The rise (and fall?) of instant distinction

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There can’t be many now who’ve never heard of Milo. So as you probably know he recently got into trouble again, but this time big trouble, losing a book deal and job as a result. Is there more to this than just a career blowout for him personally? Yes: Milo’s setback tells us something about a particular form of communication, of advertising yourself, taken up by the left and right-leaning middle classes over the last few decades, and which seems to have happened in response to political disorientation and economic insecurity.

Climate sceptics and critics of identity politics will find it hard to criticise Milo. He is, after all, someone who said “I wouldn’t trust that bunch of c*nts [climate change advocates] as far as I could throw them” and who has spent the last year grinding – pulverising – the grievance culture spawned of the politics of identity into the ground. But fans of Peter Cook, Chris Morris or Malcolm McLaren – satirical provocateurs who, like Milo, made careers out of disgusting the establishments of their day – should find the ex-Breitbart writer’s description of himself as of their tradition hard to take. Milo definitely isn’t of their tradition. There is a clear difference between what Peter Cook and co did, which is make something called satire, and what Milo has been up to, which is say things that are critical. The former is art, the latter is comment.

The otherwise spot on professor of psychology Jordan Peterson is among many who’ve got this confused: dazzled by Milo’s fluency and flamboyancy they claim Milo has managed, through force of personality, to push commentary into comedy or performance art, but they shouldn’t fall for it: colourful costumes and catty remarks will never overcome a difference of form, only alter content. Milo isn’t a character, a fiction – he is Milo. All that happens with added theatrics is that Milo’s commentary, or more specifically his signalling, becomes more entertaining. Understanding this helps us understand why Milo simultaneously lost a job, had publishers drop him, had fans turn on him, and felt the need to make a sad-faced apology while Cook, Morris and McLaren never faced anything similar. The key is that signalling as a form of communication is vulnerable.

As a form of communication art consists of a generous offer: to join together in contemplating something beyond both creator and viewer. Being this generous breeds generosity. Poets or singers, who as people hold controversial views that leave the public gasping don’t lose their publishers because there’s always the poems and songs. These artworks are not mere signals, on or off: they invite negotiation, encourage open-minded judgement, they draw you into a two-way relationship. Signalling, as opposed to art, is one-way communication. As such it’s vulnerable to blocking by other signals: it’s on, but can be easily switched off.

Given this inherent weakness why is signalling now so popular? Why has the sub-group of virtue-signalling exploded and why is YouTube full of strident commentators signalling their difference from the virtue-signallers? Why, for heavens sake, did Milo dedicate his energies to such a form, when he had everything in place – the costumes, charisma, flamboyancy, the logo and name – to be a pop star? The answer is progress: preposterously, technology has made signalling the better option.

‘Don’t worry’, said the man who has spent the last year saturating the American airwaves, being quoted by Hillary Clinton and swooned over by millions of fans, as he gave his post-scandal press conference, ‘I’ll be here for decades to come.’ Such defiance is the unconvincing clarion call of every professional now facing institutional-level challenges from the vast leaps forward in technology and the massive expansion – and democratisation – of knowledge through the internet.

There are three ways in which the internet has utterly changed everything; in which it’s given rise to the insecurities that feed instant distinction as a strategy for protecting the wounded knowledge-worker; three ways, in other words, in which it’s propelled signalling to the fore as the tool to achieve that distinction. Those ways are Positive ways, Negative ways, and Outright Criminal ways.

Positive ways
The internet has exploded access to knowledge, and made experts where previously there were none. Blogging has stormed the ivory towers of academia and journalism. This is an unqualified good thing. But it has caused panic and defensiveness. The response of institutions has been to shore up authority, circle the wagons, and re-assert moral superiority through an ever more vocal support of Good Things. If distinction as an academic or journalist is no longer automatic, distinction as a moral actor is needed to fill the gap. Signalling accelerates.

But there are further harms associated with circling the wagons (i.e. gatekeeping). As amateur researchers like Steve McIntyre, despite the high value of their work, are dismissed simply for not having office somewhere, or being peer-reviewed, an over-emphasis on peer-review, or being tenured – just being in office – diverts attention from the real merits (or demerits) of research. Peer-review is in crisis. Indeed, the power of Office for its own sake is now measurable in the amount of frauds and charlatans it attracts. In the wake of Position and Office being weaponised to fight off growing insecurity comes a seedy line of truly, justifiably insecure, crooks seeking to cash in and ‘office-up’. Office, made a free-floating concept with locked-in authority, is now too often turning a blind eye to scoundrels prepared to say the right things and back the right causes.

Secondly, with everyone become writers for free, writers who want to be paid increasingly seek government support in the guise of various arts bodies and enterprises with a view to graduating, with virtue, to the state broadcaster. But to get money this way means you must write what’s required, and more often what’s required is not your honest take on reality but copy supporting Good Things: community cohesion, participatory art as a form of therapy, the promotion of the Welsh language, engagement with diversity, mental health, climate change and so on. In other words, writers get paid for their performances. And the best performance is judged by its mastering of the art of sending out good signals. You like that, don’t you?

Negative ways
With the explosion of blogging, entrepreneurs saw a whole new area opening up for exploitation – and they were right, as their billions attest. But social media has been a disaster.

Social media has made our experience of the internet more anxious and less friendly. Addiction to a glut of ultimately unsatisfying information in ever briefer news cycles is a form of bulimia. We hunger to check twitter every twenty minutes for fear of missing out on something, but our reward is momentary, the experience never satisfying. There’s only one thing for it: we’ll check twitter again in twenty minutes – and on it goes, days, weeks lost to nothing much except a faintly pulsing string of micro-blogged micro-highs. We’re not happy, we’re bored. Being bored we seek another micro-high. Inevitably our focus narrows to nothing but the present tense and what it can offer.

But if you thought living in the present tense was all pulsing strings of micro-blogged micro-highs, think again. On the downside there are strict rules and regulations. You can’t live in the present tense and be unsure about something, because that requires having more time beyond the present in which to consider things. And that’s not allowed.

Fairly quickly, then, a cluster of subjects to be right about coalesces: racism, sexism, and climate change. Climate change is something about which you can be absolutely certain (97% certain) in the present-tense; it is a present-tense behemoth, bestriding the vast, warm globe. An odd thing to say, you might think, in light of apparent concerns about the world 60, 70, 80 years down the line, but in truth that world is the present with the numbers artificially adjusted. It’s 2080, right now. And can’t be anything other than this, as there is no sure way to model human progress that far ahead.

By accident, climate alarmists have produced one of the most elegant illustrations of present-tensism in the shape of the famous hockey stick graph. A gradual narrowing of focus down to the present tense matches very neatly the shape of a hockey stick. In fact, an exact, nanometer-perfect match would be a panic attack: mounting dread culminates, along an exponential curve, in a singularity of raw, non-specific fear. They may not have realised it but climate alarmists have been showing us on the doll (i.e. the hockey stick graph) where we’ve been touched all along.

Outright criminal ways
With the advent of ‘free’ (pirated work, globally shared in an instant) the internet has ravaged the music industry. This has destroyed youth culture based around bands and genres: no more punks, goths, mods, metalheads, shoegazers, and so on, killing in turn the NME (Britain’s venerable music paper, the hub of youth culture for five decades). But adolescents, more than anyone, need distinction. In the absence of bands an increasingly atomised and lonely youth therefore turn to instant distinction, either virtue-signalling as a member of Momentum, Plane Stupid, Black Lives Matter or whatever, or, increasingly, shit-posting and meme-spreading as part of the online sceptic community (in which people like Milo figure heavily).

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By devaluing so much in these various ways, then, the internet has forced the ‘knowledge class’ – pre-work adolescents, those employed to use their brains not their hands – to commodify the one thing that can’t be pirated or undercut: themselves. But just as millions have got used to this reality, and adapted to a lonely life of signalling in a world of instant distinction, comes an unexpected twist: the return of the workers of the working class with their traditional economic concerns. This is deeply unsettling because in the distinction economy you are alone. It all comes down to you. It’s all on you, and all about you. Brexit – democratically – wipes out your power, your standing, your place in the world, over one day in June. Trump – democratically – compounds the loss a few months later. Your world built on distinction is gone, the economy collapsed overnight, because millions have declared no interest in you or what you think. The hard realities of political organisation have shoved their way back in, as they will.

So could the bubble be bursting on the distinction economy? If it is, it’ll be slow to take effect. Already we’re seeing a gigantic effort to re-inflate distinction from the ‘wrongly’ or ‘badly’ informed electorate behind the revolts. (On the other side, it’s hard to see people like Milo switching tactics either: he will double down and bounce back on the strength of his enhanced villainy, becoming a martyr for the distinction that he represents.)

But things are moving in the right direction. If there’s one thing Brexit has already done it is throw into sharp relief the fact that we’re locked into a form of communication that is inherently preachy, spiteful and mean. We are waking up to the fact that social media dragoons every user (i.e. everyone) into declaring things on a personal level: it makes us seek distinction, even as we watch the debris of friendships scud by and, on a wider level, witness society fracture into mutually suspicious, polarised blocks. There is a slow dawning that the word for societies who prefer preaching over art is ‘puritanical’.

As for what comes next – it’s hard to say. There doesn’t seem to be any clear prescription for the problems thrown up by the internet and, to bring it back to Milo, how people might make it in the arts is only in the early stages of being addressed by platforms such as Patreon and Kickstarter etc.

But then artists have always had to find their own way, against the odds. People who want to dedicate their lives to one or other artistic pursuit now need, perhaps, to work as hard as they did in the days before the Arts Council and tv license fee. What we could definitely do with less of is people taking the lazy route: churning out ‘product’ signalling membership of a particular, distinct faction – so less of the vast industry of left-wing virtue-signallers pretending to be comedians, for example. Indeed, perhaps this is the key to gaining an audience: making stuff that actually means something, which might be another way of saying ‘just be any good’. Future ‘dissident, satirical provocateurs’ following Milo might do well to learn from his mistakes and take comedy, satire or music seriously as a form – the better to remind the distinctly liberal, metropolitan virtue-signallers and their distinct opposite (the youtube ranters, meme-sters, shitposters and ‘Kekistanis’) that nobody is the second coming. And there’s no shame in that.

 

17 thoughts on “The rise (and fall?) of instant distinction

  1. “The internet has exploded access to knowledge, and made experts where previously there were none.”
    Exactly this point was made by Ian Katz on Newsnight, see previous post on distrust of experts. He said that part of the answer of how we got here was the internet, providing us with instant knowledge, for example to diagnose our own ailments.

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  2. I know someone who suffered a skin problem for twenty years – had been told various ways by various doctors how to treat it over the years, none of which worked, then read a blog post by someone who said ‘you need to do this. It’ll get really bad for a month, then entirely disappear’. Which is what did happen. Who needs doctors? 😉

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  3. Thanks for the link to that, Paul. It’s strangely amusing to see people like Paul Joseph Watson talked about in the press. But Milo crosses over easily, he is fascinating to everyone it seems. I still think he isn’t a comedian in the sense of comedy as an artform (even standup comedy, personal and anecdotal as it is, is not just commentary, it is something more than commentary) but Jordan Peterson isn’t wrong to say he’s a court jester, or trickster. This is a great 20 minutes – on free speech, postmodernism and Milo from JB:

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  4. There is a lot of talk about revolution but few realise that we are well and truly in one already. It’s a revolution of communication. Not only can we have our own opinion, for the first time we can find others that share it, no matter how far away they are. Those that disagree become the outsiders and the minority.

    To me, the alt-right seem as annoying as Corbyn’s left. Their support is a side effect of the endless attacks on reasonable right wing view points but they don’t really represent the majority who drift towards them. Traditional politics demands that we choose a group to follow and then endorse everything they stand for but we don’t want that any more. We want to choose on each policy. eg the public didn’t vore for austerity, they voted to stop governments and public services frittering money on crap.

    . Free speech is too often used to offend.

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  5. Tiny,

    “Free speech is too often used to offend”

    It is. Shitposting is all over twitter. Yesterday Louis Barfe, a lefty, went off on what he imagined was a very clever campaign to offend alt-righters by being gratuitously offensive himself. So he was posting photos of Farage in the plane crash, Norman Tebbit being dug out of the rubble of the Brighton bomb. When conservatives on twitter complained he ‘victoriously’ mocked them for being snowfalkes unable to take a joke. On it goes. On and on. I think it’s got a bit tedious. I want a bit more from entertainment than this.

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  6. We have gone from a point where it was ok to mock groups but bad to mock individuals to the total opposite. Personally I’d rather be picked on as part of a group than torn apart for what makes me, me. Ideally I’d like my viewpoints to be debated fairly and without insults at all. The latter is true free speech.

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  7. Insults can be good, though. Douglas Murray’s competition to come up with the most insulting limerick about President Erdogan (after he persuaded Merkel to punish a German comedian for doing that) was a great response to this tyrannical crap. In debate, yes: ad hominem is the end of debate. You can’t continue.

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  8. Tinyco2, “Ideally I’d like my viewpoints to be debated fairly and without insults at all. The latter is true free speech.”

    No, it really is not. Free speech is about being able to speak (or write, etc) freely. It has nothing to do with what sort of reaction results from what you say.

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  9. I’m getting intimidated by the scope, frequency, and intensity of the insights and thoughts on posts here! Some posts, and this is one of them, have enough to keep my brain turning over for a year or more.

    Milo is in my view a courageous man, and one who does not wish to control others. No authoritarian he. It seems to me that he ‘merely’ wants more thought, mor freedom and less oppression, not least in universities. The recent scandal that has hit him seems out of all proportion, and his defence/refutation to the charge seems a reasonable one. I hope he will get though it well. His persecution by mobs on the ground and virtual ones on the intertubes has been disgraceful. That’s as far as the old brain cells have turned so far, but I appreciate there is much more in the post.

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  10. Thanks John. I agree, the persecution is nasty but scalping seems to be the nature of the game now because it’s been made into a personality based war. Being a personality is where the numbers are, the high youtube views and facebook followings – which translates into making money. I’m on the internet too much I know, but I’m getting slightly bored of them all and thinking more and more about how things used to be in, for example, the world of political comedy – or bands who had things to say (but made good music first). You can’t bring this back like it was, but it had things that we don’t have now. There might be something to learn from the past.

    Are we due an(other) 80s revival?

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  11. Part of what’s missing is skill. Even a worthy insult requires knowlege and practice. Good music needs passion and ability. Great art needs more than novelty and self publicity. Politicians can’t just be great thinkers any more they need to be slick, good looking talkers with no history of saying the wrong thing. So we get people who are very good at dissembling and little else.

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  12. Ian
    I worry about mutual backslapping, so I was going to write you a private email saying this was maybe the most interesting article ever published here on climate scepticism, even though its connection to climate scepticism is fairly tenuous.

    Then I thought that that would be dishonest, so I’ll say it here.

    Being a couple of generations apart, about the only cultural reference I got in your article was to Peter Cook, who may be (maybe) one of the greatest artists in an artform which seemed so important at the time, but which is now as dead as fresco painting – black and white television satire.

    It was a remark by Paul Matthews who got me to link to Milo Yiannopoulos. I didn’t like him because I disagreed with some things he said. Which links to and/or confirms your thesis that Milo is not doing art. When I watch a Peter Cook sketch or Ricky Gervais in The Office, I don’t ask myself whether I agree with them. That doesn’t matter, because, however you rate it, it’s art.

    My main reason for setting up this site (with others, who probably have other reasons) was to spend less time obsessing about the opinions of boring people like Sir Paul Nurse or Milo Hanrahan (his real name, according to Wikipaedia. Would it be politically incorrect to point out that he is not actually related to Apollo or Adonis, but is in fact a Paddy?) and more doing art, which I used to do for a living. Not great art, but stuff which had to be paid for, otherwise I didn’t eat, and whose quality was not measured in clicks, but in cheques. It didn’t work out like that because I encountered ideas from others which have kept me engaged here.

    Having just made a racist remark a few minutes ago, I took time off to google a few Irish musicians I used to associate with when I played music, (occasionally being paid for it, though “for a living” would be an exaggeration.) They’re still around, and still playing, which I’m not. I blame global warming, and a certain “spirit of the times” which makes us value defending our opinions above creative activity. It’s wrong, and Ian’s article points the way back to something better.

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  13. “which makes us value defending our opinions above creative activity”

    Geoff, that about sums it up. Also, on comedians, “I don’t ask myself whether I agree with them. That doesn’t matter, because, however you rate it, it’s art.”

    With your skills of summary you’re turning me into that ‘talkative and pretentious’ Welshman Dudley Moore plays in Bedazzled. Stop it!

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  14. There’s an obvious relationship between this valuing of opinions over creativity and the fashion for reality TV. Once you decide that a group of ordinary people on a desert island talking about sex is more interesting than a novel or an opera about sex, then you’re on the slippery slope to Milo. Who reads proper books nowadays except maybe screenwriters looking for material for TV series? (And their university lecturers of course, who educated them to be screenwriters.) And (back to climate) who does proper science, involving pondering difficult questions until an answer suggests itself, when there’s papers to be written to garner the references that make you and your university rise in the league table?

    I’m counting on the Chinese. The science I see (e.g. Zhu et al 2016, which I stumbled across here)
    https://cliscep.com/2016/10/22/the-greentrashing-of-ridley/ is not world shattering, but it is aimed at solving real problems. And the soaps I occasionally watch on CCTV http://cctv.cntv.cn/lm/feuilleton/index.shtml (for some reason they don’t seem to be available on the English language site) hark back to the BBC radio plays I remember from my childhood – not great art, but apparently aimed at giving their audience more than a morbid thrill.

    Art depends on civilisation, or maybe, rather, on the rate of acquisition of civilisation. To put it in terms appropriate for this blog:

    A ≠ F(C); A= F(∂C/∂t)

    When ∂C/∂t < 0, you're buggered.

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  15. Geoff, I agree Milo’s operation is the latest branch of reality tv (or, since he’s not primarily a tv personality/polemicist but a creature of youtube, twitter, facebook, Breitbart, college tours, newspaper profiles and tv spots, the places where a lot of modern reality happens, he is a part of reality reality.)

    Where did it all start? I always think of Dennis Potter when it comes to the dishonesty of reality tv vs the truth of art (and then Oscar Wilde’s essay The Decay of Lying). Potter was wounded by his own reality tv version of home (his tv debut Between Two Rivers, a documentary about his home turf, the Forest of Dean). The result wasn’t the truth, it made the people there the dissected subjects of the too-big-for-his-boots Oxford graduate returned home with a BBC crew. Consequently this theme of fiction v ‘reality’ runs right through everything he wrote since. Our world now is all there in Dennis Potter.

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