It was the summer of 2014. The online community was in the middle of the twitterstorm that had been raging since the Ferguson riots. I was enjoying beautiful vacation time in the south of France — waking late, drinking far too much of the produits du terroir, and generally having lovely times in the warm Languedocien sunshine.
Despite the noise and fury that had previously emanated from my @iammontag Twitter account about the amount of time that people spend online (and my short-lived #offline campaign), one of the first items on my vacation to-pack list is always my laptop. So when Ferguson kicked off I was able to keep up with the developments on the internet.
Really, Twitter was essential to that story. Through that medium I felt that I was party to the full range of opinion regarding the situation, and on the occasions when I turned to UK national sources (mainly to compare how they were covering the story) their reportage seemed one-dimensional and thin. In more florid moments I imagined that our ‘beloved’ auntie was taking its usual social conditioning stance perilously close to propaganda. But we’ll leave that thread there.
As details of the story unfolded I went through a range of emotions. Initially I was pissed off, then I found myself overcome by slack-jawed disbelief at the brazen brutality of the local law enforcement authorities, and then finally — my default modus operandi — I attempted to make sense of it all.
I also recall being heartened by the amount of righteous anger that was burning up the twittersphere.
Initially, that is.
For, after a day or two, my optimism quickly turned to disillusionment.
I think I ought to explain why.
At first I was encouraged by the support for the victim’s position. This solidarity originated from individuals of all races, nationalities and ages. However, it eventually dawned on me that this was perhaps not so much the start of a social movement grounded in the reality of, say, the suffragettes, or US civil rights, gay rights or the Jarrow marchers. I developed an unease about the ephemeral and lightweight nature of social media participation. There is something about the whole process which makes it easy to casually adopt a particular position. That is, until the next viral cat video comes along. Engagement always seems remote and less fulsome than in the offline domain.
Viral. A term which requires discussion. The twenty-first century use of this formerly medical adjective is laden with all the social constructions which my arguments rest upon.
Consider the following: for marketers and the would-be disruptive, ‘going viral’ is the holy grail. They speak in reverent tones of the Gangam Style video and dream of emulating that success.
Success? Gangam was a one-hit wonder and therefore makes the artist behind it (Psy) a musical sibling of Right Said Fred, The Floaters and more recently The Darkness. Is that really something to aspire to? I’d rather be The Rolling Stones.
In a similar vein, I have learned to view these grand electronic uprisings with suspicion. Recent experience has demonstrated that they peter out almost as quickly as they flare up and as with summer musical festivals beloved of our generation, they often leave no trace.
Such thoughts were weighing on my mind that August when, from one of my other Twitter personas, I posted the following:
“Social media might have helped the Ferguson folk just now, but taking the extended view is it really going to help with permanent change?”
“Or will it be: ‘that’s over, now let’s find something new to get interested in’. Maybe a new filter could be added to Manufacturing Consent — lack of focus?”
[some words changed to protect my real identity :-)]
I was a little afraid of a backlash from my left-wing, righteous friends, but nothing materialised. They may have been far too busy being indignant somewhere else, or perhaps they simply don’t read my tweets.
Needless to say Ferguson ended badly when viewed from the perspective of the victim’s family. The policeman who killed the young man was not indicted. Note that by ascribing negativity to this outcome, I’m not making any presumptions about the guilt or otherwise of this cop, I’m simply suggesting that for the sake of justice, the lack of a legal hearing in which all the facts could be fully examined is a disappointment. Not least, I imagine, to the family, friends and supporters of the dead man.
Those close to the victim will remain angry and confused, but careful observers will have noticed that the support of the twitterati appears to have evaporated into cyberspace. I’m sure if prompted, these social media supporters will still have strong words about the situation, but chances are concrete action will be glaringly absent.
This all brings me back to my philosophie du jour. Or as you may have guessed from the title, existentialism. That is, existentialism as outlined by Jean Paul-Sartre, Merleau Ponty, Albert Camus and others. To ingénues it may appear dusty and irrelevant, something to only be studied, or perhaps discussed by A-level and university students. Many will assume it has little practical relevance to black youth in Missouri or social media users in century twenty one.
Perhaps. But I think otherwise.
Allow me to elaborate. But first, for those ingénues, a little summary.
Existentialism is frequently associated with post-war Paris. The Paris of cafes on the rive gauche, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir. It conjures up artsy people listening to jazz, smoking Gauloises cigarettes and passionately discussing la vie. Existentialism also has an afterlife in the public imagination in the shape of the student demonstrations and riots in Paris in the late 1960s; the flowering of the seed planted by the previous generation twenty years earlier.
Existentialism as a term is indeed twentieth century, but its roots can be traced back to two nineteenth century giants of philosophy: Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Kierkegaard once wrote that individuals had forgotten what it was to really exist; to live like your actions meant something. He argued that most of us are content to hide in the anonymity of the crowd and to adopt uncontroversial personas which allow one to live a fairly comfortable — if perhaps cowardly — life. The opposite — and existential ideal — was to truly exist, to be authentic to one’s own self, regardless of the feathers ruffled.
Shakespeare suggested something similar:
“To thine own self be true and thou canst then be false to any man”
Around a century after Kierkegaard, Sartre and others took this idea on, and existentialism was born.
Here are the five main themes of existentialism (Flynn, 2006):
- What you are is the result of your choices and not the reverse
- It’s about time. The present, future and past are all different, in both meaning and value. In that respect time is not a linear quantitative measure.
- Existentialism is centred on the human individual, and their pursuit of meaning and identity in a superficial mass society
- Freedom. See theme one. The freedom to choose is key and allows us to continually direct and change the direction in which our lives are heading
- The ethical is important. We should use our freedom to evaluate the authenticity of our lives and our society
Let’s bring it back to that twitterstorm in the summer of 2014.
All those folk who hashtagged their rage via #blacklivesmatter and similar, and who are now LOLing at cat videos, may have failed to make an important choice in respect of item number one in the list above. They (we) are probably lovely individuals who harbour ambitions of becoming better people. They seek to realise their (our) inner ideal — who they (we) really want to be. That ideal self may be a person who makes a stand, and who takes concrete action to change the world for the better. Indeed their hashtagging may have been a demonstration of that underlying desire.
In addition to this piece I’m also writing another essay at this moment in time. In it I describe the other — in actual fact greater — philosophical influence on my life and its relationship to existentialism. One of the key tenets of this other philosophy is that every single action — thought, word, deed — moulds your character into the person you will become tomorrow. In existentialism I see the same idea.
Thus the hashtaggers will find it difficult to become their ideal selves unless they take this point seriously. By choosing the next cat video over considered and concrete action in relation to injustice, their personality slides a little further towards the shallow, superficial, consumerist norm prevalent in our society, and away from their ethical ideal. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit:
“They’re not bad, it’s just the sum of their choices that are making them that way”
Sartre would have described this as living in what he called “bad faith”. It is a refusal to choose the authentic you. He uses the metaphor of a boat sailing into port to make his point. The boat is heading to the port, and as is the way of harbours there are obstacles to be avoided. The captain of the boat is required to make various concrete choices and to manoeuvre the boat so that it can successfully dock. At the correct point in time she will be variously required to speed up, slow down, turn left, right and so on. Bad faith is likened to this captain refusing to choose to take any action. it is a situation in which she assumes the role of passenger or of spectator; watching passively from the helm as the boat speeds towards the inevitable destiny of the concrete harbourside.
If we examine our online behaviour in the context of the important aspects of our lives and our societies, we — I believe — can be likened to that captain. Except, to complete the simile, we are shouting out hashtags indicating our understanding that the boat needs to alter course. We drift — or ‘peck’ at the information in our stream — refusing to take the specific real-world action that will define us, and the world around us.
Existentialism also has it that the past is only what we were. It is that trace in the sand which reveals the unique course that we have followed to the present point. It is not, as is often assumed in our era of probability and linear statistical models, necessarily predictive of the future. In other words, we are not slaves to a formula; to a deterministic mathematical rule. Existentialism outlines the idea that the path that you create from this moment on is determined by the choices that you make in the now and in the future.
For example, a man may be ashamed of his weight, the result of serial over-eating for the past ten years. His ideal self is one in which he is in control of his eating, and where he stands athletic, elegant and well-dressed. Existentialism would have it that by the choices he makes in each moment (now and in the future), he can become this ideal self. It is a philosophy of freedom and choice. Or in the case of our would-be dieter, making the free decision of whether to overeat or not, in every snack-attack moment of every day.
To return to our online culture, we somehow seem to have become overwhelmed by the on-screen stimuli and have forgotten this valuable knowledge. The dieter may look at pictures of slim people all day. He may hashtag #slim on a regular basis. None of this will make him slim. We somehow have become passive and unthinking consumers of the stream of entries on our feeds. Existentialism is useful in the age of social media because it reminds us that we are not passive consumers. We can make the future — not through reactive hashtags but through concrete positive action. It is within our power to live lives that others watch and tweet about!
It may, of course, be argued that hashtagging is also a choice — whether to send the tweet (or not), and the selection of position that one takes in relation to the issue at hand. It is indeed true, that action is comprised of thoughts, physical actions and words. Even granting this however, mere hashtagging remains comparable to the captain on the doomed boat rather than to the authentic existentialist life. The captain was fully aware that the boat needed to be manouvered; she might have even voiced this knowledge (“I really need to turn this boat!”). In the end, authenticity is about the totality of action which in her case she failed to take.
Goethe suggested something similar:
“Die tat ist alles; nichts der Ruhm” (“The deed is all, fame is nothing”)
Can we update this for the monde electronique?:
“Die tat ist alles; nichts der Hashtag”
The thought is not enough. The word is not enough. The actions are key.
Of the five existentialist themes listed earlier, two have not been directly addressed. They are (i) the human centric, and (ii) the ethical aspects to this philosophy. The human focus should be clear in everything I’ve written above. It’s a good thing — any proposed way of life which has the person at its core should be appealing to all readers of this essay (excepting of course the web bots which no doubt will crawl these pages, but whether they are ‘reading’ or not is a matter for another debate). I am also of course making the assumption here that in the 21st century, citizens continue to value their humanity. This appears self-evident, but sometimes in this age of targeting and systems, I’m not so sure. Indeed what precisely is humanity? I define it as that emotional and spiritual cloud which reductive materialism has not quite managed to pin down in these few centuries of trying.
Existentialism has no truck with the human determinism of the reductives (note however that it is not anti-science), the philosophy simply recognises homo sapiens as living, emotive organisms. It understands that lived life is subjective, in other words that one feels.
To expand on this point, consider meaningful human experiences; joy, and love; feelings of oneness associated with family friends or the world at large; laughter, song, pain and sorrow. Reductive materialists are no doubt seeking formulae for all of this — causes and effects; to remove the magic, and to reduce all life to machinery. This is a worldview which formulates existence as processes, ‘black boxes’’ to be fed inputs and which will produce outputs. In this conception even music, for example, is described as a series of frequencies plotted over time. The sense of being which this art invokes is lost.
It is the same systemic ontology which lies behind the serving of targeted content on social media feeds, and the use of predictive analytics to structure our lives to fit the capitalist-consumerist model that underpins the larger part of 21st century western society. In this mode of living, humanity is devalued — as individuals we are imbued with ever decreasing existential choice and freedom. Existentialism therefore, promotes a useful antidote to this. It proposes that we resist living our lives reacting to stimuli, and be free, to choose positively and to exist.
The ethical element of existentialism opens up a portal into a huge realm of ideas which I do not have the space or inclination to explore in this particular essay. Suffice to say that the majority of us will be seeking to live ethically — in which ever way our inclination takes us (duty, religion, philosophy, other). Rather than enter into this complex topic, invoking the work of other serious thinkers such as Kant and Aristotle and Hume, it is probably best to leave this theme here (for this essay at least!)
Finally, there is a useful recent example that can help us to examine these existential themes in respect of social media. The #jesuischarlie twitterstorm that blew up after the killing of journalists, police officers and others in a political/religious attack in France was global. Many, including myself, were moved to show solidarity with the slain journalists by adopting this hashtag. In the end I refrained, realising that it was an extremely complicated situation conflating freedom of speech and various other issues. After consideration, I tweeted #jesuishuman in an attempt to show solidarity with all the brutalised, murdered and oppressed people around the world.
It is worth noting that despite the somewhat self-justificatory nature of the paragraph above, there was nothing particularly heroric about my actions. Indeed from an existential perspective it is of little significance. As stated earlier, the totality of word, action and thought creates the new tomorrow, therefore #jesuishuman is not enough. I need to act with humanity and to treat others with the humanity that I boasted about in my hashtag.
Kierkegaard discussed this point in detail in his books. Writing in the 19th century he was dismayed by Christians who adopted the social — and surface — aspects of their faith. He commented upon the fact that they did all the right things, went to church on a Sunday and observed the sabbath. However in their actions, in the way the treated others, they were as far removed from the religious ideals as the ones whom they would disparagingly brand heathens. Indeed he had a point. During the period in which he was writing, church leaders in the United States were happily owning African slaves. Do unto others, etc.
Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, I saw a cartoon (which I’ve desperately been searching for since) which was the inspiration for this piece. It showed a woman being attacked in a street. The speech bubble above her read “help”. Next to her in the frame was a many-windowed house. In each window an individual was depicted, watching the scene. Each of these individuals held a placard upon which was written a different hashtag: #jesuischarlie, #illridewithyou #blacklivesmatter.
Flynn, T. R. (2006). Existentialism: A very short introduction. OUP: Oxford.