All Grasshoppers, No Ants

It would be convenient to think that Gawker Media‘s flaming car-wreck failure at the end of last week was the kind of mistake of individual judgment that can be fixed by a few resignations, a few pledges to do better, a few new rules or procedures.

Or to think that the problem is just Gawker, its history and culture as an online publication. There’s something to that: Gawker writers and editors have often cultivated a particularly noxious mix of preening self-righteousness, inconsistent to nonexistent quality control, a lack of interest in independent research and verification, motiveless cruelty and gutless double-standards in the face of criticism. All of which were on display over the weekend in the tweets of Gawker writers, in the appallingly tone-deaf decision by the writing staff to make their only statement a defense of their union rights against a decision by senior managers to pull the offending article, and in the decision to bury thousands of critical comments by readers and feature a miniscule number of friendly or neutral comments.

Gawker’s writers and editors, and for that matter all of Gawker Media, are only an extreme example of a general problem that is simultaneously particular to social media and widespread through the zeitgeist of our contemporary moment. It’s a problem that appears in protests, in tweets and blogs, in political campaigns right and left, in performances and press conferences, in corporate start-ups and tiny non-profits.

All of that, all of our new world with such people in it, crackles with so much beautiful energy and invention, with the glitter of things once thought impossible and things we never knew could be. Every day makes us witness to some new truth about how life is lived by people all around the world–intimate, delicate truths full of heartbreaking wonder; terrible, blasphemous truths about evils known and unsuspected; furious truths about our failures and blindness. More voices, more possibilities, more genres and forms and styles. Even at Gawker! They’ve often published interesting writing, helped to circulate and empower passionate calls to action, and intelligently curated our viral attention.

So what is the problem? I’m tempted to call it nihilism, but that’s too self-conscious and too philosophically coherent a label. I’m tempted to call it anarchism, but then I might rather approve rather than criticize. I might call it rugged individualism, or quote Aleister Crowley about the whole of the law being do as thou wilt. And again I might rather approve than criticize.

It’s not any of that, because across the whole kaleidoscopic expanse of this tumbling moment in time, there’s not enough of any of that. I wish we had more free spirits and gonzo originals calling it like they see it, I wish we had more raging people who just want the whole corrupt mess to fall down, I wish we had more people who just want to tend their own gardens as they will and leave the rest to people who care.

What we have instead–Gawker will do as a particularly stomach-churning example, but there are so many more–is a great many people who in various contexts know how to bid for our collective attention and even how to hold it for the moments where it turns their way, but not what to do with it. Not even to want to do anything with it. What we have is an inability to build and make, or to defend what we’ve already built and made.

What we have is a reflexive attachment to arguing always from the margins, as if a proclamation of marginality is an argument, and as if that argument entitles its author to as much attention as they can claim but never to any responsibility for doing anything with that attention.

What we have is contempt for anybody trying to keep institutions running, anybody trying to defend what’s already been achieved or to maintain a steady course towards the farther horizons of a long-term future. What we have is a notion that anyone responsible for any institution or group is “powerful” and therefore always contemptible. Hence not wanting to build things or be responsible. Everyone wants to grab the steering wheel for a moment or two but no one wants to drive anywhere or look at a map, just to make vroom-vroom noises and honk the horn.

Everyone’s sure that speech acts and cultural work have power but no one wants to use power in a sustained way to create and make, because to have power persistently, in even a small measure, is to surrender the ability to shine a virtuous light on one’s own perfected exclusion from power.

Gawker writers want to hold other writers and speakers accountable for bad writing and unethical conduct. They want to scorn Reddit for its inability to hold its community to higher standards. But they don’t want to build a system for good writing, they don’t want to articulate a code of ethical conduct, they don’t want to invest their own time and care to cultivate a better community. They don’t want to be institutions. They want to sit inside a kind of panopticon that has crudely painted over its entrance, “Marginality Clubhouse”, a place from which they can always hold others accountable and never be seen themselves. Gawker writers want to always be “punching up”, mostly so they don’t have to admit what they really want is simply to punch. To hurt someone is a great way to get attention. If there’s no bleeder to lead, then make someone bleed.

It’s not just them. Did you get caught doing something wrong in the last five years? What do you do? You get up and do what Gawker Media writer Natasha Vargas-Cooper has done several times, doing it once again this weekend in a tweet: whomever you wronged deserved it anyway, you’re sorry if someone else is flawed enough to take offense, and by the way, you’re a victim or marginalized and not someone speaking from an institution or defending a profession. Tea Party members and GamerGate posters do the same thing: both of their discursive cultures are full of proclamations of marginality and persecution. The buck stops somewhere else. You don’t make or build, you don’t have hard responsibilities of your own.

You think people who do make and build and defend what’s made and built are good for one thing: bleeding when you hit them and getting you attention when you do it. They’re easy to hit because they have to stand still at the site of their making.

This could be simply a complaint about individuals failing to accept responsibility for power–even with small power comes small responsibility. But it’s more than that. In many cases, this relentless repositioning to virtuous marginality for the sake of rhetorical and argumentative advantage creates a dangerous kind of consciousness or self-perception that puts every political and social victory, small and large, at risk. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage decision, a lot of the progressive conversation I saw across social media held a celebratory or thankful tone for only a short time. Then in some cases it moved on productively to the next work that needs doing with that same kind of legal and political power, to more building. But in other cases, it reset to marginality, to looking for the next outrage to spark a ten-minute Twitter frenzy about an injustice, always trying to find a way back to a virtuous outside untainted by power or responsibility, always without any specific share in or responsibility for what’s wrong in the world. If that’s acknowledged, it’s not in terms of specific things or actions that could be done right or wrong, better or worse, just in generalized and abstract invocations of “privilege” or “complicity”, of the ubiquity of sin in an always-fallen world.

On some things, we are now the center, and we have to defend what’s good in the world we have knowing that we are there in the middle of things, in that position and no other. To assume responsibility for what we value and what we do and to ensure that the benefits of what we make are shared. To invite as many under our roof as can fit and then invite some more after that. To build better and build more.

What is happening across the whole span of our zeitgeist is that we’ve lost the ability to make anything like a foundational argument that binds its maker as surely as it does others. And yet many of us want to retain the firm footing that foundations give in order to claim moral and political authority.

This is why I say nihilism would be better: at least the nihilist has jumped off into empty space to see what can be found when you no longer want to keep the ground beneath your feet. At least the anarchist is sure nothing of worth can be built on the foundations we have. At least the free spirit is dancing lightly across the floor.

So Gawker wants everyone else to have ethics, but couldn’t describe for a moment what its own ethical obligations are and why they should be so. Gawker hates the lack of compassion shown by others, but not because it has anything like a consistent view about why cruelty is wrong. Gawker thinks stories should be accurate, unless they have to do the heavy lifting to make them so.

They are in this pattern of desires typical, and it’s not a simple matter of hypocrisy. It is more a case of the relentless a la carte -ification of our lives, that we speak and demand and act based on felt commitments and beliefs that have the half-life of an element created in a particle accelerator, blooming into full life and falling apart seconds later.

To stand still for longer is to assume responsibility for power (small or large), to risk that someone will ask you to help defend the castle or raise the barn. That you might have to live and work slowly for a goal that may be for the benefit of others in the future, or for some thing that is bigger than any human being to flourish. To be bound to some ethic or code, to sometimes stand against your own desires or preferences.

Sometimes to not punch but instead to hold still while someone punches you, knowing that you’re surrounded by people who will buoy you up and heal your wounds and stand with you to hold the line, because you were there for them yesterday and you will be there with them tomorrow.

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8 Responses to All Grasshoppers, No Ants

  1. Again, brilliant. Thank you, Timothy.

  2. One more example of “punching up” which turned out to just be punching.

    Thanks for writing this– it solidified the idea that it’s very convenient to define oneself as having so little power as to have no responsibility.

    I think part of what’s going on is a long revolt against the idea that people are stuck with unchosen responsibilities that require not caring about what they want. So, eventually you get people saying “I want what I want! Back off!”

    Unfortunately, reversing a bad idea doesn’t necessarily get you a good idea.

  3. Gardner says:

    Poignantly analyzed and expressed.

    The real gut-punch for me is that substituting “higher education” or “the academy” or (most painful of all) “university faculty” for “Gawker” yields much the same results. When that burns down, I fear a cold long dark night ahead. I’m not optimistic about our chances for rebuilding. But I am optimistic–I find I must be–about education.


  4. No one says:

    Tim–long time reader, first time commenter. God, completely agree with this. I wonder if you’ve read Hugh Heclo’s ‘thinking institutionally’? He’s making a similar point: that to argue for anything long term, anything institutional, is increasingly difficult; and so he tries to point out, as you say, that being (self-)bound by institutions is what gives our lives meaning.

  5. David says:

    great thoughts. (thanks for writing!!)

    I’ve never looked at Gawker, because of their close link to the celebrity gossip culture, which holds nothing for me. But you are very much on to something with this commonality among perceived “marginal” or “outsider” status being somehow touted as strength or purity (Gawker, Reddit, Tea Party, etc), but without willingness to build or create or assume responsibility.

    Is it unique to the internet?

    Not the perception of marginality bringing a sense of self-righteous outsiderdom–that’s old–but rather, that this self-righteous outsiderdom can be so patently fake, because millions of people unite behind it (creating a de facto center of power)?

    The only pre-internet “movement” or organization that comes to mind for me that is perpetually restless, cultivates an unending sense of persecution, an identity of outsiderdom, and unwillingness to compromise, and engages in a behind-the-scenes-manipulation-of-the-rules despite public protestations of ongoing marginality, an consistently refuses to assume responsibility,
    is fascism.

    So is the internet inherently fascist?

  6. CJS says:

    This bears a resemblance to the progressive axis in Arnold Kling’s 3 axes model of political discourse. Here’s a post on it: Not by Kling, though; curiously, I can’t find a blog post by him explaining it. The short version is that progressives speak along an “oppressor-oppressed” axis, where the ultimate victory is showing one party is being oppressed by another. I don’t particularly like or agree with that formulation of progressivism, but it does have a resemblance to the phenomenon you’re describing.

  7. CG says:

    Much of what you’re talking about has to do with the fact that people born after 1980 have yet to be “bought in” by American institutions. We’re forced to adjunct, to do temp work, to hold everything at a distance, to expect everything to be temporary – and thus never be integrated into an institution or substantially identify what’s valuable in an institution’s interests.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. I think that’s completely right. And the institutional elites of a previous generation simply don’t see that this is carving the living heart out of the society they claim to be stewards of.

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