Having studied psychology in college and continuing those studies in loose form, then having lived the life I have coupled with the continued anxieties I deal with, this topic strikes me in a way that few others do. One could call it being triggered were one to wish to use common terms of the day. What is triggering me? Our seeming obsession in sectors of society on trauma.
Mental illness can take many forms. Anxiety is almost ubiquitous with being human, and in modern times, without the threats our ancestors experienced (living as we are in relative comparative safety), our minds have in some form adopted the standard fight-or-flight response ordinarily reserved for the prior mentioned mechanism of defense for our ancestors into a sort-of system that continues to error as the limit switches are wound a little too tight.
And with living in a society that is more connected in a global sense than any prior civilization, we’ve become more sensitive to the dangers of social ostracization in proportion to the risks than any prior human has ever had to deal with. In the past, if one were banished or exiled from their society, the event posed more risk to the individual — both in a physical and a psychological manner. Being outside the protection of a tribe or community was truly life-threatening. Compare that to what it means to someone being cast from their community in today’s globalized, ultra-connected society. Today, if one is cast from their tribe, their physical safety is not at equal risk to what would have happened in previous centuries. While there may be little to no threat to life here, the psychological sting of such an event continues. Having hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions) of evolutionary programming that being cast away is a penultimate danger does not go away simply because that danger no longer is valid. How does one undo that much ingrained programming so quickly?
But there is another thing to consider here. To banish someone in a community meant having to face that person. Communities took matters like that seriously (not to say that it isn’t serious now). Often, shunning a person meant that they were losing a member of said community. It meant possibly that more work must be spread across the remaining members of the group. Replacements weren’t so easy to come by. So when someone transgressed against the norms of the group, efforts were made to correct the behavior all the way up to that line of death or exile.
Today, something else exists. The ultra-connectedness of the internet has changed several things. If one steps poorly, it is easy to reject them. With the simple click of a button, someone can be muted, blocked, banned, etc. All one needs to do is to be caught in a bad day and someone to say something even mildly critical of an idea you have and that block button is right there — easy to click — and then poof! problem solved. No committee is necessary. Heck, if one wanted to add to the trauma, you only need find like-minded sour individuals to yourself and point them in the right direction.
Replacements are easy to find as well. In fact, there’s often so many people available that it almost begs for the constant act of culling the herd.
Whether the physical risk is there, let’s simply accept that rejection is still equally harmful to one’s mental health. Couple that with the ease of the act of rejecting someone in today’s world and one can begin to see that there is danger around every social corner.
I believe that this is why it seems that as the world couples together more rapidly, people have found themselves feeling further isolated and alone. The risk/reward ratios feel tilted too far towards risk in social situations. Why risk the possibility of being rejected when it is so easy to be rejected? The novelty of finding people in far-off places that are like you has worn off. While that general benefit absolutely exists to allow people who have weird, unique interests that are not shared by their local friends, it has almost a burden as well, encouraging the pursuit of finding friends online rather than in person (online you can get likes, comments, and emojis), all the while trying to avoid the pratfalls of the ease of rejection.
Then there is the endless supply of what appears to be a glossy veneer covering so many. It is the perfection posed by so many that — deep inside — we know to be nothing more than a snapshot of the real world. Perfection appears in the box, but outside it — in the world we cannot see through the lens — is real life in all its often messy actuality. Yet even so, we fall for it, believing that what is online is real rather than a slight moment in time. Maybe it is real in a sense; but only for that moment and only as much as we desire it to be. Ironically, there are the occasions of those social media influensters too where one would pose in front of the camera for a selfie while displaying the full disaster of their room right behind them in the frame. It is as though the truth of social media sometimes becomes impossible to hide. Real or fake, the world there entices us to lie about ourselves. It encourages us to deceive others. And then also to call out others for their deceit.
There is no shortage of outward hostility when we look at social media. Given the levels of stress or anxiety it is almost no question that people end up lashing out. Most times we don’t even know exactly why we’re stressed — until we happen upon a post that provides the answer. Or we find the easy prey to allow us to temporarily unburden ourselves of it.
There’s also the ease of calling out others rather than turning to inward reflection. When we feel bad about ourselves, it is an easy road to take to find someone else with transgressions that can be laid bare for the world to see and to strike before they might see our own. It is in a way a social preemptive strike.
Although it is not necessarily anonymous, the nature of the product leads to a disconnection, making these situations worse. While we are interacting with human beings, it is accomplished through a medium that tricks us into believing otherwise. Or at least it doesn’t allow us to respond to the same internal cues that we get when talking to another individual face-to-face (or even over a phone — at least with a phone there are tonal inflections). That disconnection allows for people to release their anger with the illusion that it is nothing more than screaming in the middle of an empty field.
Yet it is not an empty field. And given psychological tendencies for us to justify past behaviors through story, we will find good reasons to validate the behavior of throwing harm towards others. We are offended. We are triggered. They said a wrong word or wrong series of words. Something traumatized us. Our anger is justified.
Like a car crash on the side of the road, eyes are drawn to these dramas. They are reality TV, only in actual reality… or rather what approximates reality over the internet. But there’s something else that was brewing at the same time. Theories such as intersectionality were gaining prominence in the popular zeitgeist, bringing with it a reasonable claim that some people have it worse than others given the combined prejudices of multiple characteristics — such as being gay, female, black, and disabled. The true measure of a person’s experience of discrimination is not within the scope of a single piece of their identity, but where their multiple identities intersect.
Quite a reasonable way to think and debate the experiences of discrimination, critics label the concept as creating a scorecard of oppression. Given that human’s often will compete — like two friends debating on who had the worst injury between the pair to decide who’s tougher — Intersectionality offered opportunities for less scrupulous individuals to suggest that social awards be given to groups with more intersections of discrimination.
Before I go much further, this essay is not to discuss the merits of Intersectionality, nor is it to degrade it. The intention is to point to how this concept furthers the hypothesis I am putting forth. I am not educated sufficiently on the history or social consequences to point to Intersectionality being a cause or a symptom or a mere coincidence in the whole of this era of social media outrage. But regardless of where Intersectionality fits into these social trends, it nonetheless allowed for another system where people and groups could reasonably measure their trauma — whether they had lived experiences that matched.
As people who previously would have been singular in communities, with social media, they can find others who share what they might have assumed previously to be unique traumas. People of mixed races, disabled, gay, trans, etc all might make up small sectors of the overall community and had to spend a great amount of energy to find others like them before, but with social media they are provided an efficient tool to find others. Then what is reasonable in therapeutic terms in sharing traumas within the group for support and connection, in some cases it morphed (neither rightly nor wrongly) into badges of honor to differentiate themselves from the normies who populate society — otherwise seen as the oppressive class.
We can see this as good. People need to understand and connect to others like them. Sharing trauma — such as with a therapist — can help an individual cope, to strengthen their personality against the anxiety past, present, and future. However, when you insert a system of connectedness like social media and then interweave it with capitalist aims, it becomes a problem.
I am not one who views social media as an inherently good or evil organization. Whether it be Facebook, Snapchat, TicTok, or some other system, their aim is to bring eyeballs to their platform so they can sell advertising and make money. Where documentaries such as The Social Dilemma might point to it being a purposefully malfeasant process, others see that it is nothing more than a system designed to feed one what they want to see — again: good or bad. If people are attracted to kittens, and that is all they want to see, then the algorithms are going to show the person nothing but puppies. However, if people respond to ideas such as Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, conspiracy theories, flat Earth, or other reasonable or unreasonable concepts, then the programs will respond in kind.
For me, my YouTube algorithms feed me a mix of ASMR videos, music, gaming theories (mainly The Legend of Zelda), and humorous political commentary. Depending on my watching habits will determine how much of one or the other will land in my suggested list. For instance, if I watch a succession of ASMR videos, they will become dominant on the home page. The same concept goes with my Instagram (the only real social media platform I regularly visit). My suggestion area will always follow what trends I follow. Sometimes its ballet, sometimes animals, sometimes comedy, etc etc. Since I don’t happen to follow a heavy load of political leaning things — or if I follow them I don’t engage with them often, the algorithms move away. In other words, the algorithms are only interested in your attention, regardless of what that attention is after.
It just so happens that a portion of the population is attracted to trauma.
Like the news, violence and catastrophe sell. Like the accident on the highway, we find it hard to avert our eyes and ignore the trauma going on near us. Join that with how anger or outrage or fear each are great motivators for action. Then give people a tool where they can easily act. Then create a system that monetizes attention. Eventually it adds up to a situation where trauma is for sale and the highest bidder wins.
I am not lacking hope that this will fade. We already see the signs that people are seeing the issues with perpetuating a system that gives incentives for poor behavior. It is because of this that documentaries like The Social Dilemma are big hits, or that philosophies like Stoicism are on the rise in popularity. People understand that we all have trauma and that there are people who experience it more or less than others, but we are rejecting the ideas of using it for wealth or power — both possible outcomes given the current trajectory of these platforms.