The Grotesque Nature of Internet Sentimentality

The internet is, among other things, a place ideologies go to parody themselves. This has been foremost in my mind since Nicolas Kristoff published a letter from Dylan Farrow detailing the sexual abuse she claims to have suffered at the hands of her then-stepfather Woody Allen. I do not like writing “claims to have suffered,” and I imagine the phrase will offend someone who reads this; it is, however, the verbiage that should be used by people who do not know the truth about the case. It is a fact that most instances of sexual abuse go unreported; it is a fact that false rape allegations are fairly rare; it is also a fact that while these, and other data one might adduce concerning sexual abuse may lead us closer to having an intelligent opinion about what took place between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, none of them will help us to know the truth.

I am certainly not supporting Woody Allen by saying this; I have always had a poor opinion of Woody Allen. However, people who say they “just know” what happened in this case without evidence that transcends hearsay are using the same sort of reasoning employed by racists who “just know” that a black person is up to something. Anyone who believes in the idea of justice is bound to believe in the importance of evidentiary proceedings that do not rely on intuition.

This case has been stomach-churning for me primarily because it brings to light what is one of the most unsavory aspect of the modern western conception of morality and of what being a good person comes down to: the idea that what really matters is choosing the right side of an issue and publicly avowing that choice. This relates to a generalized tendency whereby ethical longings are transferred into a symbolic realm where they can be satisfied by symbolic commitments whose only ramification in the real world is the perpetuation of commodity capitalism: as when, for example, we pay between eight and twelve dollars to see a film decrying the evils of slavery in order to shed a few tears and remind ourselves of how awful slavery was, and those eight to twelve dollars go into the pockets of people who are already quite rich instead of to the aid of the thirty million people—a proportion between thirty and one hundred times as large as the number of African slaves brought to the United States, depending on the estimates used—who are enslaved at the present moment.

You are not a good person if you cried when you watched Twelve Years a Slave and you are not a good person if you posted an article on your Facebook page that states your belief in Dylan Farrow’s accusations. You are not a good person for “supporting” a cause or a person. The word “support,” in today’s parlance, has come to mean something along the lines of having the sense that you should do something more but lacking the strength of will for any commitment more binding than talking and, increasingly, posting articles and comments on social media pages.

The truth is that in today’s society, problems are generally solved with money. It is inspiring to imagine that in some abstract, ethereal way, by tweeting and blogging and expressing your opinion (so long as it doesn’t get you into any real trouble) about gay rights, women’s rights, ethnic violence and so on somehow creates a climate of open-mindedness that will eventually lead to the resolution of these unpleasantries, but it is probably bullshit. Especially when it comes to issues like rape, which show little sign of going away.

In fact, many of us find indignation deeply satisfying and devote a fair bit of time to looking for stories that provoke this peculiar emotion so that we can tell ourselves and other people who share our perspectives how right we are and how wrong another person is. This is a kind of repulsive sanctimonious hedonism that bears the most attenuated relationship imaginable to actually helping other people. A person in need is not a figure of literature to be read about, sympathized with, debated, etc., but a being of flesh and blood who needs a safe place to stay, food, work, and other people who know how to listen and help. None of this can be paid for with retweets and fellow-feeling.

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