It’s Open Mic Night in America

I think one thing that gets glossed over in the latest installment of the just-will-not-die ‘80s zombie “culture wars” — the debate over so-called “cancel culture” — is how much it’s really about old media/”new media” vs social media. Cancel culture is, after all, another species of the boycott culture that is itself an adaptation to both the pace of news and the search for alternatives to a political process that moves much too slowly relative to it.

But it goes even deeper. We have grown so used to the internet that we totally take for granted how “democratizing” — socially, if not politically — it’s been. This has its upsides and downsides. We see every day how someone doing something stupid that’s caught on a cellphone camera can become an overnight sensation. People with no credentials, qualifications or even personal qualities to speak of, can suddenly call “press conferences” using social media tools, and “legacy media” has to cover it. I mean, how do you think we got our current President?

Truth is (and this isn’t a new thing by any means): we kinda love it when stupid people “get famous.” One of the pet phrases of those fighting for systemic change with the current spate of racist outbursts caught on cell phone video is “let’s make him/her/them famous.” This is a call to identify the perpetrators, possibly doxx them (if that’s your thing), but certainly to shame them widely. It remains to be seen whether this is an effective front in the movement for systemic change, but it *is* fun, so long is it’s not you. And there’s your element of deterrence, which some folks rightly see as “censure.”

(There’s some confusion about the words “censure” and “censored,” for sure: to ‘censor’ means to remove, block, or interfere with the communication of another. To ‘censure’, on the other hand, means “to find fault with and criticize as blameworthy.” Because censorship in a free society is considered an obvious evil, the confusion between these words and concepts can sometimes provide convenient cover for those who feel censured but claim they are being censored.)

With all of this bad behavior online, it’s easy to forget there was a lot of promise in the early days of the internet of elevating and amplifying not the stupid, whose loud obnoxious, rage-filled voices are already everywhere, but the voiceless, the marginalized, those who could not otherwise be heard, because they were not able to get access to the bullhorn. This was a thing all the way up through the ’90s. On a good day, your local paper might publish three or four letters to the editor. Now comments sections routinely reach into the thousands. This is not a minor social or cultural development. In fact, even to say it’s a “seismic shift” is an understatement. We’re talking: dinosaurs, meet asteroid here.

It’s almost impossible to recall how easy it was before the internet for old media and the interests it represented to utterly erase and isolate people and groups. And it’s somehow not surprising that these “disappeared” were early adopters of the internet. This was less that 30 years ago, so it’s also not surprising that we are now in a period of consolidation, push-back and revisionism of that liberative narrative. From people with disabilities, whom the internet gave direct access to affinity communities, to far-flung TQBLG folks, who often had to remain in hiding irl but who could now find one another online to socialize and organize, to bronies, the internet was a liberator. The significance of this shift of social power and the ability of any individual or group of individuals to subvert the cultural power brokers is often underappreciated — and there is certainly good reason not to emphasize the liberative and to dwell on what people who feel threatened by this seismic power shift breathlessly characterize over their morning Starbucks, as they scroll through their twitter feed in horror, as “this awful slide toward a moral absolutism.”

And there is plenty of reason to feel threatened, to be sure. Going viral for the “wrong reasons” can, after all, lead to actual death threats. There is an extremely dark side to all of this. There always was. Cultural shifts of this magnitude are, yeah: intense. There’s serious shit at stake. But the promise is also still there. It’s still a huge net positive for the rabble. That’s why those who are still hogging the bullhorns are getting more and more hysterical as they’re confronted with crowds who are pretty good at using the “human microphone” to drown them out. Of course the rabble is scary if you’re used to having that bullhorn, been told you deserve it, and have been blaring pretty much whatever stupid thought pops into your head behind a wall of riot police to your adoring masses for the last thirty years. It’s shocking when the people you’ve been talking over all this time start talking back, innit?

Because a lot of these folks with the bullhorns are actual clowns, let me put it this way: when a comedian bombs, we say “read the room.” We don’t set off the fire alarm and the sprinklers to clear the room. And to extend the metaphor: if you’re heckled, do you really want to be Michael Richards? You thought you were headlining Showtime at the Apollo. Turns out it’s Open Mic night at the Comedy Cellar. If you can’t read the room, get off the stage.

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