Thursday, December 20, 2018

Social Sadism and the Sadocratic Impulse

A couple stories about our changing culture.
The first may take some flexing of the memory muscle but it is probable that wary reader saw a version of  it at the time, October 2011. We noted the story in:
"Top US foreclosure law firm threw Halloween party where staff dressed as homeless, foreclosed-upon Americans"
And a month later in "Sleazebag Robosigning Foreclosure Mill Shuts Down".

Here's Salvage Quarterly going a bit meta on the wider picture:

The Sadocratic Impulse 
Two women sit leaning against a wall, wrapped in dirty clothes. Their hair is raddled, their faces filthy. One holds a bottle, the other a cardboard sign on which is scrawled a slogan both plaintive and defiant. But their smiles are arch, and the schmutz on their faces is as artlessly precise as a child’s clown makeup – easy on, easy off.
Halloween. This is a fancy-dress party, and the women have come as the destitute.
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Marie Antoinette performed rustic fantasies of peasant life to herself and her sycophants in Hameau de la Reine, her pre-Disney theme park. The privileged have long enjoyed playing at poverty.
The dominant mode of these games shifts. Class spite, always present, stops half-heartedly disguising itself with bowdlerising condescension, as in Versailles. It’s a rampant articulating principle in the venom of TV comedies, in the ‘chav parties’ so in vogue at elite institutions in the late 2000s. At a gathering at Sandhurst in 2006, Prince William talked all common, like, ‘swaggering from side to side’, the Sun reported, in his baseball cap. The Halloween party dress-up was in this tradition, and was also its intensification.

It occurred a little after the high point of the jocular pleb-sneer: two years, instead, into the eruption of the financial crisis, simultaneously with a historic peak in foreclosures. Nearly 2.9 million US properties had foreclosure actions against them initiated in 2010 – huge numbers improperly, even according to the system’s own rules – up 2 per cent from 2009, itself a record. Millions were fighting, and failing, not to lose their homes. These 2010 Halloween celebration occurred at the Buffalo, New York, law offices of Stephen J Baum, a specialist firm acting mainly for banks and lenders. It was what’s known as a ‘foreclosure mill’, the largest of its kind in the state: its expertise was evicting the poor.

This wasn’t, then, some generalised, timeless jeer. It was more specific and pointed, gleeful malice at those whose lives were, at that very moment, being ruined, directed at them by those doing the ruining.

In the photos, props embody favourite ideologemes of the rich: the booze, the misspelt signs denouncing the injustice. The homeless are drunkards; the homeless are stupid; the homeless take no responsibility. But these gestures are perfunctory; they make no attempt to convince. The anonymous former employee who leaked the images in 2011 did so aghast at what she called a ‘cavalier attitude’, but what’s on display is the opposite: not cavalier, but considered. She decried a ‘lack of compassion’, but what’s visible is a swaggering presence – of cruelty.

‘Will worke [sic]’, one sign reads, ‘for Food.’ The sign’s the prop of a comedian waiting for the laugh. The homeless are starving. We made them homeless and now they’re starving. Laugh laugh laugh laugh.
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Capitalism’s history might be tracked in a genealogy of the corporate apology. That of Baum’s eponymous head was typical of this sub-epoch of viciousness, mawkishness and entitlement. An initial denial of anything untoward; a rapid U-turn and apology for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, ostentatiously meeting a homelessness activist; ultimately, parading in the mourning clothes of victimhood. Three weeks after the exposé – of a firm already under investigation – the company closed. ‘There is blood on your hands’, Baum wrote to Joe Nocera, in whose New York Times column the scandal broke. ‘I will never, ever forgive you’.

Baum’s quivering lip should provoke only piss and vinegar. It’s true, too, that the ritual slaying of a designated scapegoat, however just, can serve as exoneration by and for the system that threw up, nurtured, rewarded their behaviour. Our rulers and their media clercs are shocked, shocked by such Baum moments, these cruelties-too-far. As if there hasn’t always been, in capitalism’s marrow, a drive not only to repression but to cruelty, to down- punching sadism. They denounce it, partake of it, propagate it.
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Consensual peccadilloes are not at issue here: this is about social sadism – deliberate, invested, public or at least semi-public cruelty. The potentiality for sadism is one of countless capacities emergent from our reflexive, symbolising selves. Trying to derive any social phenomenon from any supposed ‘fact’ of ‘human nature’ is useless, except to diagnose the politics of the deriver. Of course it’s vulgar Hobbesianism....MUCH MORE
But be forewarned: what starts as a screed pretty quickly becomes a rant.
And from Real Life Magazine:

December 17, 2018 
Ambient Cruelty
The ability to ruin a stranger’s life is a feature, not a bug of consumer rating systems
It is a truism, backed with some evidence, that negativity makes a person seem smarter. In the 1980s, Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile took two pieces of literary criticism from the New York Times’ book reviewing section — one positive, one negative — and showed them to 55 students. The students found the writer voicing negative opinions much more intelligent and persuasive than the one voicing praise. In fact, it was the same reviewer, and the two pieces of criticism were adapted versions of the same review. John Stuart Mill wrote, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

In part, this is because blame is actually more rare than praise. In the past 50 years, cross-cultural studies have demonstrated a phenomenon referred to as linguistic positivity bias: human speech is studded with words like “great,” “adorable,” and “amazing,” while words like “dreadful,” “ugly,” or “terrible” show up less frequently. It may be that people use language primarily as a means of drawing closer together, which raises the frequency of words that create a feeling of community. Negative words stick out because they are not the norm, and this in turn signals to readers or listeners a person who is setting themselves apart from the group.

For this reason, negativity as a tonal choice not only lends an air of discernment, but brims with expressive opportunity: the diction of dissatisfaction offers its own satisfactions. On Twitter, a winning persona blends quotidian venting with cultural critique. Hating on things can scratch an individual itch or put a finger on shared experiences — there’s a bond in hating the same stuff, as evidenced by the popularity of the “Gopher Gripes” segment on the Gimlet podcast Reply All (the spiritual heir of a long succession of indie-media rant lines). Yelp offers a platform for individuals to denounce bad service, whether creatively or simply self-righteously. Of the services I use most frequently that are also the most universally hated, Greyhound buses seem to inspire some inventive criticism. In 2012, a user called Sonia B. typed the following ode:
Greyhound, Greyhound
You’re not that fast,
If you were in a race you’d probably finish last.
I use you sometimes when I’m going far,
Even though your service is kind of sub-par.
But when I consider gas prices these days,
You really often are the cheapest way.
(Especially the advance webfare).
I will hazard a guess and say Sonia B. probably doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to publish her verse in the traditional press. This is a major factor that motivates Yelp reviewers: not necessarily to express passionate opinions about products and services, but to express themselves period, and to make themselves visible to others. In a 2014 Fast Company interview, Yelp’s vice president said, “if you’re writing great things on Yelp, you know that a lot of people are going to read them. You’re going to have a voice. You’re going to have a megaphone. Yelp is that megaphone.”

More megaphones means more opportunities to emote. But amplifying negative expression has serious consequences in the contemporary gig economy. The freedom to vent feels empowering, but when unleashed on a reputation-based labor market, where a widespread reliance on reviews and ratings is the primary monitor of quality assurance, negative self-expression allows users of apps like Uber or TaskRabbit to enjoy the benefits of an arbitrary power of punishment free of guilt. By emphasizing the user’s “right” to have their opinions heard, and to dissatisfaction with any less-than-perfect “experience,” platforms encourage users to be cruel without feeling cruel. Normalizing negativity creates a slush fund of data that employers can use at their discretion against employees....MUCH MORE, and much less ranty.
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