The Conspirituality Report

No Moral Outrage Porn, No Punching Down

Script of a Conspirituality Podcast bonus episode

Here’s the script of a bonus episode released on 5.17.2021.

This bonus episode is a little more informal than usual. No music, no fancy production values. I won’t start and stop if I flub on words. I did have something written out and almost-produced: an examination of the content of a particularly volatile conspirituality influencer.

Dozens of listeners have referred us to this person’s Instagram account and their antics. They have a dedicated but smallish following. The content is typical harmful Q-adjacent COVID denialism and vaccine disinformation. The only thing that’s original about it is the level of aggression the person performs as they deliver it — aggression, masquerading as feminist righteousness, directed at the world and their followers. It’s so over the top it’s hard to believe, until you realize that the brand is outrageousness itself. A combination of Alex Jones, Alice Cooper, and some sort of Marina Abramovic for MAGA yoga moms.

As with so many of the influencers we study, it was easy to be sucked into their feed with a combination of fascination and nausea. I spent some time there, and carefully sifted through the scorched earth to find something tender in the situation, some fragile key to opening the mystery of how a person becomes this way, what environmental and social forces are at play. I found it in some content where the person gave a lengthy description of how they do not understand what friendship is.

I found this interesting, because they accidentally spoke very clearly to the kind of isolation and avoidant attachment in the conspirituality space that feels so precarious, and how that precarity, that feeling of being on the edge of something, can get mistaken for spiritual urgency.

Conspirituality is an ideology, a reasoning process, a financial racket. But it’s also a way of being with other people. We’ve seen that its circles can be presumptuous, oppressive, exhausting, volatile. It has the feeling of the sociality of cults. Listening to this person talk so aggressively and abusively in one moment, and then confess to not understanding what friends are for in the next, reminded me of what it felt like, when I was in cults, to not know who my friends were, whether I should have friends at all, or what a friend even was. I wrote out rich descriptions of what that all felt like: the stiffness, the claustrophobia, the pretension.

So I had an angle, something fresh, critical but empathetic, something that shared continuity with my expertise and the themes we’re always building on. Cool. I worked hard on it. 4k words. I didn’t struggle with the structure or reasoning or evidence, as might be normal for something complex and nuanced. But it never felt right. It was good work, and I kept wondering why I was doing it.

Just this morning, as I was about to file it, I had a conversation with someone I trust about it, and I made the call to shelve the essay.

The truth is: all week, the whole thing disquieted me. I was thinking about power and shame and social media.

On one hand, there’s no doubt that this person’s content is extremely toxic and harmful: it punches down at service workers, POC, trans people. Their politics are twisted up into a tight knot of libertarian narcissism. They are obviously committing pernicious financial abuse on anyone who pays them for services. As a cult researcher, I am positive that this person meets all the standard marks for a charismatic abuser. Beyond the vaccine disinformation — which is bolstering hesitancy and delaying the attainment of herd immunity — which is killing people, the rest of this influencer’s content is hurting people in intimate, psychological ways. I don’t know how many people. But whoever is a client of this person: they’re in trouble.

On the other hand, they are clearly suffering, isolated, acting out — all in ways that, paradoxically, they are able to monetize through aesthetics and shock value. And although there’s a thousand reasons to refrain from guessing about what is going on for them — not the least of which is that our society of the spectacle specifically obscures the inner persons in our midst — I know there is a person there, and they may be emotionally or neurologically incapable of tolerating the examination, the shame.

I thought: if I’m really incisive here, will I break through this person’s defences enough to jeopardize their sense of self, how they are put together? What happens if I name something so clearly, it is unbearable to them? On one hand that would be quite a feat for a writer: on the other: too much responsibility.

My conversation with my friend — they knew about the subject and, out of a growing sense of concern, initiated a kind of intervention right at the moment I was about to finalize — confirmed many of these thoughts. They also helped me get over the pride I was taking in my awesome analysis, and to let it go. I’m a veteran writer, so the loss isn’t that big of a deal anymore. But there is a small death at play. With each piece, a writerly identity comes into existence alongside the text. Burying an essay is not just about blipping it into oblivion. It also means looking at the you that wrote it, and saying: “I’m sorry, but you have to stay inside. You have to hide yourself. Perhaps forever.”

In this calculus of whether examining something actually gives it more oxygen, and whether that oxygen will ignite a wildfire of shame, I decided that the numbers don’t work out. And while this person punches down in their content, there’s a weird way in which exposing how poisonous and traumatized those actions are would be its own kind of punching down. They say they are successful, but their own numbers don’t bear up.

I’m very influenced atm by the work of C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher who I first came across through Decoding the Gurus. He has a great essay with Bekka Williams called “Moral Outrage Porn” I’ll link to in the show notes that examines how the criticism mill of social media may appear to generate moral dignity, but that gamification of the process means that that morality becomes a product, a commodity, instead of something that changes the world, or the discourse. They write:

Moral outrage porn, as we understand it, is representations of moral outrage engaged with primarily for the sake of the resulting gratification, freed from the usual costs and consequences of engaging with morally outrageous content. The gratifications might include, among other things, a sense of moral superiority or smugness, the comforting sense of clarity that arises from moral certainty, and the sheer pleasure of the feeling of outrage itself.

We suspect that a significant amount of the activity on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media might plausibly count as moral outrage porn, as does much of the content on many partisan news outlets. We will also argue that moral outrage porn is potentially more dangerous than other sorts of generic porn. Some kinds of porn are mechanistic that is, they bring about their gratifications without requiring that their user engage in any sort of belief or belief-like states. Food porn, real estate porn, and many uses of sexual pornography are mechanistic in this way. But moral outrage porn is non-mechanistic; it is an essentially cognitive form of porn. One must engage in a belief, or belief-like state of judging something to be morally bad, or something very much like this in order to acquire the desired gratification. And this use, we will argue, is a bad thing, other things being equal.

Let us be clear: our purpose here is not to condemn the use of moral outrage in moral and political discourse. Moral outrage is essential, when it proceeds from nuanced moral engagement, leads to moral action, and is aimed at the genuinely morally outrageous. Our goal here is to distinguish such authentic engagements with moral outrage from the use of moral outrage porn. Moral outrage porn, we will suggest, invites its users to seek simplified moral representations of the world, and to simplify their own moral beliefs in order to maximize the gratifications of outrage.

If you’ve noticed that I’ve been posting a little less on our feeds, this essay is why. It doesn’t describe a new problem for me, but it does describe it very very well.

And to be clear: I don’t believe I indulge in moral outrage porn, as someone who works as a critic. Not anymore, anyway. I think I’ve walked that line in cult reporting, and stepped over it a few times, and felt the strange reward of it when I did. But now, even if I work really hard to bring nuance to criticism, turn away from sensationalism, empathize where I can, sometimes even the most neutral presentation of the morally outrageous content of conspirituality people adds to a pornification of discourse.

There is gratification that I’ve seen this outrageous thing, been smart about it, and then what? Is that the content? Is that the tweet? I do not want to be a pornographer of morality. And even good food can become junk food if you eat it in the wrong place.

I’m being transparent about this because I think many people share this dilemma. I keep referring to Imran Ahmed, our guest in ep 10, whose Center for Countering Digital Hate initiative to deplatform the Disinformation Dozen has been wildly successful. He’s like a surgeon with this argument: don’t draw attention to disinformation. Excise it.

And yet, just as oncologists have to examine biopsies, we are also compelled to study and understand — and empathize with, when we can — the causes of these sharp pains, these flares. And that means shining a light, naming names, getting into details. So I don’t know what the balance is, or where lines are drawn, but I’m doing it every day, case by case, and I hope pulling back the curtain on that is helpful.

Okay, so what’s the lemonade here, squeezed out of that lemon of an essay? I’m going to throw out some initial thoughts about not indulging moral outrage porn, and not punching down. This isn’t a white paper: it’s back-of-the-napkin, because the dog ate my homework. I’ll be happy to hear your additions to it.

One caveat here: I’m a freelance journalist and I monetize my content in various ways. When things are going well, I have less of an incentive to punch at all, let alone in ways that indulge moral outrage porn. So keep that in mind. For the gig-worker, social media engagement will go up as stability goes down. And also, recognize that if you’re one of the lucky but unlucky folks doing work like this on salary, like at Vice or the Daily Beast, you may not have the choice to run through this checklist. You might have an assignment. You’ll just be stuck covering the awful thing.

First things first. How do I feel in my body when I see the morally outrageous content? If I don’t check in with that first, I’m going to be far less aware of what I’m doing and why. With the essay I shelved, I felt a mixture of things: horror, disgust, empathy. But the sensation that tipped me into cancellation territory was precariousness. The person is grandiose, a braggart, super-defended. But I felt that the veneer was thin: they were vulnerable, alone.

Now: horror/disgust are not no-go feelings that I would refrain from acting on: I’m disgusted by plenty of the people we interrogate on the show. I actively hate some of them. I’m fine with that. That’s not the threshold, and it’s not fair for me to suppress guttural loathing when people are harming others. That’s me. That’s my own sense of dignity and justice. It may not always be the best to act on, and most of the time but it’s not a psycho-moral deal-breaker for me. The threshold has to do with whether I sense they are precarious, or endangered by their beliefs and behaviours.

How much power do they have? This is part of the threshold question above. If they have a lot of social and financial power, the horror and disgust are fine motivators in my book. Even hatred. The Disinformation Dozen is now responsible for mass casualties, given that they’ve impacted vax hesitancy in the US and beyond, possibly preventing the attainment of herd immunity, which means more outbreaks, disruptions, and an escalation in the conspiratorial cycle. So there’s no universe in which it’s ethical for me to empathize with them, pull punches. That golden harp Northrup plays for her followers into Facebook? She bought it with literal blood money. I think her daughter Kate should come and collect her. But nobody needs to take care of her emotions. When you get up to 500K followers on Facebook, it’s a persona on the line, not a person.

Here we get into other forms of social power. How about social media followers? For a while I had a rough metric: if the person had lower numbers than we did, it was no: don’t punch. With the influencer I was writing about, this wasn’t true: their accounts are larger than ours, but not by much. But that wasn’t good enough. But where’s the magic line of “this person is causing enough harm it’s worth the risk?” 50K? 100K? Is it about post engagement? I’m not sure. I think it’s possible for someone to have 100s of thousands of followers and for them to lack any other source of income or social support, such that if you really wound them there — regardless of how ethically you do it — they will have nothing. And how can you know?

What about mental health privilege? I have no doubt that social media has facilitated the monetization of mental disorders. Anecdotally, I can state that mental health issues both diagnosed and bypassed are ubiquitous in yoga and wellness cultures. The ideologies and strategies we cover on this podcast have strong correlations to families of mental health challenges:

  • The black-and-white thinking and precipitous mood swings of bipolar conditions track perfectly with disaster spirituality.
  • Cult dynamics are a machine for attachment disorders.
  • The precarity of online spectacles of confession, vulnerability, and aggression must be catnip for borderline conditions.
  • And while malignant narcissists by definition cannot seek out treatment, I believe along with Daniel Shaw that this constellation is key to many forms of cultic leadership.

The monetization potential of mental health struggles isn’t always catastrophic. My late friend Michael Stone concealed his bipolar diagnosis for years while guiding people in therapy and spiritual practice. I don’t think that was healthy, and I believed he harmed people along the way. But it did contribute to his real effectiveness as a poet of suffering. He described the goals and practices of Buddhism with such tenderness because, I believe, they were completely beyond his grasp. He wasn’t teaching Buddhism so much as he was teaching his own graceful trouble and longing.

So: what if you suspect the person needs mental health help? You can’t know, of course, and there’s something perverse about guessing, or pathologizing. Nonetheless here we are: thrown into a kind of forced therapeutic consideration for people we’ll never meet. Because if you punch at someone who is mentally ill, they’ll respond through that challenge, and how can that turn out well?

With the essay I shelved, I could see benefits in terms of public education, although the moral outrage question there is still unanswered. But I am quite sure that some kind of mental suffering would prevent any kind of response except the reactive or escalating type. There were things that my friend Michael could have been publicly criticized for. And I can confidently say, that wouldn’t have gone well. At a certain amount of pressure, he could well have tripped over into a psychotic break. How much more so for a person who clearly has less internal peace, and who’s monetizing unconscionable conspiracy theories?

Last point on privilege: the zone everyone talks about are gender and race. These are not as clear as they appear. As a man, the points system for whether I criticize women doing terrible things is more complex.

But often, given how much power women wield in yoga/wellness, I don’t think it’s about gender so much as it’s about subject matter. When I do journalism on someone like Kelly Brogan, engaging her pseudoscience is one thing, but engaging the way in which she manipulates the language of empowerment to appear to be feminist, while propping up libertarian attacks on public health is quite another. I have to take real care with that.

Likewise, I personally think Bauhauswife’s free birth content, with its reliance on exaggerated medical claims and the responsibilism of women winding up feeling ashamed if they have or even want an epidural is toxic for the culture at large, but I understand that I can’t say that without being told to STFU, because I’m male, and free birth is a revolt against the patriarchy. That makes sense: so I retweet Dr. Jen Gunter instead.

And it’s radioactive for me to go near how any woman influencer uses looks to enhance her charismatic aspirational marketing. This is where I want to have a post-it note on my computer with the words: “What would Alex Auder do?” Not just in terms of tackling the tangled issue of aesthetics, but also as a gauge of power and influence. Alex doesn’t waste her bullets. If she’d stay away from an influencer out of wariness of punching down, that’s a clear sign for me.

In terms of race, it doesn’t really come up in conspirituality, which seems to be a 90% white issue. So are most of the cults I know of, but that might also be my filter bubble talking. But I would not be qualified to engage the anti-vax stance of a WOC wellness practitioner, for example, because I know I couldn’t honestly understand and honour the cultural trauma and historical distrust at play there. If a First Nations wellness practitioner came across our wires because they were promoting COVID denialism, I likewise would steer clear, given the power differential, and what I know is my inability to understand surviving colonialism and medical racism. Totally, totally, not my lane. So my job there is to learn about who is speaking to that, from within.

Here’s another piece of the puzzle with regard to identity. Derek mentioned this on the last episode: a yoga bro in LA was helping organize a maskless protest of retail businesses. They were going to violate the mask directives of stores. He said it was going to be a peaceful assertion of their right to breathe. This is complete madness. And when I see him in his Instagram selfie sermon, describing his wonderful plan with googly eyes and a bouncing man-bun, I’m filled with more rage than I can describe. Part of me is visualizing myself in his path on that Saturday, and wondering how I would avoid assault charges if he came near me. And that part of my brain is supercharged by the recognition that this is my guy. He’s white and male and entitled and sanctimonious. He’s like all of the evilness I could be, wrapped up in a sun-kissed, ab-rippling hide. And I want to avenge him, punish him, silence him, make him go away.

I refuse to feel guilty of those impulses, and at the same time, I know how useless they are, how much they must abide in fantasy. Because violence against women and minorities starts in part as an overflow of the violence between men. I remember how gratifying it was to watch that kid punch Richard Spencer a while back on camera. And I also knew in my bones that if you punch Richard Spencer, and you don’t seriously injure or kill him, he’ll get back up and be even more dedicated to hurting black people.

The last piece of the puzzle is gratification versus actionability. This isn’t easy. Let’s start by parsing these out. For the gratification piece, I’ll turn back to the work of C. Thi Nguyen: not only the idea of moral outrage porn, but other themes he’s developed on the logic of gamification and what he calls the seductions of clarity.

Here’s a brief summary of what Nguyen says on how the gratification or pleasure of social media posturing begins to warp morality, and one’s willingness to engage in discourse for real, rather than performative outcomes. I find that his description is a lot sharper than a lot of critiques of what’s called “virtue signaling”, which tends to be limited to the accusation that the person is faking a moral position to score points. This is very hard to prove, and fails to account for how the social media engines force us into many kinds of fakery, because they reward us for superficial thought.

Nguyen says that the pleasure of games comes through the heightened sense of clarity and goal-seeking one has within the boundaries of the rules. You know how to win, and feedback is clear. You can narrow your focus to the dictates of the game. On social media, the dictates are likes and shares. Not morality. Not discourse. Not gaining community or strengthening relationships. The question Nguyen poses is stark:

At what point do you start simplifying your content, and then your actual views, according to the dopamine, ludic loop of Twitter rewards? At what point is winning conflated with morality?

With the influencer I was about to examine: I know what the game would be, and how to make myself comfortable while playing it. I would gain points by creating a pungent cocktail of moral outrage and Matthew-branded empathy. I may not feel 100% secure about the morality of my actions, but I would allow myself to be validated by the mostly-good feedback I would be sure to receive. While I was writing the essay, I actually had the thought: “I’m not sure about this, but I am sure that a ton of people will enjoy this, will feel a kind of catharsis through this work. And they’ll tell me so.” But does that make it right? Is it right to sell-out to your own followers?

The influencer in question is doing a much cruder version of the same thing. Their escalation of outrageous content is geared precisely to a narrowing band of emotional provocation. They are responding to every Yaaas comment with flame or explosion emojis, they’re rallying their followers and being rallied by them. Can it possibly work to mirror this, albeit in a sophisticated way? And how?

So here’s what I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with, after 10 years of doing this. With the help of Nguyen, I’ve come to the conclusion that these are signs that I’m more invested in winning than in morality. The feeling, while posting content,

  • That I’m taking an unassailable position,
  • That arguing back at would be very difficult,
  • That I can see the avatar faces of the people I anticipate would love or be thrilled by the content.
  • That I know which carefully-chosen terms will appeal to which carefully-imagined demographics. This is how jargon forms. Discourse in the land of hashtags.
  • The expectation of notifications. There’s a post-hoc gut check there: if I find myself overly interested in how well the content is doing, that’s a good indication that my investment is in the game, not the content. Here’s a thought experiment: could you post your work, announce that you weren’t responding to comments, turn off notifications, and literally fast from the feedback cycle, to the point that you had no idea how things were doing? This could be pathological of course, if it squelched feedback. But on the other hand it would also be an exercise in pure art-making.

Last thing. Aaron Rabinowitz of Embracing the Void podcast — a philosopher at Rutgers — has this great concept of “cheap talk”. In one essay he applies it to skepticism — specifically when influencers are “just asking questions” that bend the discourse towards things like vax hesitancy and COVID denialism. He writes:

Cheap talk skepticism occurs when someone expresses skepticism in a way that comes at little cost to them, though it frequently comes at a significant cost to others. For example, if I express glib doubt about the personhood of another group of sentient beings, when my personhood is highly unlikely to be questioned, that would be cheap talk skepticism. Furthermore, if I received praise and positive reinforcement for my skeptical signaling, we could see that skepticism as effectively free of cost.

This free-of-cost thing is really important to extrapolate and generalize. What does it cost me to criticize a conspirituality influencer? The answer to that question will give some indication of how invested I am in the content, what I’m willing to risk over it, and whether I actually believe that my efforts can change something. The highest stakes form I engage in is with investigative journalism into high-profile people and institutions who could sue me into the ground if I get things wrong. That’s high cost. And I get paid accordingly. And there are plausible results. If 50K people read my investigation of Brogan, did that raise pressure that contributed to her eventual deplatforming? I’d like to think so. But also: that investment will hold me responsible to future developments. If Kelly Brogan suddenly comes to Jesus, I’ll be there.

Let’s go to the bottom end of costs. What would it have cost me to release the essay I’m now burying? Not much at all. I wouldn’t have had much hope of the criticism changing the person’s behaviour or reach. I would have had to rationalize that I was producing supportive, validating, and educational value for people who already agreed with me. That’s pretty low cost. And I think it puts me into that empty, more depressive space of: what am I doing?

That’s all I got for now. I don’t have a wrap-up, so I’ll just say: thanks for your support of of this podcast. You’re sending us money, and we’ll keep working to honour that investment in a socially and materially better world.

Investigative journo: conspirituality & cults. Co-host at http://conspirituality.net. Bylines: GEN, The Walrus. More @ http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/

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