*Note: Posted with permission from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion and Ethics, which posted originally at: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/kierkegaard-versus-the-internet/10427724
By Patrick Stokes
The story is, by now, a familiar one: some person ― whether a celebrity or a relative unknown ― says something racist, misogynistic, or just plain stupid online. We see it, we’re angry, we tell them so. Within hours, they’ve received thousands of replies, ranging from the politely critical to the clearly abusive. The perpetrator then either lashes out defiantly, issues an apology (whether sincere or not) or simply withdraws from the social media space altogether. This is what’s called a “pile-on.”
Now, you might be one of those people who thinks the “victim” of a pile-on had it coming. Speaking and writing are, after all, actions, and actions have consequences; free speech doesn’t mean freedom from being called out. Alternatively, you might be in the camp that finds online outrage insincere and public condemnation mere “virtue signalling” (a term that should be retired immediately, but that’s a story for another time). Or you might just think the reaction is, even if justified, out of proportion.
Regardless of the view you take here, “how much is too much?” at some point becomes an unavoidable question. Most of us would certainly draw the line somewhere well before death threats, doxxing, swatting and the like. But where, exactly?
There has been considerable, and productive, discussion about the “pile-on” and whether it achieves anything. Some argue the pile-on is fundamentally illiberal and shuts down debate. British journalist Jon Ronson wrote a book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, offering sympathetic accounts of those who found themselves subject to a pile-on in a range of contexts. But Ronson’s book has also been criticised for being blind to important distinctions in the power dynamics involved in the cases he considers.
Others, such as Maeve Marsden, argue that the pile-on can have an essential corrective function, allowing voices normally unheard to fight back against norms that suppress them. As Katie McDonagh puts it, “The Internet may be a clumsy equalizer in need of some humanity, but it is also breaking down the silos of privilege … accountability to others is not the enemy here.” Still others, such as the Australian journalist Ruby Hamad, have argued that the pile-on can hamper the real work of effecting social change by substituting online anger for genuine action.
Yet the clumsiness itself is still something we have to grapple with, and that means considering how message and medium interact. The pile-on is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it does seem the affordances of the digital era make them dramatically bigger and certainly faster. Any analysis of the ethics of the pile-on and similar issues therefore has to take into account not just the social and political dynamics, but also the communicative mechanics of social media itself.
For this task, one surprising source where we can look for insight is the work of a philosopher who personally experienced a life-changing pile-on ― nearly two centuries ago. Søren Kierkegaard died in 1855, at just 42. Yet in his short life he learned more about the power of emerging forms of media, and its costs, than most of us, thankfully, ever will.
The Corsair affair
Polling generally shows people today have a fairly low ― or rather, unfairly low ― opinion of journalists. But Kierkegaard’s view of the media is positively Trumpian, decrying it as “the most wretched, the most contemptible of all tyrannies” and “the evil principle in the modern world.” Journalists themselves don’t fare any better: “If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I would not despair of her. I would hope for salvation. But if I had a son who became a journalist and remained one for five years, him I should give up.” It makes Trump’s “enemies of the people” rhetoric about the press look positively amateurish, if all the more terrifying for that.
There is, needless to say, a story behind this animosity. In 1846 Kierkegaard had perhaps foolishly picked a fight with The Corsair, a satirical tabloid which presented itself as skewering the upper classes on behalf of the people, but which was really a vehicle for middle-class resentments and which punched down as often as up. The Corsair returned fire in brutal fashion. For months, the paper’s writers and cartoonists mocked Kierkegaard mercilessly: poking fun at his self-importance, his broken engagement, his trouser cuffs, his voice, even his curved spine.
For Kierkegaard, whose daily routine involved long walks through the streets of Copenhagen, striking up conversations as he went, the results were devastating. Children began to taunt him in the street, and he no longer felt he could interact with people in the same way. In a small city, he’d become a laughing stock. In one sense, Kierkegaard ultimately won: within the year The Corsair had folded and both its editor, Meyer Goldschmitt, and secret backer, P.L. Møller, had left Denmark, the latter never to return. Both are now otherwise forgotten, while Kierkegaard is read in dozens of languages every day. But the affair clearly left a bruise on what was left of Kierkegaard’s life.
Thus far, this looks like one familiar sort of story: the story of what we now call “legacy media” going after a public figure in a campaign to destroy them. Yet Kierkegaard’s critique goes deeper than mere pique, and sounds a warning about forms of media he himself could not have imagined.
In a journal entry, Kierkegaard offers a startlingly prescient thought-experiment:
Suppose someone invented an instrument, a convenient little talking tube which could be heard over the whole land ― I wonder if the police would not forbid it, fearing that the whole country would become mentally deranged if it were used. In the same way, to be sure, guns are prohibited.
Today, of course, we have just such a talking tube. With social media, anyone can broadcast their thoughts, however banal, ill-informed, or hateful, to the world at large at effectively negligible cost. Not all voices are equally heard, of course. But with the shift from few-to-many broadcasting to many-to-many networking, each of us has a greater ability to send our thoughts into the world than ever before.
Yet Kierkegaard’s point is that the talking tube had already come into existence in his own era, in the form of newspapers. And a big part of the problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that the media ― his and ours ― violates the face-to-face scale on which human communication is meant to take place. “God,” Kierkegaard insists, “really intended that a person should speak individually with his neighbour and at most with several neighbours.” The press, by contrast, is just “a much too gigantic means of communication.” Very few people are so gifted as to be able to use a mechanism like the press successfully to communicate to vastly more people at once. Instead, the press invariably gives “bunglers” access to this “disproportionate” medium. So we end up with a form of communication that talks to too many people at once about topics not worth that sort of amplification ― with disastrous results for people caught in the middle:
Attention must be directed to the disproportion in the medium of communication itself. For example, by telling in print of a young girl (giving the full name ― and this telling is, of course, the truth) that she has bought a new dress (and this is assumed to be true), and by repeating this a few times, the girl can be made miserable for her whole life. And one single person can bring this about in five minutes, and why? Because the press (the daily press) is a disproportionate medium of communication.
Compare this example to the contemporary media’s obsession with trivial details of celebrity lives, or random stories that are entertaining but superficial ― and now think about Instagram.
Accordingly, Kierkegaard says, the press “is evil simply and solely through its power of circulation” as this gives it a disproportion leading to “a kind of insanity which tends to make society into a madhouse, just as crisscrossing a square mile area with trains would be crazy and, far from benefiting, would confuse everything.” Even publishing an innocuous story about a girl buying a dress “would amount to an attempted assassination of the young girl which could be the death of her or drive her out of her mind” ― an example which has a particular resonance with the ways in which social media can visit a sudden and destructive sort of fame or notoriety on people, in ways that are often undeserved and out of proportion to the topic. Sometimes this is simply absurd, as when a meme goes viral and sweeps a real person up with it, but other times it can involve a profoundly destructive backlash that goes well beyond the original issue.
Even when criticism is deserved, the sheer scale of criticism, from thousands of people at once, can overwhelm communication ― and that’s before we get to genuinely sinister or even criminal forms of online harassment (including the gendered forms that women deal with every day online). Kierkegaard’s lesson for us here is that the sheer size of the medium itself, even regardless of the content, can itself pose a problem that we somehow have to grapple with.
Kierkegaard also condemns the anonymity of the newspapers of his time. That may well seem to chime with contemporary worries over anonymity as a factor in encouraging online abuse. To that we might reply that people have important reasons to keep their identities hidden online, from protecting their employment to the real risk of ostracism or violence. (Likewise, writers had good reason to keep their heads down in Kierkegaard’s own time: Corsair editor, Goldschmitt, was imprisoned six times, four days at a time, for falling afoul of the government censors.) If we want people to feel free to speak in the public square, we’re going to have to accept not all will be using their real names.
But the anonymity that Kierkegaard complains about is not at all a matter of whether someone uses their legal name, but whether communication is suffused with a sense of the communicator. Communication is fundamentally and properly between persons, but the anonymity of the press is both symptom of and aggravates a situation in which communication has become impersonal. Someone can be anonymous in this way, even when using their real name. Their speech lacks what Kierkegaard elsewhere calls “earnestness” or “seriousness” (alvor) ― not simply tone, but really occupying and owning what we say and do. You can live a whole life anonymously in that way, even the most intimate parts:
In Germany there are even handbooks for lovers; so it will probably end with lovers being able to sit and speak anonymously to each other. There are handbooks on everything, and generally speaking education soon will consist of knowing letter-perfect a larger or smaller compendium of observations from such handbooks, and one will excel in proportion to his skill in pulling out the particular one, just as the typesetter picks out letters.
The problem with anonymity, then, is not hiding behind it, but using it to cover the fact that there’s nobody there to hide. Forcing people to use their real names online won’t fix that. Conversely, you can be powerfully present even without using your name ― as Kierkegaard, who wrote under pseudonyms, knew well.
Some of Kierkegaard’s most strident criticism of his era turns up in Two Ages, an appreciative book-length review of a novel published (anonymously, in fact) by Thomasine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd. In that work, Kierkegaard develops a critique of what he calls “levelling”: a tendency of the age to reduce all people, opinions and practices to the same level of esteem or weight. This phenomenon is all too familiar in the internet era. The downside of having more information available than ever before is that there’s nothing to differentiate solid information from junk. A paper on climate change by a leading scientist is the same number of clicks away as an amateur climate denialist blog. Our current “post-truth” situation may not be entirely down to this levelling character of the internet, but it’s clearly a factor.
For Kierkegaard, however, the problem with levelling is not just that it promotes an equality of opinions, but that it does so by creating a new, wholly abstract entity to which to attribute those opinions: “the public.” The public is fundamentally irreal, “a kind of colossal something, an abstract void and vacuum that is all and nothing,” at once “the most dangerous of all powers and the most meaningless.” The public is not a community or a society, in which people take responsibility for each other or hold each other to account. The public never has to answer for itself. It’s a “corps [that] can never be called up for inspection; indeed, it cannot even have so much as a single representative, because it itself is an abstraction.”
The public may well believe or demand things, but it does so in that anonymous way. It’s fickle, not because its views change quickly, but because it had no real substance to begin with. The public is everyone and no one, and so in relation to the public everyone is just a third party, an onlooker. “The public” lets us all pretend to be innocent bystanders. Genuine action becomes impossible, even genuine decision. What’s to be done? Why, that’s a question for the public, not you or me. The media becomes an attack dog that the public can always insist they never goaded into attacking and don’t own in any case, and can even express approval when the dog is caught and put down: “we all wanted it done ― even the subscribers.”
Does the internet create a public in the same way as the newspaper? If the echo chamber critique of social media is correct (and it’s not clear it is), then it creates publics that overlap but are largely siloed. While the internet is dramatically more interactive than broadcast media, it still lulls us into the sort of spectatorial role that worries Kierkegaard. We consume and share stories, pictures, memes and videos in a way that defers any agential relationship to what we read and post. Events from the global level to the local become mere meme-fodder, a chance to impress what Kierkegaard calls that “sluggish crowd which understands nothing itself and is unwilling to do anything, that gallery-public, [which] now seeks to be entertained and indulges in the notion that everything anyone does is done so that it may have something to gossip about.” Kierkegaard’s description of the public isn’t that far from the sort of viewer much of social media seems to be aimed at:
If I were to imagine this public as a person … I most likely would think of one of the Roman emperors, an imposing, well-fed figure suffering from boredom and therefore craving only the sensate titillation of laughter, for the divine gift of wit is not worldly enough. So this person, more sluggish than he is evil, but negatively domineering, saunters around looking for variety.
Imagine that Roman emperor looking at cat videos and you’ll see what I mean.
Beyond the public
For Kierkegaard, taking any sort of meaningful action is impossible if we’re immersed in the public, a category that abstracts everyone out of themselves and turns everyone into the sum total of nobody in particular. To be lost in the crowd is to be a mere spectator. Yet that doesn’t mean genuine action has to be done in isolation, either. In fact, Kierkegaard says, it’s not until “the single individual has established an ethical stance despite the whole world” that there can “be any question of genuinely uniting.” In other words, ethical action depends on everyone taking their individual agency seriously. Do that, and instead of a public ― let alone a herd ― we form a community, bound by ethical relations of mutual recognition and concern. Above all, we need to remember that all others are “actual human beings,” to whom we stand in an ethical relation at all times. So even in a media-driven, spectatorial, hyper-reflective age, genuine community and genuine ethical action are possible if each person attends to their own relation to the ethical.
What might the implications be for the social media era? One answer might be that while the old media generates impersonal publics, the interactive possibilities of new media might well expand our scope for genuinely moral community action ― if we use them properly. The trick is not to let the medium turn us into mere conduits for anonymous content or comment. To be ourselves, in the full ethical sense of that term. Just as Kierkegaard felt his contemporaries needed to resist melting into the public, so too we need to resist abstraction into “the internet” as an omnipresent spectator and commentator that is nobody in particular.
Equally, the fact that we are human beings dealing with other human beings is essential for maintaining the integrity of communication if we’re going to use this disproportionate talking tube. Indeed, a great deal of the abuse we encounter online ― though by no means all or even a majority of it ― seems to be a function of just this sort of abstraction from interpersonal communication, losing sight of the face behind the avatar, so to speak. Kierkegaard knew what it was to be attacked from all sides. But he also knew how to take responsibility, and how to engage with his neighbour even amidst the tumult.
Patrick Stokes is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University. He is the author of The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity and Kierkegaard’s Mirrors: Interest, Self, and Moral Vision.