Totalitarianism in Your Pocket: Activism is in Need of Philosophy; Part I

Holden Rasmussen, a junior philosophy major, sits and reads a novel by philosopher Walter Benjamin. Rasmussen said Benjamin has inspired him to research his ideas rather than "simply calling out problematic behaviors or ideas." Photo by Chloie Dale.

Holden Rasmussen, a junior philosophy major, sits and reads a novel by philosopher Walter Benjamin. Rasmussen said Benjamin has inspired him to research his ideas rather than "simply calling out problematic behaviors or ideas." Photo by Chloie Dale.

As a Scorpio and someone named after J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, it seems I was fated to study a philosophical tradition known for its suspicion of all things conventional, seemingly instinctive and “good.” My suspicion has also helped me determine my stances on social justice issues; activism is in need of philosophy and its ability to capture the nuance and complexity social justice deserves.

My habit to poke at my friends’ ideas and claims annoys them, which is fine with me; it’s their choice to put up with me. However, as annoying as my philosophical tendencies are, they are increasingly important in an age where listiclesarticles that take the form of narrative listsreplace thoughtfulness and depth when it comes to social justice issues.

As a philosopher, the people who make me angriest aren’t those who disagree with me. I love disagreement. The ultimate sign of mutual respect is when I can disagree with someone and have a thoughtful conversation about our disagreement.

The people who make me angriest are those who agree with my positions but haven’t examined them. These people are convinced that simply calling out “problematic” behaviors or ideas and feeling content with their bit of activism is enough. This is not activism or philosophy; it is mediocrity. However, my accusation, provocative as it is, is meant to break down the artificial barriers between theory and application for the benefit of both.

In our context, we are bombarded with more “info-content” than previous generations. This historical development feeds our craving for certainty and meaning. We are always negotiating with our craving for certainty and meaning, but the conditions of our time lead us to do less negotiating and more “liking,” “sharing” and “reblogging.” These habits prevent us from engaging with social justice in complex and nuanced ways.

Listicles riddle the Internet. In August 2015, the Huffington Post’s blog Huffpost Impact revealed the “Top 5 Ways to Overcome Discrimination.” This listicle is probably well intentioned, but it oversimplifies the complex issue of discrimination and ignores a complex history.

The intricacy of subjectivity, identity and oppression all covered in the five best ways to combat discrimination exists only in fantasies spun on the Internet. The Internet is fertile ground for illusions like this. The images and ideas that oversaturate our digital spaces are not as impactful as we think; they are more akin to sprites and pixies than they are to genuine social change.

The Internet runs on the currency of convenience. Websites depend on visitors, and digital entrepreneurs like YouTube stars, vloggers and Instagram spokespeople depend on likes and subscribers to obtain profit and fame. Oversimplification is a means to profit. If your content is simple and reproducible, it gains more traffic and drives up your profit or popularity.

The listicle, among other media, is an example of dialectical thinking. Dialectical thinking is thinking that reduces issues to a debate between a constraining pair of concepts. For example, the listicle above reduces discrimination to an issue between marginalization and progress; it ignores the complexities of identity and how these issues manifest themselves in subtle ways that affects the political standing.

In other words, dialectical thinking allows us to simply regurgitate an unexamined position on social justice through this process of oversimplification. Those who share this listicle may feel they have done their part because they believe they are on the right side of history. While corporations destroy the environment, politicians condone the eradication of marginalized peoples and religions preach hatred, those who share these listicles suppose they are fighting the progressive fight.

This is true for many attitudes that reduce complexity to a dialectic. Dialectical thinking oversimplifies complex issues and lulls us into a false sense of progress. This mystifies oppression in that it does not challenge or change the current system. Our current mode of perception has changed in such a way that even well-intentioned attempts to combat systemic oppression fall into the trap of dialectical thinking.  Ultimately, dialectical thinking reinforces and overcomplicates totalitarian ideologies.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that “Overcoming the concept of ‘progress’ and overcoming the concept of ‘period of decline’ are two sides of one and the same thing.” This “thing” that Benjamin identifies is what I call totalitarianism or totalitarian ideologies.

The current Internet discourse—where listicles are just one example—that surrounds social justice falls into dialectical thought and supposes that any knowledge or action based on this thinking is progressive as long as it isn’t openly harmful. We need different ways of living and thinking to combat oppression and realize change for the better. What is at stake here? The difference between simple-minded activism and examined activism is the difference between totalitarianism and pluralism.