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  • Fighting identities: Polarisation, nihilism, and the collapse of online discourse

Fighting identities: Polarisation, nihilism, and the collapse of online discourse

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We are living in polarised and extreme times. What would have seemed like the delusions of a paranoid fantasist in 2015 (anti-government riots in the streets of Melbourne with violent symbology reminiscent of the French revolution; assaults on the US capital spearheaded by buffalo-headed shaman; the popularisation of  esoteric anti-paedophile conspiracy theories originating from a message board notorious for its links to paedophilia to name but a few) are now a lived reality.

Underpinning much of these worrying events has been the failure of online civil discourse and a rise of radical movements and networks fixated on issues of divisive culture war. The social media technology once envisioned by Silicon Valley futurists to unify the divided house of humanity by promoting understanding, and tolerance has had the opposite effect.

Today we see a resurgence of digital tribalism, a glorification of disingenuous engagement online and humiliating those of a different perspective. Everywhere we see simplistic and belligerent narratives of ‘us versus them’ over more nuanced explanations that might impart a greater sense of shared humanity and common purpose.

So what happened?

How we arrived at this polarized moment is complex and doesn’t lend itself monocausal explanations. We have a conflict-oriented media ecosystem supercharged by the power of clickbait, identity-politics and base-pandering. Despite a greater level of connectivity than at any point in human history, the alienating conditions of contemporary life have left us with increasing feelings of social isolation and atomisation.

One piece of the puzzle in the atrophying of civil engagement that I have identified in recent research is the role of ‘fighting identities’. To possess a fighting identity is to define oneself in part by the ongoing conflicts one wages, and is differentiated from fighting for identity, which I would argue is much more common historically. People have spilled oceans of blood defending the boundaries of their various cultural, religious, national and familial selves since time immemorial.

 

'A response would need to recognise the numerous causes of alienation, and address many of the deep social, political and economic contradictions and injustices that have led us to this moment.' 

 

But a fighting identity is not about a defence of an imagined pre-existing self. It does not seek an ultimate peace or security, for the means of destruction is the end itself and without the continuation of a struggle the fighting identity has no sense of self or purpose. The appeal of a fighting identity today is in many ways a response to the condition Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman describes as liquid modernity: a world in which supposedly ‘fixed’ meanings, including culture, gender, faith, relationships, body morphology, morality, the ‘good life’, are increasingly seen as shifting, subjective and in a state of increasingly incomprehensible flux. For some, this might be liberating, but for many others, this is deeply disturbing and occasionally referred to as ‘Clown World’.

Beyond these changes in fixed meanings, it’s a world in which the future is increasingly imperilled by the threats of climate change, pandemic and economic anarchy; a world where the abundance and opportunities of the past seem increasingly distant and out of reach. Faced with this bleak scenario, many, particularly young people, experience a profound sense of relative deprivation.

The fighting identity provides catharsis and clarity to these uncertainties by asserting agency through iconoclastic violence and aggression, attacking existing ideas, traditions and institutions. The fighting identity does not aim to replace the edifices it tears down, nor even reify old ones; their annihilation is sufficient.

The digital precursors to today’s fighting identities could be found over a decade ago. Those of us who grew up before the true popularisation of the internet remember the concept of ‘doing it for the lulz’.  Originating on sites like Something Awful and 4Chan, this was the act of engaging in some form of jocular anti-social or destructive behaviour, such as trolling individuals or engaging in harassment campaigns. This behaviour wasn’t about facilitating meaningful outcomes and was not driven by a particular ideology. More often than not, it was for the nihilistic pleasure of watching the frustration and indignation they produced in their recipients. The more one could harm or desecrate something another held value in, the better. If one couldn’t have something to believe in or hope for, so the thinking seemed to go, then at least one could relish in denying others the same.

In the past decade, the forces that fostered the emergence of fighting identities in esoteric corners of the internet have only intensified and expanded. Events such as Gamergate, the election of Donald Trump, Russiagate, and the global effects of COVID have for many only seemed to confirm Clown World and simultaneously provided many sacred cows to smash across all spectrums of politics and world views.

This is not to say that many involved discursive combat around these issues are without belief and goals, quite the opposite. But like moths to a flame, the arenas they have opened have drawn both true believers as well as many purely looking for thrill of the flurry.

Correspondingly, the costs of embracing a fighting identity are low. The anonymity and ease of access afforded by platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube naturally shield most from the consequences of their actions. In addition, many who have embraced an online fighting identity already have little concern for retribution within the conditions of Clown World, perceived as absurdist.

Such an identity provides narrative and a target to lash out against in a world defined by impersonal forces of disparity, meaningless consumption and decline.

I understand this intellectually as a researcher of political extremism. At the same time, I also feel it viscerally and with empathy in my lived experience as a middle-class white male in my 30s. Despite having experienced much privilege, I have often struggled to feel a sense of purpose or connection to a broader society I have often felt an outsider to. In this context, I understand how the notion of a nihilistic fight to throw all one’s anxieties, furies, and general feelings of impotence into has a certain seductive charm.

How to respond to the proliferation of the online fighting identities that have only served to divide, polarise, and heighten tensions in the real world? Much like the phenomenon itself, any solution would need to be multifaceted and require a whole-of-society response. A response would need to recognise the numerous causes of alienation, and address many of the deep social, political and economic contradictions and injustices that have led us to this moment. And most importantly, it would need to understand individuals who embrace a fighting identity as the symptom of a much deeper structural malaise.

 

 

Dr Ben Rich is co-director of the Curtin Extremism Research Network (CERN) and Senior Lecturer in International Relations & History, Curtin University, Western Australia.

Main image:  A protester holds a flare in front of Parliament House, Melbourne. (Diego Fedele / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ben Rich, Polarisation, Fighting, Identity, Extremism, Politics, Radicalisation

 

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Existing comments

Another great article on ES; fresh and potentially controversial... I find online discourse a good litmus test to guage opinions and sentiments that I consider to be within my domain to observe, apply the calculus of my small thoughts and observe how others interpret the same premise. Same as other fora, ES has a number of territorial contributors; authors, commentors and ogres whom keep it zesty (but musty, read on..) Each has their mantle and an escutcheon well polished from previous engagements; if robust debate ensues it can be even more interesting than the primary article; polar opinions (with the aid of moderation) draw out eloquent argument and perhaps the most important aspect is the articulation rather than any imperative to change a North to South; a deflection to NNE is taken as a trophy even if West was the desired waypoint. What troubles me is the mostly male melee discourse I enjoy may be the very deterrent to contributions from younger readers which alienates my understanding of their perspective. Perhaps Dr Ben could consider that though polarized opinion has no age barrier that youth at least have the potential to be changed over time with persuasive discourse and many remaining years...


ray | 17 February 2022  

Dear Ben, what a wrenching cry from your heart!

So well expressed and deeply informed; and, I'd guess, resonating with very many people around the globe whose cognitive worlds have been rendered shambolic by the misuses of IT.

To extend your powerful analysis I'd want to bring in two ideas. First, one might edit: "People have spilled oceans of blood defending the boundaries of their various cultural, religious, national and familial selves since time immemorial." to say that that has been the story of farmer/civic peoples, from about 8 millennia ago. For tens or hundreds of millennia prior to that, hunter/gatherer peoples tended to be too busy maintaining the health of their culture and country to waste time on the Grande projects, environmental devastation, and the continuous genocidal warfare of farmer/civics.

Perhaps the author(s) of Genesis chapter 1 were reflecting on a pre-Adamic goodness; then, the puzzling reasons for the loss of which they strove to described in chapters 3 & 4, et seq.

Second, to remain sane, it seems necessary to have a worldview that can cope with the wrong ethical and absurd motives and actions of civilization's 'Clown World' that you describe so well.

Drawing on Matthew 18:7 and Luke18:1, it seems we are being told by God that 'binary ethical apocalypsis' HAS to happen. If you're interested, this exhaustive actualization of wrong ethics founds a worldview that accounts for both the good of this world and its accompanying evils. There's much more on this in: 'Ethical Encounter Theology' - free on the web, at: https://research-repository.griffith.edu.au/handle/10072/367007

Thanks again, Ben and ES for a stimulating article; blessings from Marty


Dr Marty Rice | 17 February 2022  
Show Responses

Correction: Luke 17:1 not 18:1.


Dr Marty Rice | 23 February 2022  

To explain a resurgent tribalism, turn first to the media.
Universities abandoned journalistic objectivity in favour of “social justice.” The former editor of the NYT, Chris Hedges, wrote that the press “has largely given up on journalism…[which] guarantees the balkanisation of the United States.” Last year, a Reuters survey found the US ranked last out of 46 countries for trust in media.
Covid produced more polarization.
When eminent epidemiologists like Jay Bhattacharya proposed prioritizing the most vulnerable instead of lockdowns, they were subjected to smear campaigns and banned from the Internet. New research from John Hopkins University shows lockdowns “are ill-founded” and reduced Covid mortality by 0.2% in the US and Europe while “imposing enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted.”
The Wuhan lab leak theory, initially favoured by virologists, was debunked by the medical-research establishment as a crackpot conspiracy theory, and media censorship followed against “misinformation.” Now even Dr Fauci doesn’t rule out the theory.
This smearing and censoring anyone who disagrees with the illiberal Establishment groupthink, causes further tribalism. Even Dr Rich apparently linked the Wuhan leak theory to “far-right” groups and “their previous views on Asians.” (Lachlan Allen, Too far right – Western Independent)


Ross Howard | 18 February 2022  

You have raised important issues, Ben. The current Ottawa protests in Canada and the simultaneous blockage of the US border bring most of the trends you discuss together, as well as showing who supports the protesters. Liberal commentators have pointed out how differently the police deal with these mainly white, hyperconservative protesters to the way they deal with Native Canadian and Afro-Canadian protesters. It is a worrying trend, as is the pillorying of Prime Minister Trudeau as a 'radical leftist' for invoking the Emergency Powers Act. We have, as yet, not gotten quite as bad, though recent protests in Melbourne are worrying, as you point out. I suppose the only sensible long term answer is the sort of educational one which Kevin Donnelly, who went through the then excellent Victorian state educational system, points to. We need to teach History well, to counter the current ahistorical nonsense that is going around. This means teaching British History and showing how our sort of political system, a rare gem, evolved and how it dealt positively with the Abolition of Slavery, Industrial Welfare as in the Factories' Acts and Women's Enfranchisement, amongst other issues. Congratulations to you on this superb, informative article.


Edward Fido | 19 February 2022  

'We need to teach History well. . .'
Indeed we do: to arrest its subordination to ideological 'narratives' that substitute rhetorical invention for fact.


John RD | 21 February 2022  

The article mentions that the election of Donald Trump confirms Clown World. The election of Biden, with cognitive defects, is also confirmation.


Marita | 22 February 2022  

Most History teaching has been subjective, John RD. Look at the Whig View of History. The difference is the modern deconstructionist 'History' which is basically Marxist. Marxism failed. Spectacularly. I don't want a return of the jingoist White Australia narrative either. Oh for a sane, civilised, nondogmatic, nonbiased view of things. It does exist. Modern Indian History was a battleground between Brits and locals with vastly differing viewpoints until people like the late Chris Bayley (Sir Christopher Bayley, Professor of Imperial and Naval History at Cambridge) came on the scene. Now there is an agreed, sensible framework. We can be civilised about things. Chris brought out the best in people. We need more like him.


Edward Fido | 22 February 2022  

It's Bayly! I knew I'd spelt it incorrectly.


Edward Fido | 24 February 2022  

Bayly's 'Guardian' obituary of 2015, available for citation from the internet, reads as follow:

'He was lucky to live in a golden age of Oxford history. Christopher Hill, Richard Cobb and Gallagher, his Balliol tutors, had a lasting impact on his intellectual style and voice, as did those such as Keith Thomas (around the journal 'Past & Present') who were then showing how history might conduct a productive dialogue with anthropology and sociology.

'Their mark can be seen in Bayly’s declaration in 1998 that while he was politically a liberal, 'historical analysis in the Marxist tradition is the only social theory which displays a rigorous interest in explaining historical change'.'

While I always enjoy reading Edward, when he familiarises himself with the meanings conveyed by the use of terms like 'liberal', 'anthropology' and 'sociology', he might venture forth to post opinions of more meaningful substance on this Jesuit site without fear of necessary contradiction, especially when employing crude generalities to off-load scattergun broadsides at Marxists and Marxism without any evident understanding of the ideological terms in which Bayly, like others, describes himself as 'liberal'.

My observation also applies to JohnRD's post and who deludes himself that his remarks are ideologically-free.


Michael Furtado | 25 February 2022  

With respect, Ross Howard, doesn't your post tell us more about you than about Rich, Fauci or Allen, one wonders?

After all, this isn't the first time that you've emerged in print in this Jesuit journal, which is committed to the spread of liberty, rationalism and justice, by making wild conspiratorial allegations about articles that you haven't been too happy about.

Set in appropriate global context, the right-wing American establishment, which you never fail to defend, is largely responsible for the richest country in the world having a vaccination record - the worst in the developed world! - of only 50 per cent.

One is compelled to ask: could clever, gentle, peace-loving Dr Rich actually mean you when he alludes to the intemperate, the extreme and the unreasonable?

Why indeed would you not wish to learn from Ben Rich's carefully outlined and argued research, instead of exposing yourself to precisely the same degree of fear and concern that Trump and his minions have aroused in every forum in which liberty, democracy, rationality and open debate are valued but held to ransom by people who favour forceful assertion over carefully-expressed and respectful debate?

Might the same apply to Marita's intemperate remarks?


Michael Furtado | 25 February 2022  

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