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It's a Mistake to Take Online Populist Movements Very Seriously
The digital swarm can only harm, not help, institutions and ministries.
Note: The previous version of this newsletter that went out contained an unacceptable amount of typos. My apologies! This version is cleaner. Thanks to Richard Rittenbaugh for pointing this out to me.
This essay by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim is one of the more illuminating pieces I’ve read this year. I wish I could convince many pastors and parachurch ministry leaders to read it. At first glance, it looks like an intriguing but predictable profile of a phenomenon most conservatives know: the way that woke, progressive institutions tend to eat themselves from the inside out. But I think it could be something more meaningful. What Grim captures is not just the cannibalistic impulse of much social justice liberalism, but the way that institutions destroy themselves by putting a lot of value on the threats and complaints of their most activist constituencies/employees.
Here’s one of the stories described in the piece that aptly sums the whole up:
In August 2017, when a rising “alt-right” organized a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the ACLU went to court to defend the right to march on First Amendment grounds, as it had famously done for generations. When a right-wing demonstrator plowed his car into a crowd, he killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and wounded dozens of others.
Internally, staff at the ACLU, concentrated among the younger people there, condemned the decision to defend the rally. Veteran lawyers at the ACLU complained to the New York Times that the new generation “placed less value on free speech, making it uncomfortable for them to express views internally that diverged from progressive orthodoxy.”
Alejandro Agustín Ortiz, a lawyer with the organization’s racial justice project, told the Times that “a dogmatism descends sometimes.”
“You hesitate before you question a belief that is ascendant among your peer group,” he said.
National Legal Director David Cole stood by the decision to defend the rally in a New York Review of Books essay. “We protect the First Amendment not only because it is the lifeblood of democracy and an indispensable element of freedom, but because it is the guarantor of civil society itself,” he wrote.
Around 200 staff members responded with a letter slamming the essay as “‘oblivious’ to the ACLU’s institutional racism,” the New York Times reported, noting that 12 of the organization’s top 21 leaders were Black, Latino, or Asian and 14 were women.
Under pressure, the ACLU said it would dial back its defense of free speech. Wrote the Times: “Revulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U., and many assailed its executive director, Anthony Romero, and legal director, Mr. Cole, as privileged and clueless. The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose ‘values are contrary to our values’ against the potential such a case might give ‘offense to marginalized groups.’”
This vignette captures all the main ingredients of the systemic issues that Grim considers. There’s an established institution that takes some kind of stand, usually a stand consistent with their history and mission and often with strong unity from the executive leadership. Then, a younger, more online group within that institution becomes offended at that stance, and they (privately, or increasingly often, publicly) criticize it, not only on the grounds that it is incorrect but that it ignores the beliefs and preferences of those within the institution who should be consulted and honored. Fearing reprisals, the institution often backtracks, perhaps even betraying their mission in the process.
A popular way to frame these kinds of episodes is as a triumph for the marginalized, a victorious stroke for the “grassroots” Joes and Janes against the unfeeling, out of touch executive suits and ties that often reap an institution’s rewards while sowing little themselves. But Grim challenges this framing. He sees, and the leaders he interviews for the essay see, something much different: an unsustainable model for how institutions are to function. It’s a model built on premises that will ultimately obliterate institutionalism itself.
I just finished writing the chapter in Digital Liturgies on how the Internet brought up a radical democratization of everything, especially information. The mantra of the online age is surely, “My story, my truth.” And as people who have learned to think from computers come of age, their expectations of the world around them take on a decidedly digital shape. As an online person, my output is my identity; my significance is inseparable from my Profile and the way my Profile creates my relationship with the wider Web. Further, the way the Internet trains us to deal with negative emotion is to delete or log off. The world of the online age is entirely responsive to our will; whether we will continue to see something that challenges or confronts us depends on whether we will continue to scroll. We can stop the challenge by stopping the scrolling. This, I believe, has created a profound epistemological condition: an expectation that a properly functioning world is one in which I can see only what I choose to see.
The tension between the way that older generations see the world and the way that Millennials and Gen-Z see it is evident in this piece. Grim quotes one reflection that he says many non-profit leaders mentioned to him in interviews. “I’m now at a point where the first thing I wonder about a job applicant is, ‘How likely is this person to blow up my organization from the inside?’” The emerging generation of activists are arriving at these organizations with two things: incredible amounts of leverage over their employers (thanks to the Internet), and incredibly low amounts of personal investment in groups or networks outside themselves.
If this sounds like a stereotypical jeremiad against “generation snowflake,” it’s not. The dynamics captured by Grim in his essay are not exclusive to young, progressive organizations. If what’s happening to institutions right now is an epistemological event just as much a generational one, then we should expect similar conflict to occur in spaces like churches or ministries. And that’s exactly what we see.
In many evangelical organizations in America, there is a palpable fear of being labeled “woke” or liberal. Twitter accounts such as @WokePreacherClips express the power that the Internet has bestowed on people to impose narratives on individuals and institutions. If @WokePreacherClips features your pastor, it means your pastor is woke. You don’t have to carefully evaluate what that pastor is saying, whether there is biblical support for it, or whether another Christian in another era of church history might have said much the same thing. What matters is that a documentary social media account that purports to “out” woke Christians has included that pastor in their feed. It’s a done deal.
Both the young progressive activists and the anti- “Big Eva” movement within conservative evangelicalism strongly resemble what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “the digital swarm.” Look at his description of outrage as a social currency:
Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently. However, their fluidity and volatility make them unsuited to shaping public discourse or public space. They are too uncontrollable, incalculable, inconstant, ephemeral, and amorphous for that. They well up abruptly—and they dissipate just as soon. They are like smart mobs; they lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for a civil exchange…Waves of outrage often occur in response to events of only meager social or political relevance. (In the Swarm, 2017)
Han further articulates the difference between an online smart mob and a physical movement of offline people, which Han classifies as a “mass:”
What is more, the world of Homo digitalis envinces an entirely different topology. Spaces such as sports arenas and amphitheaters—that is, sites where masses meet—are foreign to this world. The digital inhabitants of the Net do not assemble. They lack the interiority of assembly that would bring forth a we. They form a gathering without assembly-a crowd without interiority, without a soul or spirit…Occasionally, digital individuals come together in gatherings—in smart mobs, for instance. However, their collective patterns of movement are like the swarms that animals form—fleeting and unstable.
Han articulates something Ryan Grim doesn’t. Whereas Grim’s essay is wholly concerned with the ideological combustion of young activists inside established organizations, Han identifies the very form of the Web as antithetical to the kind of cohesion that institutions demand. The emerging confrontation in modern culture is not so much between woke and un-woke, but between Internet-shaped swarms of people, and between organizations that were built with analog values and assumptions.
So what’s the cash value of all this? Put simply, I think it’s that leaders need to be extremely cautious in assessing the importance and value of online movements. If one of your employees is getting canceled online for something like an offensive joke, you need to be able to see the swarm gathering as an inherently volatile thing, not as something to accurately measure the health of your organization against. Likewise, evangelical leaders need to refrain from assigning high importance to online groups that pressure and manipulate them. If you’re asking whether or not X position or policy will play well to an online subset that you may fear (or that your donors may fear), you have already miscalculated. This could be true whether the online subset is sorted on the left (such as church watchdog organizations) or on the right (anti-woke alarmists). There is no “grassroots” online movement that will help your institution in the long run. The Web-shaped activism from the right or the left is designed to disable cohesion. You cannot outsource your church or your ministry’s conscience to the digital swarm.
The only real way to asses the strength of an idea is the test of time. To the extent that Christian churches, ministries, publishers, and broadcasters become immersed in the digital swarm, they will make poor investments in ideas and personalities that are designed to disappear as quickly as they “do numbers.” The alternative is patience and the long game.