Wanktivism in the social media age

Or how to promote thought without actually thinking
This is you on a social media high

This is you on a social media high

This piece is Part II of this one

I’m pretty sure you have at least one Facebook friend who makes P.C.U’s causeheads look as lazy and apolitical as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. These people don’t just stick to a cause for a week before picking up a new one, they barrage your Facebook wall with a post about every real or imagined social ill in the world. In real time. 24/7. An infographic of how meat consumption is causing climate change is followed by a Marxist blogger’s post about the IMF and World Bank being root cause of global inequality, followed by a fact-meme reminding you that the West African Grey Lesbian Rhino is now extinct, then a video of (insert left-wing Latin American leader from a socialist wonderland where there are bigger queues to buy toilet paper than for the launch of a new iPhone) denouncing corporate profits, and finally the latest batshit crazy conspiracy theory on how the US is guilty of everything wrong in the Middle East in collusion with Big Oil, Big Pharma, the NRA, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Israel, Blackwater, the Illuminati, the Vatican, and Gap for Kids. Forget that half of what this person posts is factually wrong, and that the other half is of dubious intellectual value because it is written by such a biased source that there’s as much objectivity as a Breitbart book review of The Elders of Zion. This person is on a mission to remind you that they’re saving the world, one meme at a time. And if you dare question them then you’re also part of the status quo, surely hoarding some of the profits of laissez-faire capitalistic greed with your grubby porcine hands.

I have a term for this: wanktivism. It’s the cognitive version of clicktivism, a word used to describe activism with the minimum of effort like clicking the “share” button of something that promotes a cause or signing an online petition rather than actually doing something for said cause. If clicktivism is promoting action without actually taking action yourself, wanktivism is promoting thought without actually thinking. It’s sex without the other person, i.e. wanking. Now, being a leftist myself I genuinely find many of the causes above to be noble and worth pursuing. But for fuck sake, is it that hard to fact check what you share first? In the age of Google and Wikipedia there’s simply no excuse for not doing so, and it’s particularly appalling that people with college degrees, even postgrads and PhDs (and professors are guilty too) feel the internet is a legitimate no-reference zone where the accuracy of any statistic, article, or meme is instantly validated merely by the fact that it conforms to your existing ideological prejudices. Sometimes I feel people don’t even read anything other than the title of what they share. It’s as if our capacity to digest anything that is longer than a 140-character tweet has been lobotomized by our quest for online righteousness. What’s worse it the reaction when they are shamed in public, which as of late has been one of my favorite sports. It would seem to me that if I promoted information that was verifiably false I would feel somewhat embarrassed about it, then be humble enough to accept that it was wrong, then do the common sense thing and delete it so that nobody stupider than I shares it, thereby perpetuating the viral nature of internet misinformation.

But that is not to be. Usually the response is one of the following:

“You’re right, it’s just that I didn’t have time to read the whole piece”. Translation: I was too lazy to actually read the article I posted since the title conformed to the political message that I wanted to spread, and sharing something that someone else wrote would make up for my lack of original opinions and argumentative skills. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Ok that figure may be wrong but the essence is still true.” Translation: You caught me red handed sharing a statistic that is patently incorrect but since the meme supports my righteous cause it doesn’t matter if the numbers are all fudged up. Secretly I also suspect that you are not the liberal progressive/conservative patriot you claim you are since you are pointing this out rather than siding with me by keeping quiet about my mistake. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Just because I share something doesn’t mean I agree with it.” Translation: I have no way of defending what I just shared and since I cannot go back in time to undue this embarrassment, it I’ll just act like I shared it to elicit debate and discussion among my friends. Never mind that nobody actually shares stuff that they disagree with without making it demonstrably clear that they do so. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 30-40%.

“You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine. Let’s agree to disagree”. Translation: I’m going to try and extricate myself from the embarrassment of sharing something that is factually incorrect by trying to eliminate the distinction between fact and opinion and since there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion then I can’t be disproven. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 50-60%.

“It’s my wall and I can post whatever I want in it. You don’t have to read it if you disagree”. Translation: I have no intellectually respectable way of crawling out of my own bullshit so I might as well just act outraged in order to paint you as being rude and aggressive. Since I don’t go to your wall and challenge your opinions because deep down I know you’ll be able to defend them, I expect the same courtesy on your part so I can erect my wall of stupidity where only people as brainwashed as myself are given shelter. Indignation level: high. Likelihood of being defriended: 80-100%.

Now if you think I’m unfair to lefties, rest assured that’s not the case. Conservatives are way worse in terms of their patent abhorrence for objectivity and facts. In fact, conservatives hate numbers more than Vladimir Putin hates shirts on a Siberian hunting trip. George W. Bush disdainfully called it “fuzzy math” because nobody likes it when numbers are used to disprove their neanderthalic opinions on global warming, minimum wages, the gender pay gap, and taxation. But at least conservatives are honest about being assholes, and they don’t have any intention of urging social change for a better future unless that future is a time warp to the good old days of Victorian poorhouses, Southern plantations, and gender relations that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like an episode of Girls. Of course they won’t say that because as explained earlier, we do live in a world where political correctness has consolidated itself to some degree into every day discourse, and appearing as a social retrograde carries risks insofar as you’re not wily enough to hide it through one of many carefully thought out excuses such as “it’s bad for business”, “it’s socialist”, or (my favorite) “it’s French”.

The problem with social media, and Facebook in particular, is that it’s a lose-lose environment for intellectual discourse. That’s because due to the myriad of cognitive biases that cloud our reason and our common sense, nobody ever admits to being wrong in public, and therefore any challenge to someone’s opinions – regardless of how baseless and outright asinine they might be – will be met with an even more entrenched perspective on the same issue, exactly the same case as if they had won the debate. No matter how many times you keep shooting them down, the kamikazes of stupidity keep flying, each one more laden with indignity than the previous one, each time reinforcing themselves more and more. Ask yourselves: have you ever caused someone to change their political opinions on Facebook? I doubt it. So then why do you keep posting an endless barrage of political memes and op-eds rather than take the time to explain at length your positions and open the floor for debate? The answer is wanktivism. You want to change the world, and win the hearts and minds of those around you without doing much effort beyond clicking that “share” button. And you don’t actually want to be challenged when you do. The three litmus tests of the wanktivist are quite simple. 1) Does this person frequently post original material besides shares? 2) Does he or she make an extensive comment on the things they are sharing in order to add value to what someone else is saying? 3) Do they have a blog or do they take some other direct action in favor of their causes such as working for an NGO or participating in protests? If any of these three is true, then this person is probably not a wanktivist, they’re simply very politically opinionated. The rest of you, the ones who reduce your core beliefs about the world to a JPEG image, are.

A similar and perhaps worse social media trait that is similar to wanktivism is virtue signaling. This concept, coined by journalist James Bartholomew of the British conservative magazine The Spectator, is defined as:

“The way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbors or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”

At least wanktivists (for the most part) appear well intentioned, they just simply don’t have the time to actually save the world or maybe they are even conscious of their own intellectual limitations to do so, hence they just share what others have thought up for them. But virtue signaling involves a subtle egotism and even, dare I say, malice. Those doing it don’t actually care about the issues at hand, it simply fits the personality (online or otherwise) that they want to project. The example above is geared towards the prototypical left-winger, but right-wingers are just as guilty of virtue signaling. They may rile against welfare to show how they believe in individual merit (forget for a moment that daddy paid their way through college, and daddy’s friends got them a job). They may complain about every union strike that made them 30 minutes late for work because they do not want to be identified with dreadlocked college students with Che Guevara posters in their dorm room (imagine them imagining themselves with slicked back hair, suspenders, and a big fat Cuban cigar). And of course, they will openly oppose any move towards gender equality or LGBT rights because, well, that would be so fucking gay, now wouldn’t it? No self-respecting alpha macho should give an inch to the feminazis lest it reveal the true size of their sexual inadequacies.

So if nobody will change their opinion regardless of how many facts to the contrary to array against them, why even bother? Does this mean that any form of online debate necessarily descends into sheer trolling? Because if you know – like I do – that arguing leads to nothing, then it’s done solely for the sake of arguing. Which is kind of the definition of trolling, albeit of a higher intellectual standard than the average 4Chan forum discussing Gamergate. But a part of me thinks that wanktivism or virtue signaling or simply every form of misinformation that people are guilty of on the internet should not go unresponded. Because as stupid and gullible as these people are, sadly there are even stupider and more gullible people out there but who just might be swayed by your argument more than theirs. And maybe after enough embarrassments and humiliations these people will think twice about posting so much bullshit, assuming of course, they don’t defriend you first. In which case, you won. Maybe just one out of a thousand online battles, but if one Facebook or Reddit soul could be saved from the fires of intellectual damnation, it was worth it. It was truly fucking worth it.

Fellow economists, we’re mostly to blame for this mess

Brexit, Trump. We built the world that let extremism thrive
This is on us

This is on us

Dear world, on behalf of economists I offer an apology. More than anything or anyone else, we are responsible for the clusterfuck that has been 2016.

Since the 1980s we said that inequality didn’t matter. That working and middle class people would be fine if their incomes didn’t worsen even as those in the top 10% (and especially 1%) saw their own income and wealth skyrocket to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. We did not see that people did not view their lot in absolute but in relative terms. We expected them to accept our logic, and acted dumbfounded when they didn’t express gratitude for the few tiny drops of prosperity that trickled down. We never imagined that they’d be rightfully pissed. Then we blamed them for living beyond their means to catch up with the Joneses, for being irresponsible for maxing their credit cards and taking out mortgages on houses they couldn’t afford. We never saw inequality as a psychological problem as much as an economic one.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Around that same time, we said that free markets were a panacea for growth. True, many countries did benefit heavily from globalization and certainly those countries that did not follow certain basic rules of market logic have fared terribly (Venezuela being a case in point). But globalization was not a panacea for the working and middle classes of the developed world. In our smugness, we said that the lost jobs either to China, Mexico, or technology were a necessary evil for continued productivity growth. We acted like it was their fault that they did not have the skills needed for the new economy, and that it was nobody’s responsibility to find them those skills either. In the dog eat dog world of neoliberal economics there are losers, and we could afford not to be those losers becomes economists are still not being outsourced to India or replaced by robots so we had little empathy for those who were less lucky. We applauded that unemployment fell and didn’t care that it was because people lost stable, salaried jobs and became self-employed with zero benefits. We cared more about the Dow Jones than the Gini index.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

We also assumed that everyone was rational. We even had a name for this species of humanity that always took decisions based on all available information, weighed all options, and picked the one that maximized their utility: homo economicus. Since we thought psychology, sociology, and all the other social sciences were inferior disciplines because they could not prove their hypotheses with econometrics, so we never bothered to accept their insights into human behavior. The result is that we thought markets were self-correcting, industries were self-regulated, and markets punished those who took decisions against the public interest. We saw the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com bubble and then did nothing when a bigger bubble, the subprime housing bubble, sprung up almost immediately after the first one popped.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

And finally, we assumed we had all the answers. We took the view of Noble laureate Robert Lucas that the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades”. This was just five years before the global financial crisis. We also poisoned the minds of politicians, who adopted our elegant yet simplistic neoclassical view of how the world worked. We flooded bookstores with titles like Freakonomics and The Economic Naturalist: How Economics Explains Everything to educate the masses on why we knew better. We were conceited, arrogant, and frankly, fucking annoying.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Then on June 23rd we wondered how the British could be so stupid as to want to leave the EU. On November 8th we were even more perplexed on how Americans could be dumb enough to vote for someone like Trump. From our little intellectual ivory towers, the framework in which we understood the world was perfectly fine. We didn’t get that we didn’t get it.

And now with the twin shocks of a global crisis in 2008-09 and a political crisis in 2016, our world has been shattered. Probably irremediably. But we don’t know it yet. This will still be blamed on people (deplorable as they may be), rather than the structures that conditioned them to be that way. And we’ll be scratching our heads into oblivion by failing to understand why a laid off steelworker from Pennsylvania or miner from Yorkshire won’t be voting with rapturous joy for the man or woman who promises free trade agreements, minority rights, and open immigration in place of the only thing that really matters to them: dignity.

(The author wishes to note that he has stood against everything that has been criticized in this piece since his days as an undergrad. And if you think he is a socialist, well, you’re pretty much the type of person he wrote this for)

How anti-political correctness is breeding a new style of asshole

The gateway drug for for smart people turning right-wing
Political correctness is not the root of all evil

Is political correctness really the root of all evil?

Are you a causehead? For those of you have not seen the cult classic 90s college film P.C.U. (stop reading this NOW and go see it), causeheads are people who “find a world-threatening issue and stick with it… for about a week”. This was probably the precursor to the internet-era’s social justice warrior; people who act like progressives purely for self-gratification and do so with the minimum possible effort. Admittedly, a causehead had to a bit more work than simply barraging their Facebook profile with anti-austerity or pro-LGBT (I am probably missing a few letters in this ever-expanding acronym) internet memes; they actually had to make signs with catchy slogans that had to be written by hand and do a modicum of research on the political issue du jour rather copying stuff from someone else’s wall. And yet, as annoying as causeheads and SJWs are one has to reluctantly admit that their hearts are in the right place even if their brains are stuck a few feet up their ass. And if their biggest sin is being too politically correct for their own good, well, one has to weigh their damage to society besides that of their polar opposite, the anti-political correctness asshole.

I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not particularly a fan of political correctness for political correctness’ sake (that bit should have been pretty damn obvious for anyone who knows me personally); if there is no apparent benefit deriving from an act of political correctness, or the harm avoided is disproportionately low compared to the inconvenience or disruption caused by it, then what’s the point? Sometimes, the PC terminology is even more questionable than the non-PC, for example the recent attempts to use of the term “people with different abilities” to replace “disabled” people. Yeah, I can see how disabled can be taken the wrong way. Just because someone lost some abilities doesn’t mean they’ve lost them all which is what the dis- suffix could potentially imply. But “people with different abilities” describes every single human being that exists. Last time I checked, not everyone who still had their two legs could run like Usain Bolt, who in turn cannot play the guitar as good as Slash, the latter who can’t write as good a horror novel as Stephen King. And if “people with different abilities” isn’t bad enough, let’s not forget the even more patronizing “handi-capable”. Whenever I hear the word “handi-capable” I imagine some cheerfully smug American middle aged idiot saying it with a high-pitched voice and an ear-to-ear smile, the same kind of idiot for whom the phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions was coined for. Continue reading