Every day brings another in a barrage of pieces critiquing the (mostly online) left-wing social activist culture. Things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, call outs are in for heavy attack.
The main line of attack is to source them in some way as the inevitable result of flaws in the various theories of the left wingers themselves. Culprits are brought forward: for one it’s intersectional feminism, for another Cultural Marxism, for yet another it’s postmodernism writ large. Charges of victim mentalities get bandied about. It all gets heated very quickly. A few of these critiques I think are very articulate. Others make a good point or two here or there but then head off into weird or really regressive territory. Others basically sound (to me) like some old timer rolling their eyes and shaking their fists at kids these days.
One line of thought that I think has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves in this conversation involves the idea of the traumatizing effects of rapid technological change. In this case I’m especially thinking of the change brought by the mass proliferation of social media--a line of thought derives from Marshall McLuhan. (For the most up to date version of this argument see John David Ebert’s indispensable text The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake.)
McLuhan famously argued that electronic media is the extension of the human nervous system into space. For McLuhan one of the key results of this extension is the breakdown of what he called The Gutenberg Galaxy—that is a world built out of printed linear text. The Gutenberg Galaxy is a world that held from roughly 1500 through to the end of Second War World or so. Within that galaxy came an entire worldview and form of consciousness built primarily out of linear printed text.
And that linear text-based consciousness for McLuhan is what is breaking down by the rapid profusion of non-linear non-print technological media: first radio, then television, and now obviously the internet. In this breakdown McLuhan predicted the rise of what he called an acoustic society because, like sound, media would be hitting us from all directions in a circular, 360 degree pattern. On this point McLuhan was utterly prophetic. We now live in a world where media bombard us on all sides from all directions all day long.
McLuhan however I think was a bit (at times) naive or rather overly optimistic as to how acoustic culture would turn out. Admittedly that’s an arguable point and it’s not my primary focus here anyway. McLuhan’s notion of the global village is perhaps best seen as quite ambivalent in this regard. Does a global village evoke images of sitting around a fire telling stories together? Or does it evoke images of constant raids, low-level endemic warfare, and the perpetual insecurity of tribal life?
Which does social media seem more like to you? These days it feels on the whole much more of the raids, conquests, low grade endemic warfare I must admit.
However we think about that question, McLuhan was absolutely right that electronic media is an extension of the human nervous system. Any talk of nervous systems however immediately raises the specter of trauma since trauma is defined as a dysregulated nervous system. Dysregulated simply means any experience(s) that is overwhelming. Dysreulgation occurs due to an experience that is simply “too fast” for the human nervous system to comprehend and metabolize.
So if we combine McLuhan with trauma studies we get the following equation:
Electronic Media = Human Nervous System Extended
Trauma = Dysregulated Nervous System
Social Media/The Internet = the social embodiment of the global traumatized nervous system of humanity.
In other words Facebook and Twitter is the outward embodiment of the human nervous system. All the scenarios we see playing out online—cyberbulling, cyberstalking, constant flame wars, extreme trolling, doxxing, shadow banning—these are outer expression of the human nervous system electronically disseminated.
The internet is said by some to be a global brain. Or more accurately in McLuhan's language, the internet is the extension of the global human nervous system. I contend that social media reflects the reality that our collective human nervous system is profoundly traumatized at its core.
Here John David Ebert makes a crucial addition. It’s not simply that social media are revealing in real time the all pervasive scope and depth of trauma (though they are doing that). His point is that these technologies are themselves traumatizating. They are in fact accelerating the pace of overwhelm which is creating further destabilization. The social media landscape then reveals—like a kind of social PTSD—the effects of such traumatization.
Which brings us back to things like safe spaces, trigger warnings, call out culture, and the rest.
Seen in this light of a McLuhan meets Trauma frame of reference, these practices could be charitably interpreted as attempts to deal with that traumatized reality. They are actually picking up on something very real. Namely a growing awareness of the pervasive nature of trauma AND the accelerating and destabilizing effects of social media. (Actually in the worst case, those two become a self-reinforcing negative cycle.)
On the other hand I think this frame also reveals how flawed and problematic all these practices are. This investigation reveals why these practices are so destructive but not necessarily for the reasons that they are typically being criticized for.
Because there’s really only three options when it comes to trauma:
- Internalize the pain.
In this model a person swallows the poison. They do so out of a desire not to inflict pain on others. In internet social activism world this would be things like problematic “white liberal guilt”, self-flagellation, and people silencing themselves for fear of retribution, etc.
2. Externalize the pain
The opposite. Relieving the overwhelm, pain, terror, and horror in one’s own being by dropping it on another.
In internet social activism this is the endless rounds of moral/political puritanism growing on the left (it’s always existed on the right). People are never holy enough. Never clean enough. One false move and they are liable to get blasted by others. Ostracism, vitriolic attacks over differences of views and in particular personalizing those attacks, and shaming are all forms of externalizing trauma.
(Sidenote: Another hallmark of dysregulated, dissociative consciousness in its more extreme forms is de-realization. Here in social media world the de-realization means people are not really people but “online doubles”, hyperreal avatars, not flesh and blood humans which makes it much easier to treat each other so cruelly.)
3. Transform the pain
Neither option 1 internalization nor option 2 externalization actually deals with the pain and the poison of trauma. It never transmutes it. Option 3 is most definitely NOT what I see happening in social media. I’m speaking broadly of course, individual exceptions granted.
The logic there goes this like. Given Ebert’s insight into the accelerating and destabilizing and intrinsically overwhelming speed & intensity of these new technologies AND given that trauma is overwhelm in the nervous system AND given that electronic media is the social embodiment of our nervous system (a la McLuhan) THEN I really wonder if option #3 is even possible in social media space.
In other words, is it even possible within social media space itself to heal individually and collectively our trauma? Or is it bound to only further intensify and create greater destabilization psychically?
My answer is probably it isn’t. Or at the very least it is ultra difficult and would require at bare minimum a frame of reference like this to cultivate an entirely different and counter-cultural disposition to the dysregulated and dysregulating practices of online discourse as a whole—left wing social activism being only branch growing out of that trunk (the alt-right would be another.)
The FB newsfeed is maybe the perfect (as in perfectly awful) version of what I’m trying to describe here. There is nowhere to land. There is no ground. There’s just falling and disorientation. Grounding and being able to contain one’s experience, these are crucial to healing overwhelming dysregulating experience (aka trauma). Given that electronic media, especially social media, is the human nervous system collectively embodied, then any entrance into a social media is a direct, visceral contact with the collective traumatic nature of the human nervous system as a whole. Worse, the technologies give no way to slow down (remember these technologies accelerate!), contain, ground, steady, and be able to take in small sizes bites of this experience (in trauma jargon that’s called titration).
As stated it’s not just that social media is an empty channel for dumping the trauma “into”. Social media itself is accelerating and revving us up into deficient and under-resourced ways of being. The sense of endlessly falling, of being disoriented is a classic symptom of traumatic consciousness.
At this point there’s a real chicken and egg. Is it that the traumatic consciousness created the FB newsfeed, a platform that perfectly mirrors such dysregulated consciousness or is it that the technology platform has induced this consciousness in us? Whatever the case at this point they are fueling each other in a terrible downward spiral.