Piety, Moral Absolutism and Indignation

In the absence of official positions, Activists’ online authority comes from their piety, their moral absolutism and their indignation. It gives them a flavour of authenticity, and authenticity-flavour is the closest internet users get to the real thing. Like prawn cocktail crisps. 

Central to the Liberal-Humanist project is the defence of the individual, who is, inevitably, threatened by domineering, impersonal forces and institutions. The Righteous Activists are the underdogs, standing up for the natural rights of the oppressed and voiceless.  

This moral elite can’t be identified by their behaviour or actions, because there are no actions or behaviours, online. Instead, they seem identifiable by their status as the aggrieved or, failing that, as the defenders of the aggrieved. It’s their experience of persecution, and the strength of feeling this causes, that wins them their position.

I guess their blogs and posts exemplify the Liberal principle of individualism: the selves displayed are unique and unprecedented, pure expressions of souls, that, due to the hardships they endure, are made of a superior moral substance to that of the rest of us privileged bastards. They have achieved their successes by their own abilities and hard work, not by having success handed to them on a platter. 

Some battles have already been won. Society is more egalitarian than it used to be. Modern minority groups in Britain don’t tend to encounter open, legal persecution. Instead, they experience limiting expectations and what are now called “micro-aggressions”. 

Even if these are only a small number of a person’s encounters[1], the cumulative effect of constantly managing even surmountable barriers and mild hostilities, the constant effort of resisting, is so wearing, that it amounts, in Otegha Uwagba’s words, to “trauma.”[2]. Activists have both the right and the duty to bear witness to this.

The history of discrimination has also left a legacy of expectations and practices (but I guess all societies favour majorities and their perspectives). These histories allow the internet warriors to inherit righteous indignation from their even more persecuted forebears. 

This is, ironically, a form of entitlement. Suffering, and the history of suffering they are heir to, gives them moral infallibility, a trump card in any debate about society. Because they have been treated badly, they must be right, when it comes to interpreting the world, it’s political power-structures and oppressions. 

This is all attested to by the Activists themselves. They identify as Being in The Right. That is their truth. In a world of words, something exists by being stated. By reputation. In a realm that celebrates the individual, the primacy of personal experience trumps objective facts[3]

How this experience makes you feel is its only important meaning. And you are the only authority on that[4].


[1] We are all guilty of cherry-picking negative experiences to prove that we’ve been having a bad time, but if you are part of a marginalised group, it only takes one unkind comment from a member of the in-group to make you feel completely alienated, however much welcoming positivity you may have encountered before that. This is something I do know from my own experience, although only in a very mild form.

[2] The Guardian Review, Saturday 14/11/20. This seemed a hyperbolic use of the word to me, at first, given its meaning to surgeons and paramedics, but I have no authority to speak about the experience of ethnic minority Brits, being white, male and university-educated. Or should I say, unhealthily pinky-yellow and bloodshot, y-chromosomed and having been to university, although I’ve forgotten everything I learned. 

[3] I’m paraphrasing David Goodhart, here (BBC Radio 4: A Point of View, Sunday, 22 November, 2020). 

[4] Although blame for it can still be outsourced to other people, for some reason, whose motives can be dismissed as slavishly hegemonic, or as an inexplicable commitment to causing harm. 

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