criticism, criticize the piece for what it didn't do.

And then what I think happened, as the article discusses, is that this process over time becomes simplified and narrowed, and what used to be part of the whole discussion BECOMES the entire discussion, and then becomes a moral imperative.... like Debord says, "the signifier becomes the signified". And online I think this process is accelerated, first and probably most importantly, because the social media site where this behavior developed (tumblr) *does not support comments*, so it was difficult to have the discussion in the first place. And secondly because of how the AI recommendation engines work, where they don't identify what you might actually want to read/who you might actually want to follow, but identify things that are already popular and try to push you towards those things. So people's behaviors, the range of ideas they are exposed to, is narrowed and simplified and streamlined over time, even while we're meeting more and more people who are wildly different from us.

I see a lot of young people coming in to the middle of this process, and adopting the language for things it was never meant to do in the first place (decide which people are okay to follow, and which people needed to be shunned and avoided).

And I also see a lot people coming in from outside those spaces, and amplifying these trends deliberately to poison the well, as well. Like if you can make it into a minefield to even discuss LGBTQ+ issues online, or discuss race online as a POC, and associate these discussions with triggering topics and harassment, less confident people and more tired people will naturally avoid these topics and you'll have succeeded in rolling back some of the gains we made by having a more permissive space to discuss the more taboo social topics in the first place.
posted by subdee at 9:30 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


https://twitter.com/kendrawcandraw/status/1429797558453420039?s=20

An example of the kind of simplifying and streamlining I am talking about. And then the problem of how to respond, because you can see in the replies what most people are saying - "you're taking this out of context, it's just a joke".
posted by subdee at 9:37 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Like you know the saying, if you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything?

Which then becomes "silence = consent" which then becomes "silence = endorsement" which then forecloses the idea of simply not saying anything at all. Especially when in the social media context of having to forever be saying, never not be saying, CONTENT CONTENT CONTENT.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:41 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


I hope the takeaway from this is, "If someone gets upset because they don't see their concerns represented in their work, try to make peace with the fact that nobody can care deeply about every concern everybody has" rather than "If you don't see your concerns represented, stop whining about it because it stresses out people who have a platform."

If Slate had no women writers or editors, I wouldn't want Lithwick to shrug her shoulders and say, "Well, mustn't browbeat people who are trying their best..."
posted by straight at 9:54 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I hope there are multiple takeaways from this. One I'd like to see is the recognition that most people respond better to a "yes and" approach than to a "you're wrong for leaving this out". Think about how you'd feel hearing "interesting article, and I think addressing [X] would add to it; if you write more about this I hope you'll consider including that" compared to "I can't believe you left [X] out, you're useless and nobody should listen to you".

Another is that if there's something that's really important to you, you probably should be writing about it, or speaking about it, or making music about it, or whatever medium suits. If someone else has created something good that addresses aspects A, B, C, E, and F, while you think that D really really needs to be addressed, consider creating something that builds on or jumps off from the original piece that addresses D in the way you think it needs to be addressed.

In a time when there are more than 500 hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every minute (not even addressing other platforms and channels of communication), nobody has the time, energy, or attention to be aware of everything.
posted by Lexica at 10:38 AM on August 26 [20 favorites]


Social media, especially Twitter, also has the dual problems of rewarding quick takes and removing the space for nuance. There's only so much you can put into 280 characters, and only so much time to get in a reply to something while it's still spreading around the platform.

Indeed. If I were creating a social network from scratch, I think I'd impose a strict limit on how many times a person could post in 24 hours.

Of course the commercial networks are all about increasing "engagement", because their ultimate incentive is to sell more ads, and they need more user-created content to sell ads against.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:28 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


"So while we believe ourselves to be acutely empathetic to the plight of Afghan refugees, or victims of climate disasters, or those turned away from emergency rooms because of a glut of COVID patients, a decade of evidence shows, as Samuel puts it, that “digital tech is eroding our attention, which is eroding our moral attention, which is eroding our empathy.”"

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately... to show the people in your life that you care about them, you give them your attention. A world with less attention is a world with less care.
posted by subdee at 1:26 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


And the most caring people I know online are the ones who only have a few connections and spend most of their time in just one social space.
posted by subdee at 1:28 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


If I were creating a social network from scratch, I think I'd impose a strict limit on how many times a person could post in 24 hours.

OMG, if Twitter limited everyone to 10 tweets a day, I would follow so many more people. No more 27-part threads - gotta write it up for Medium, Substack, or *gasp* a blog and tweet a link to it. Everyone has to pause before every RT/QT/reply to ask themselves if this is really how they want to burn one of today's tweets. Etc.
posted by frogstar42 at 2:14 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


If I were creating a social network from scratch, I think I'd impose a strict limit on how many times a person could post in 24 hours.

There have been Metafilter threads that inspired this thought
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 6:41 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


>>>I hope the takeaway from this is, "If someone gets upset because they don't see their concerns represented in their work, try to make peace with the fact that nobody can care deeply about every concern everybody has" rather than "If you don't see your concerns represented, stop whining about it because it stresses out people who have a platform."


Dahlia Lithwick's work for Slate doesn't line up with the idea that she is dismissive of people who are marginalized and voiceless. To cite just a very few of her most recent clips(she's been writing for Slate since 1999):

'The Second Amendment is not intended for Black people': Tracing the racist history of gun governnance.
'It's been an onslaught for so long': How abortion providers are responding to the latest threats to reproductive rights.
Tucker Carlson's expanding definition of who shouldn't get to vote.
The double standard for Biden's nominees who are women of color: Only certain types of people are allowed to be angry about politics.
posted by virago at 10:02 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


I've been chewing on this off and on for nearly twenty-four hours now, and all I can think is that it comes down to our mutual anxiety that we won't get our own attention and validation in our own turn. People who are trying to address one axis of marginalization are a whole lot more likely to listen to us if we ask to be heard, so we disproportionately turn to them to say "and what about me?"

But no one can address everything at once, and so many of us are hungry and pulsing with the unmet needs of entire generations, and the people who are trying to validate these things and make change within the limits of their own platforms are finite people with finite attention and energy...

It's the anxiety of unmet needs that is the fundamental problem, I think, and you really do see it in left-oriented media criticism and storytelling spaces in particular because of what I've seen called the problem of incompatible respresentation: the stories some people need to see in order to see themselves reflected in the world around them are not the stories that other people along the same axis need to see, and there are few enough creators working on those stories that anyone who publicly commits themselves to trying draws the attention of quite a lot of hungry people, and you can only make so much at a time.

I think that's the crux of the problem. I don't think there is anything to be done about it in the short term, except maybe to talk about it and nudge people to try to create on their own if they are hungry for content that reflects themselves--but that is work, far harder work than consuming said content, and it is generally an exhortation that is rarely followed because who has the energy? If you haven't experienced the position of seeing an absence in the world and trying to write or draw or sing or speak to fill that void, and had a dozen people who see slightly different-shaped absences and each exhort you in contradictory ways to distort your work to fill their own voids--it's hard to figure out how to respond in good faith without simply shutting down altogether.

Grimly smiling and cheerfully saying "Write your own, and I'll share it!" can only do so much, but it's certainly the only response I've ever devised that doesn't leave me throbbing from the moral injury.
posted by sciatrix at 8:27 AM on August 27 [13 favorites]


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