The Rise of Identity and the Downfall of Free Thought
There is a culture war being fought right now in America and across the globe that remains mostly hidden because it is happening primarily online, but it has found a pervasive presence in politics and in the poetry community. I am speaking about the war of identity.
In my mind, the identity war built itself on the roots of social media and how this form of online networking worked its way into a staple of average everyday life. Social media has become such a presence in popular culture at this point it seems impossible to imagine life without it. What began as a novel way to connect with people all over the world who shared common interests and to keep in touch with friends and family who live miles to states to countries away, became a way to build networks of entrepreneurship, became a way to broadcast daily lives and build what we perceive as individual audiences we try to hold enraptured by our own personal brand. The larger the number of “friends, followers, subscribers” the larger the perceived audience, and I believe this is what has driven people to feel like their purpose in life is to share opinions on every subject imaginable, no matter the level of education on any given subject, and to develop the perception that every opinion about such subjects holds some kind of relevance to larger society. This has in the end only served to create divides among people and to create bubbles of self-confirmation, and has driven people to seek out new ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. In effect, I believe our brains are being rewired in a such a way that the dopamine addiction one develops using social media becomes intrinsically connected to attention-seeking behavior.
When a person is seeking ways to get the most attention possible for themselves, of course they will seek to replicate whatever method they have seen work for someone else. It’s a basic concept that happens over and over again in every field imaginable, because the end goal of the individual is achieved perception of personal success and of course monetary gain in a capitalist society. This is why in entertainment industries, if one thing becomes insanely popular, all competitors will try to mimic the concept that achieved the popularity and the original creator will try to duplicate the previous success as well, until the market becomes over-saturated and eventually the public loses interest or a backlash happens. Companies and people see something that works, and they flood the market with what works until it doesn’t work any more. Basic supply and demand stuff. To take this a step further, once the market becomes over-saturated and creators are forced to pull back or find something else that works, if they successfully integrated a large enough supply into the public for a product, eventually what will happen is they can bring that back again several years later for a resurgence of interest due to nostalgia. It becomes a cycle that they can manipulate for a stream of perpetual revenue. This is why film companies build movie franchises, and why music companies build catalogues of similar sounding musicians, and why art goes through community movements, and publishing companies produce swaths of books in the same genres, etc. It’s no coincidence that so many bands came out in recent years trying to sound like Nirvana and then later Nickelback, that so many rap artists have their sounds distilled from the successes of Dre and Tupac, that movie studios today have their entire infrastructure bases around Star Wars and Marvel films. The companies are pushing what works until they reach the backlash stage.
How does this relate to identity? Well, in the age of social media, the individual comes to view themselves as the product that is for sale. And in many ways, that is what the CEOs of companies like Facebook and Twitter are counting on, because to them, yes, you are for sale. You are what generates their income. Some might even say, the users of social media act as free labor for these companies, and have been successfully duped into being voluntary slaves. Everyone willingly participates, or maybe at this point not even willingly, because society is so entangled with social media to try and extricate ones self from this web of voluntary publicity is to become an outcast, a perceived luddite, someone who is “not connected.” The public has sacrificed any illusion of personal privacy for their shot at becoming the next viral hit that gets millions of clicks and earns them a brief or maybe somewhat sustainable moment of celebrity status, depending on how inventive the person at the helm of the viral success can be. How this relates to identity involves an extremely complex narrative build-up of events over time that cannot be seemingly dialed down to one root-cause. It comes from a casual evolution of thought, through repetitive positive reinforcement of what generates the most response from a stimulus. Throughout the brief but total dependency social media has manufactured for itself in its short history, humans are being taught, and teaching themselves that their singular identity matters more than the collective identity of humanity. This manipulation of thought was deceptively easy to conjure in humans, because humans apparently have primitive and innate narcissistic cores in their thought processes. The more positive attention one gets from a stimulus, the more they desire to seek out that stimulus, resulting in a feedback loop, resulting in an addiction to chemicals produced in the brain from that feedback loop, an addiction that becomes harder and harder to break free from. More and more time gets devoted to seeking out the positive reinforcement, and the brain gets hardwired to need that reinforcement, otherwise, like any addiction, it creates an incessant and overpowering urge to come back to it. It’s like any drug really that causes chemical dependency in that sense. What happens next is the brain ceases to be able to function in a normal capacity without the chemical it constantly needs. Critical thought becomes more difficult to manage. Concentration starts to suffer and attention span gets shorter and shorter. In effect, the brain is damaged, unable to do its job at its previous levels of quality, because the neurons have all been recoded and redirected for a streamlined path of pleasurable interactions. We become, basically, hamsters in wheels being fed dope directly to our brains every time we press a button. And we are happy in this version of hell.
Again I went on a tangent, but bringing it back to identity, somewhere along the line, in the public fervor to find more inventive ways to create more unique personal brands in which to create the most attention possible for the self, there has developed a trend to define the self in more constantly varying levels of degree from the previous standards, and then to make everything about the self defined in that perceived value of uniqueness. In order to differentiate one’s self from the massive and mostly homogenous population, the self seeks to find an identity from which it can feel more powerful, more singular in existence, more of a diamond in the rough, from which more attention will become focused from the crowd onto the shiny object refracting light in the dark sea of sameness. Much like companies and organizations mimic and attempt to duplicate the successes of other products, in social media where the person sees themselves as the product, the person tries to mimic the successes of what has worked for others. So, it’s easy to deduce that persons have learned through experience that altering aspects of the individual identity create more attention for that identity, be it through sympathy, or through creating perception of difference, or through genuine achievement, which is the hardest of all to actually duplicate, and thus people will naturally congregate around the easiest tactics to replicate success, while also trying to gain a genuine achievement for themselves at the same time.
What becomes divisive in this quest to build up the personal identity, is that in order to sustain and drive the success of this identity, you have to do two things: you have to create the perception that everything about the self revolves around this created identity, and second, you have to push back against things or ideas that work against this perception, which requires pushing back against everything that is not this version of identity, because identities unlike the identity you create for yourself must be enemies of that identity. This is a reinforcement of primitive tribalism. The groups trying to replicate success of other identities form tribes against the previously held notions of standard identities. This goes on until the new versions become accepted as standards, forcing deviations from the standard to foster a furthered need for separation of the self from the growing crowd of people taking on the versions created before. Take the way fashion trends work. A person finds a way to change their outward appearance, perhaps they decide to wear a shirt with one sleeve when most people are wearing shirts with two sleeves. There’s the initial response of wow, that is different, but some people see it and find the value in it, and so they start wearing shirts with one sleeve. Then, before you know it, most people are wearing shirts with one sleeve, and so the person who started the trend doesn’t stand out any more, and then they find another way to do that, or they disappear into obscurity. The difference on social media and the internet is everything is based on perception of reality rather than physical reality, and so a person can create whatever identity they wish, meaning the limits of what can be changed about the self lie strictly in the realms of imagination. Everything online is simply a sharing of information, and we have seen that information can readily be altered and manipulated to the needs of whoever does the sharing. Boiled down to basics, the internet is an illusion, a shared mass delusion when the information being shared is completely dependent upon perception, and if misinformation is shared widely enough and accepted enough, it can become a perception of the truth, in such a way that the internet has become the ultimate medium of propaganda and allowed for the greatest deception of the public in human history.
These battles of identity have manifested themselves in varying forms, most prominently in politics, with larger and larger degrees of the public aligning themselves in either liberal or conservative camps, and a very complicated fracturing of these camps into more and more fanatical subsets, each fighting over the most preferable version of the truth to their own perception of their identity. This becomes more and more volatile and divisive when factoring in elements of self-affirmation about deeply held concepts of religious belief, race and gender, proliferation of misinformation, and a disconnect from perception with reality, allowing things to happen in the actual world that under normal circumstance would never get off the ground. It is this disconnect with reality that has brought us the Trump presidency and gravely endangered democracy in America because of how far the public is willing to go to push back against perceived threats to their identities. A combination of cognitive dissonance and allowance of confirmation bias through living reality in an information bubble has caused mass-delusion in avoidance of factual information for the couch-comforts of being told what one wants to hear that reinforces preconceived notions and protects the self. In the age of social media, the self has risen to purest manifestation of ego, and proven that humanity loses appreciation for the bigger picture the more the self is nurtured and convinced of its own assured success.
This battle has also reached its fever pitch in the land of independent publishing, and the poetry scene, which is just a symptom of the entire cultural obsession social media has helped produce in mainstream society. The cultivated importance of identity has generated such a tipped scale of relevance to the identity of the writer rather than the content produced, that if one wishes to achieve any sort of wider audience, they have to conform to this notion or be ignored. The groups of identity-centered writers ruthlessly self-promote and self-congratulate those who appeal to this self-aggrandized cult of individuality that is merely conformist thought-policing in disguise. In order to be a member of the club now, you have to identify in some fashion as marginal or have been victimized by the status quo, which is to say, not be a cishet white male. Any casual glance through the popular ranks of current poetry writers and the glut of online independent magazines and journals and prizes reveals that this trend has taken a firm hold on this artistic community. It’s such a widespread phenomenon it is almost impossible to break it down and understand the how and why it has worked itself into the fabric of the arts. From what I have observed personally, the trend established itself through simply an incessant wave of outrage and outright attacks on anyone daring to try and ignore the identity movement. Writers have been attacked and shamed, editors have been attacked and shamed, accused of things ranging from being as tepid as socially awkward, sexually inappropriate (by as little as commenting on a person’s appearance to more serious accusations), cultural appropriation, racism, etc, and these accusations result in instant assumptions of guilt and excommunication, to the point that any writer found to have violated the unwritten rules of the identity movement has had their works scrubbed from online publication and their names routinely blacklisted from future publishing. This is because of one of the main precepts of the identity movement, which is to protect itself at all cost. To protect the notion of identity, any challenges to identity have to be destroyed. In the land of social media, this destruction is applied unapologetically through the means of public shaming, and results in an environment of conformity to ideals out of fear of being the next target, because there is no court of appeals on public opinion or groupthink.
In large, this movement has only taken hold over the past decade. And it will ultimately be unsustainable, due to the transient nature of internet culture and the fickle human attention span coupled with the exhausting struggle of keeping up a facade. An illusion that requires pretense to maintain cannot be maintained on a permanent scale without succumbing to its own inherent weaknesses and fallacies. Application of the ideals of the identity movement will prove themselves irrational in their own biases and self-serving interests in who they choose to praise or ignore, who they choose to shame or applaud, who they choose to critique or award, even when faced with similar scenarios of circumstance. The only thing a rational person can do is choose to wait, to let this movement burn itself out, even as it tries to burn everything else down around it. These outrages flare like candle flames and flicker out, forgotten and easily replaced by the next candle being lit, something political strategists now use so well to serve their interests they practically play the public like a well-tuned piano. In the grand scheme of human history this will be but a small footnote, a brief blip of conflict during which humanity tried erroneously yet again to redefine itself and failed to be capable of elevating beyond its physical form, bound wholly by the gravity of the real world, where these things invented on the internet are merely just a grand illusion of self-nurturing falsehoods. The internet had such potential to bring the world together under a common umbrella of the shared wealth of knowledge, but perhaps we were better off without it. Perhaps this hell by means of good intentions revealed the tragic flaw of the human condition, that we are individually ourselves but candle flames hoping to burn the brightest in a world made from straw.