by Ed West
Friday, 31
January 2020
Idea
10:17

These days, Peter the Hermit would have a blue tick

Rod Dreher has an interesting post on “fragility” as an emotional weapon in politics. Looking back at the Yale Halloween meltdown, the first in a series of bizarre episodes across American universities, he argues:

Displaying fragility is the key to power. Rene Girard wrote that the admirable concern for victims, the gift of Hebrew and Christian religion, has in our time become a “process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill [that] has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.
- Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

This is analogous to the term “cry-bully” in the UK, and it is the bane of social media, especially the horrific female-on-female bullying in which ideological purity is often just a pretext for hierarchy establishment and cruelty (as it has always been).

One of the reasons why political debate is so tedious — whenever I read the word “woke” I just want to groan, just as the term “political correctness” has made me raise my eyes in boredom since about 1998 — is because the flashpoints are often extremely childish and inconsequential issues. The Yale thing started over Halloween costumes, and this is the second-best university in America!

We fight over these issues because the decline of formal institutions has made it far easier for extremely dysfunctional people with personality disorders to rise to positions of power. If you look at medieval history, for example, it’s filled with extremely popular preachers who were able to attract large numbers of people. These men and women — people like Peter the Hermit, for instance — were very charismatic but also extremely unbalanced, extreme and dangerous, because these things are often linked.

Unbalanced charismatics often led pogroms against Jews or other instances of mass disorder. In the 14th century, when Church prestige suffered after the Black Death, there were the Flagellants, groups of people who got together to commit public acts of self-harm, and who frequently became extremely aggressive towards perceived enemies — especially priests.

These groups were always repressed by the Church, and the sort of people who had those dangerous characteristics did not go far in the hierarchy, because hierarchies are by nature more conservative (St Francis was a rare exception).

So what happened when the Reformation removed these restraints? Extremely repressive and intolerant regimes like Calvin’s Geneva or the ISIS-like insanity of Münster. Social media recreates these conditions because the sort of people who rise to power in anarchic conditions of quasi-religious identity politics (another boring phrase) are the sort of people who could have gathered thousands of people to hear them speak or even commit a bonfire of the vanities.

Peter the Hermit would have half a million followers today and a blue tick.

What makes it frustrating is that these digital-medieval mobs usually get their way, in the absence of strong authority, and yet they are incredibly fragile, as Dreher says. Relatively small numbers of people support “PC” (urgh) ideas, and of those, large numbers only do so because they see these mobs as the “strong horse”.

They’re really not, though.

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