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Platform the Villains!
The Moral Meta-Issue of Problematic Content
Q: Is it dangerous to platform the wrong people and ideas?
Let’s zoom in on that jaunty, linguistic ejaculation of excessive certitude.
The richer notion underneath it is that, while it can definitely be dangerous for some people or some ideas to spread in some contexts, the currently emerging world situation makes the opposite danger much more significant.
Business as usual is speeding toward a fairly radical destabilization of ecology, society & meaning and, in this unique situation, the risk of exposure to bad or unpleasant expressions is far less than the reverse risk — that of failing to cultivate large numbers of complexly-informed, antifragile human beings who securely feel a strong difference between “media” and “reality.”
In ancient China, people had the luxury to experiment with Taoism. A small percentage of the population underwent a training that was, in part, devoted to unlearning the idea that culturally charged symbols should be treated as if they were realities. This is not as easy as it sounds. Of course we all know that you cannot drink the word “water” but do we also know that no crime is being committed within a digital image of child pornography and that racism is the outcome of words that we associate with racism? These matters are so highly charged that most people are unwilling to put in the effort to securely learn the difference. Perhaps that used to be okay but things are becoming different. We no longer live in a medieval environment where people occasionally run into public messages. We are under siege from a relentless torrent of largely uninformed & mostly manipulative content.
Today — when social media is fueling suicides, false news is influencing elections & deep fakes are easy to make — it becomes an absolute survival necessity to unlearn our immediate and morally convincing assumptions that we:
are seeing real and representative data about what’s generally going on
that whoever appears to have sent is really who sent it
that we understand what it means & is trying to say
that our feelings about the general topic tell us how it will affect others and whether it should be “allowed”
The danger of exposure or platforming the wrong kind of content is, in my estimation, becoming significantly less relevant than the extreme danger of continuing to have an outdated, passive-reactive & superstitious response to cultural artifacts.
Passive-reactive & Superstitious?
Here’s what I mean by those terms:
We have all spend decades telling each other not to be “just passive consumers” but that is still the dominant attitude toward cultural information. When we do not see something popping up in our newsfeed we think, "Why don’t THEY want me to see it?” When something returns to our newsfeed we think, “Why am I being expected to embrace this?” These sorts of ideas betray a deep assumption that a system of media makes the decisions and all we can do is have thumbs-up or thumbs-down reactions.
Our image of ourselves is like that of an infantile tyrant trying to constantly express our approval or disapproval. Mouths open, we let the liquid food pour in without much chewing, digesting or good taste.
We are also superstitious in the sense that we treat words & images as if they were demonic or angelic powers that determine the fate of human society. If we update the metaphor, we are treating everyone as if they were fragile computers ready to be reprogrammed by whatever new software comes along next. Therefore we should be keeping comic books away from kids, burning heretical material, minimizing nudity and preventing anyone from being exposed to racism, sexism or insults.
Our acting assumption seems to be that the agency resides in the cultural artifacts and, once exposed, human beings merely become whatever “new thing” we think the symbols, images and words represent.
We pretend that the Qur’an, Bible or Constitution is a program that determines the beliefs and actions of anyone who doesn’t publicly reject it. That strikes me as hysterical and nonsensical and a deep vote of no-confidence in the Self. Agency has been displaced onto words, links, comments, pictures, videos, newscasts, updates, etc.
We become irrationally concerned with what people call us and with what kinds of media content we encounter. Our solutions to every problem start with ignoring the material causes and instead mobilizing to combat “bad labels.” We make little real progress toward overcoming the systemic causes of racial injustice while instead we converge around the pseudo-morality of eliminating all words and symbols that remind us of racism.
But what if time was limited and you could only solve either the real problem or the putatively contagious representations of the problem?
Today almost every solution has become a desperate, puritan re-branding exercise.
The Modern Machinery of Cultural Black Magic
Political correctness is old. In Kingdom Culture there is almost always a courtly milieu in the large urban centers which is devoted to constantly updated speech fads — based largely around shifting norms of public respect. The constantly political pantomime of honorable and dishonorable titles spills over into the lives of the scribes, courtesans and public servants in the big cities while the rural folk look on weary consternation.
When modern psychology and modern technology come upon this scene, the languaging gets amplified, distributed and increasingly strategic. Alongside the advent of science (i.e. the strategic attempt to get more accurate communication) there also grows the strategic instinct for manipulative speech. PR. Propaganda. Marketing. Electioneering. Messaging. The mentality of the debate club takes over the bureaucratic halls of academia, business and politics until advertising , getting the word out, virtue-signally & staying on message become the de facto forms of cultural exchange.
This is not much different than having a civilization of black magic.
The manipulation of the unconscious mind, the control of belief systems, the response to symbols and the steering of behaviors is professionalized — done for profit.
This strikes me a huge problem that is getting worse. It does not matter that I am frequently in agreement with the values of people who are trying to control society through messaging. I am pro-trans, pro-gay, pro-abortion, pro-anti-racism, pro-police-reforms, pro-drug-decriminalization, pro-big-ecological-upgrades-to-the-economy, etc. Yet I cringe with dread at the effects of trying to enforce these views through control of media, speech and public imagery. I expect that to progressively (sic) backfire in a big way.
The good things that postmodernity can accomplish are, in my view, being undermined and captured by the normal liberal-modern machinery that prevents significant improvement by shunting everything into a culture war that parasitizes our moral reactions to media content that is conflated with the realities that it appears to represent.
Normalized Gullibility and Moral Hazard
So here we are.
Our information ecology is degraded and obfuscated as fast or faster than real researchers can clarify reality. What can we do? How do we exert control over the messaging to make sure it steers in the right direction? Ah — that’s the same wrong (or excessively partial) question again.
The root of the problem is not the content of what we are accessing. That idea rests entirely on demeaning, inhuman assumption that people are highly reprogrammable — a self-fulfilling prophecy. A system that assumes human gullibility (especially as part of its economic model) regenerates exaggerated gullibility. Our politicians, churches, business leaders, regressive cultural movements & progressive cultural movements are acting like the worst kind of cult leaders. They are assuming and reinforcing the hackability of the human mind.
Although we inhabit a radically different information ecology than anything our ancestors evolved to work with, we still train our children and each other to treat incoming cultural information as serious, obvious and worthy of immediate response. Why is it that we treat people on “stages” as if they were leaders or important voices? Why do we act like the material showing up in our newsfeeds is representative of what’s going in the world? Why do celebrity endorsement, blurbs and big claims seem like they are really telling us something? Why do we act like a person who says a terrible word has done a terrible thing?
We are training each other to conflate cultural content with reality. And that is the most dangerous thing we could be doing when there are huge, accumulating problems… in reality.
Urgency Changes the Equation
Time is limited for our current civilization.
If we do not change our basic relationship to media and the assumptions we make about “charged content,” then we are going to drive this bus off a cliff while yelling at our phones.
Noam Chomsky famously said that free speech is only real IF it applies to things that you hate.
The physics genius Richard Feynman recounts that his father educating him in natural science while refusing to tell the young boy the English names of any the birds, trees or other phenomena.
What do these two odd anecdotes have in common? They both indicate a practical, moral need to establish critical distance between our inner response and the outer social categories. It has to become okay for people to say things that you find to be wildly dangerous and it must become okay to disregard the currently appropriate names. Unless we can stably cultivate a gap between reality, ourselves and “important-seeming cultural messages” then we will be drunken and reactive stewards of civilization as the moment when it most needs sober direction.
The discussion about whether this or that content is “acceptable” is becoming trivial.
There really IS an urgent moral necessity connected to content, speech and platforming — but it is the urgency to free ourselves from the automatic response pattern that takes these communication, and our reactions, as self-evident and immediate.
Bad content is extremely dangerous. Yes. Not because it exists. Not because it can be accessed. Not because it shows up in your social media algorithm. The danger is that people — including you & I — immediately believe what we’re seeing, treat it like the reality it represents and have a strong moral emotion about the possible consequences of other people’s access to this material.