Self-righteousness is growing these days alongside the growth of online social media. Social media like Facebook and Twitter provide the perfect platforms for the online equivalent of soapboxes. In the old days, there used to be a small park on the near north side of Chicago that was nicknamed Bughouse Square. The real name was Washington Square Park, but most people knew it by the nickname. Bughouse Square was a place where people got on soapboxes to espouse their views, usually views that were considered to be radical or extreme by mainstream Americans. That didn’t stop mainstream Americans from coming, because even when they disagreed with what was being said, they found it entertaining. Nothing like listening to shocking ideas, to give a person kicks and pull him out of his numbness. These speaking experiences disappeared in the 1960’s at Bughouse Square, but in 2019, the Newberry Library, across the street from Bughouse Square, organized formal debate events for one afternoon in July. It was a highly sanitized event with the Mayor of Chicago participating.
Meanwhile, alongside Bughouse Square, there has been another forum for free outlandish speech in Chicago: the College of Complexes. Founded in the 1950’s, it has continued to the present. I don’t know how it is faring in the pandemic, but it used to follow the pattern of meeting Saturday nights in a particular restaurant for a period of years and then it would move to another. I used to go to some of the events. Among the people I saw was the head of the Chicago branch of the American Nazi Party. This was at a time when white nationalism in general was not as big and threatening a force as now, so I didn’t perceive any threat being in her presence (the head at that time was a lady). At another talk I saw the head of the John Birch Society, a well-known extreme rightwing political group at the time. As I remember, most of the speakers were on the left as was the man who founded the College of Complexes: Slim Brundage. But it was a tribute to Slim and the forum he had established that he had speakers with whom he virulently disagreed. True democracy at work. Again, the audience members who came did not come to be convinced by anyone, but rather to be shocked and entertained. One might almost compare it to the intellectual equivalent of the freak show people went to see at carnivals and amusement parks.
Anyway, speakers who felt numb inside themselves got to prop up their senses of self through proclaiming the shocking positions they espoused, and the members of the audience, because their exposure to these positions was limited, got to be entertained without becoming recruited themselves. I certainly didn’t know anyone whose positions on anything were changed by speakers they heard at the College of Complexes. But the College did represent a good exercise of free speech.
Yet[lm1] now this entertainment has come to the Internet. It used to be that middle-class people had to go to specially designated places in the external world to listen to shocking views. Now they can find these views from the comfort of their homes and at all hours of the day and night. And because these middle class people are so numb, and because these self-righteous extremist speakers are so shocking, and because the opportunities now to hear these views are so endless, a perfect situation is set up for the creation of an addiction. Trump generates and sustains the addiction of his followers to a great extent through his tweets. Islamic fundamentalists and White nationalists have both been able to use the Internet effectively to carry out the conversion process of new potential followers. And let’s not forget all conspiracy theorists and particularly QAnon. But also the anti-vaxxers and the anti-maskers. And then there are the groups promoting black lives like Black Lives Matter. Some aspects of these groups may be categorized as more mainstream. Others not so much.
But the point is that people become attached to these groups not only because of the substance of what they say and believe, but because of the addictive rush that is experienced in reading, listening to and taking on these beliefs. What was once a matter of entertainment from quaint self-righteous soapbox speakers – entertainment from a safe mediated distance – now becomes a way of life espoused by a constant drumbeat from podcast speakers and writers that leads to immersion in a way of thinking and a way of life that, in turn, leads to an ongoing rush. The Internet speakers and writers become an intimate part of one’s life. Particularly in the age of Covid, when we are spending a large part of our lives at home.
The self-righteousness is no longer entertainment. It is who we become. The self-righteousness is a vehicle for developing a hard brittle defined discrete sense of self as a defense against the numbing frictionless mediated technological environment in which we live. It acts as a defense against the psychological entropic disintegration that acts as a constant danger to our senses of self in today’s world. Extreme political and social positions shock our senses of self to life. The old-fashioned soapbox situations, not only in Chicago, but in other cities around the world (think London’s Hyde Park) provided safe momentary amusement without requiring real dangerous disruptive commitment on our parts. But as the immersion in frictionless mediated numbness leads to an ongoing self-righteous dangerous disruptive commitment, it may be what some of us need to go on living. Self-righteous people need self-righteousness to strengthen the weak sense of self they have from living in an experiential vacuum. So they become self-righteous and develop initially hard brittle defined discrete individual senses of self, and then, as they immerse themselves more and more in the ideology, they merge with the collective sense of self involving the other people in the movement. Many times, they merge with the sense of self of the hardcore leader of the movement (think Donald Trump) but not always (think QAnon or Black lives Matter). Anyway, shocking extremist groups will only grow in power and influence, as modern technology continues to make more and more of us extremely numb.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow