After 25 years online, I am trying to understand social media moral panics. Comparing and contrasting liberal social media panics with Jewish and Christians rituals may provide some insight.
People want to create. People also want to destroy. The human urge to destroy is dangerous, so societies channel it into controlled ritual. Ritual sacrifice is one form of socially mediated destruction. In Genesis, Abraham and his wife Sarah grow old without children. Children are essential to traditional people. God promises Abraham a son. Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac. God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
How to understand such a harsh tale? Abraham is widely considered to be the first historical Jew. As the first, he is the one to establish precedent by breaking with the past and founding new ways. Abraham came from Ur, where human sacrifice was practiced. He traveled to Canaan, and was surrounded by practitioners of child sacrifice. The Bible is rife with emphatic condemnations of this child sacrifice. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was not suddenly reversing his position. Rather, he was asking Abraham, “Are you willing to surrender what you most cherish to your relationship with me?” God couldn’t ask Abraham for his Maserati, his 401K, or his dreams of Hollywood, because traditional people don’t have those cherished possessions or ambitions. God was telling Abraham, and the reader, that we may be required to surrender everything to our relationship with God. After Abraham agrees to sacrifice Isaac, God explains that Isaac’s sacrifice is not to take place. Thus Abraham broke with his natal culture of Ur, and the surrounding Canaanite culture of child sacrifice. God offered Abraham a ram. Abraham thus established the Jewish practice of animal, not human, sacrifice. Requirements for a Jewish sacrifice are rigid and complex. See Leviticus 1, here. Judaism strictly inhibits and prescribes the human urge to destroy. After the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews could no longer perform animal sacrifice. Some Jews interpret circumcision as a “part for the whole” sacrifice to God.
Catholics are required to attend mass weekly. The central ritual of Catholic mass is a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, and the apostles drinking of wine and eating of bread that stand in for Jesus’ flesh and blood.
Sacrifice is not the only ritual of destruction. Jews and Christians are both called upon to seek out what is unacceptable in themselves, to eliminate it, and to rededicate themselves to their values. Maimonides outlined three stages for a Jewish confession: verbal acknowledgement of sin, remorse over that sin, and a commitment to renewal for the future. For Catholics, confession to a priest is a necessary sacrament.
The values Jews and Christians rededicate themselves to involve service to others. Jews and Christians must participate with God in nurturing God’s creation. Jews commit to tikkun olam. Christians must tend to the needy, as described in Matthew 25:35-36. Neither Jews nor Christians are adjured to, or believe that they can, save the world. They acknowledge a Higher Power and their own humility. Both Judaism and Christianity honor do-able, small deeds. Jesus praises a widow who donates a small coin, the so-called “widow’s mite.” Judaism cherishes the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, or 36 righteous saints. These saints, who are both utterly humble and completely anonymous, by living their quiet days in accord with God’s commandments, keep the world turning. Indeed, the Talmud states that to save just one life is to save the entire world.
Yes, apparently, humans need, want, and benefit from carefully choreographed destruction. Rituals that meet this need involve blood-letting, real or symbolic, the rejection of the tainted, the reaffirmation of community norms, and public declarations of faith.
In lieu of these rituals, my social media contacts practice moral panics. It works like this. Bob posts poetry. Betty posts photos of her garden, videos of her gamboling dogs, and pictures of her dinner along with recipes. Liz posts updates on her genealogical research. Roger posts his award-winning photos of scenic spots around the world. All is well in Facebook-land.
Roseanne Barr tweets a crude insult about Valerie Jarret. White nationalists march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jack Phillips declines to accept a commission to design a cake for a same-sex wedding. North Carolina says that biological males must use restrooms set aside for males. Israel shoots arsonists targeting farmland with wind-borne incendiary devices. The Trump Administration decides to adhere to the letter of the law regarding illegal immigrants.
It’s as if someone pressed a button. Mammatus clouds blot out the sun. Ominous pipe organ music crashes. Bats stream across skies of lurid orange and purple. Goodbye to cute puppy photos! No more flowers! It’s a social media panic! Caps lock on! Blood is about to flow. The creed will be re-consecrated. True believers will rededicate themselves to community values. The unclean will be exorcised. The tribe will emerge tight as a phalanx and unwaveringly orthodox.
Social media moral panics share many of the following features.
THEATRICALITY. Social media panics are highly theatrical in many ways. They appear to exhibit ORCHESTRATION. Posts appear, like starlings in a murmuration, to be deployed by an unseen hand. Every one of my liberal contacts, from southern California to northern Maine, from heartland Indiana to beachfront Hawaii, spontaneously belches forth sulfur as if fed by the exact same underground lava flow. One candidate for the unseen hand manipulating the masses like so many marionettes is cable TV. If CNN or MSNBC needs a panic, it incites one.
Posts rapidly increase in number and ferocity. Betty, rather than posting once or twice a day, posts ten times in rapid succession. She usually uses words like “puppy,” “hydrangea,” and “corn bread recipe.” Suddenly she is using words like “genocide,” “fascist” and “torture.” Participants themselves do step in to attempt orchestration. They say to each other, “Please don’t post any jokes or cute cat videos today. Frivolity is inappropriate given that children are being tortured … Christian Nazis are persecuting transgendered people seeking relief in a public restroom … Roseanne is bringing back slavery days.”
Social media panics generally last, like the common cold, a week to ten days. After they have crested and are reaching their denouement, participants, again, attempt to orchestrate their extinction. “We’ve all been ravaged by recent news. We owe it to ourselves to feed our souls a bit. Let’s everyone post something uplifting.” And, so, recipes begin to appear again, along with cute puppy and kitten videos, photographic records of craft projects, and photos of nature scenes.
TIMELESSNESS. One of the most important tasks that rituals perform is the structuring of time. During a rite of passage, a child becomes an adult. Thus, the passage of time from the past to the future is emphasized. But a rite of passage also defies time. The child undergoes the exact same rite undergone by his father, and his grandfather, stretching back through the mists of history.
Just so with social media rituals. Years ago, the social media panic prompt was alleged American “Islamophobia” in the wake of 9-11. Today the prompt is immigration policy regarding children. But all the rituals are the same in that they all freeze and defy time.
Just as in a play, when performers temporarily adopt costumes, scripts, and personas, those involved in social media panics temporarily adopt others’ pain as fodder for their performance. Immigrants are fleeing poor economic conditions and gang violence in Central America. Numerous American charitable concerns have been involved in Central America for decades. As far as I know, none of my Facebook friends who are now wailing and gnashing their teeth over Central Americans have previously posted a word about Central America. None has ever previously mentioned supporting, either through donations or labor, any of the groups working to make Central America a better place. It is safe to say that after this panic passes, they will rarely if ever mention Central America or its long-suffering populations again. Thus, the topic of the panic changes, but the panic, like all rituals, remains essentially the same.
The language of the panic is HISTRIONIC. Peter Fonda tweeted, “We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles.” Barron Trump is twelve years old. After George Zimmerman was acquitted, one of my Facebook contacts, a mild-mannered, roly-poly comic book artist, said that he wanted to give Zimmerman a “Drano enema.” In the wake of the Trump administration’s child separation, one of my Facebook contacts has daily accused Trump of “torturing children.” He has also called anyone who supports the Trump administration “Satanic.” He insists that facilities to house immigrants are exactly like Dachau. I’m not sure why he didn’t go with the more famous camp, Auschwitz. Possibly because “Auschwitz” is harder to spell.
After the word “Hitler” begins to wear thin, posters go down the hierarchy: Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Speer. Just this morning I found, in my Facebook feed, a Mike Luckovich cartoon featuring the Nazi Mount Rushmore: Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering. Luckovich’s cartoon equates White House press secretary Sarah Sanders with Joseph Goebbels. Such cheap Nazi analogies are the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial. The Holocaust exists, to panic participants, only to serve their need to get attention.
SCRIPTED. No matter what the topic of the latest wave of hysteria, the DEMON is always the same: Americans, Christians, Western Civilization, white people, men, Republicans, Southerners, and Israel. As reliably as Bond or comic-book-superhero-movie villains, these demons plot to destroy the world. Bwa ha ha.
Jews and Christians acknowledge that sin resides within each human heart. Thus the need for self-examination, confession, and renewal. Panic participants do not acknowledge any sin in their own hearts, or any need for self-examination, confession, or renewal. Their CREED recites hatred against, and the necessary destruction of, their chosen demons. America is a racist hellhole. Christianity is an oppressive, irrational monstrosity. Western Civilization is a wasteland of shame. Southerners are white trash rednecks. Israel is an apartheid state. Anything that the archdemon, the heterosexual, Christian, American white man has achieved or thought or innovated, he stole from an oppressed person of color.
To Christians, original sin is rebellion against God. We are all guilty. To panic participants, racism is the original sin and only the designated demons are guilty of it. Even the transgendered bathroom debates involved accusations of racism. People who want to prevent biological males from using the same facilities as vulnerable little girls are accused of being “racist.” “Racist” is the worst insult imaginable, and so it is furiously hurled no matter the panic du jour.
Because panics must always pillory the same demons as being guilty of the same sin, that is, the sin of racism, panics are highly SELECTIVE. I have never seen atrocities committed against Christians qua Christians or Americans qua Americans prompt a panic.
In April, 2013, Muslim terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. In a photo, one can see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after he placed his backpack bomb right next to Martin Richard, an eight-year-old Catholic schoolboy. Martin can be seen in a photo online, carrying a handmade poster that reads, “No more hurting people. Peace.” Tsarnaev murdered this child, and others, because, as he himself wrote, according to the Koran 61:10-12, murder of non-Muslims guaranteed him a place “among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven.” In court, Dr. Henry Nields provided intimate details about exactly what Tsarnaev’s bomb did to little Martin’s body, and the “overwhelming” pain Martin felt before he bled to death. Participants in the current immigration panic post much about children’s welfare. None of them said a word, not on my Facebook page, at least, in 2013 after the death of Martin Richard.
I have never seen a panic prompted by atrocities committed by non-Christian, non-Westerners against other non-Christian, non-Westerners. Communist, officially atheist, traditionally Confucian China puts Muslims in re-education camps. Muslims are forced, against their religious beliefs, to dance, and publicly to declare, “Our income comes from the Communist Party, not Allah.” My Facebook contacts show no sign of caring.
Buddhist Burmese commit ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. Not a peep. According to an April, 2018 report in the New York Times, Hindu men in northern India kidnapped an eight-year-old Muslim girl, committed unspeakable atrocities against her, including gang rape, and murdered her. I saw no evidence that any of my social media contacts were even aware that this occurred. One panic participant plays audio of immigrant children crying. This murdered girl’s cries are inaudible to panic participants.
In 2012, Kassim Alhimidi beat his wife, Shaima Alawadi, to death in their California home. He insisted that Islamophobes murdered her. The Alawadi murder was piggybacked with the Trayvon Martin shooting. Linda Sarsour published “My Hijab is My Hoodie.” Non-Muslim women donned hijabs and posted their photos online as part of Facebook’s “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi.” “Women Worldwide of All Faiths Post Pictures of Themselves in Headscarves After Race Hate Murder” shouted the Daily Mail. After a trial revealed that Alawadi was beaten to death by her husband, there was no social media panic protesting honor killing or Koran verse 4:34 that advises husbands to beat their wives.
On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, at the height of the immigration panic, Lesandro Guzman–Feliz was dragged from a bodega in the Bronx and stabbed to death in the street. His assailants used a machete and other knives. Guzman-Feliz was a good kid, actively pursuing, through the Explorers program for high school students, a career as a police officer. His attackers were members of a Dominican street gang known as the Trinitarios. Video of their atrocity appeared online. Community members expressed despair that bystanders did not intervene. Six of the suspects in the murder were arrested in Paterson, New Jersey, my city.
I posted about Lesandro’s murder, and his grieving mother, and other gang-related killings, like the 2007 Newark Schoolyard Shootings. Terrance and Natasha Aeriel, Iofemi Hightower, Dashon Harvey, all good, African American kids, were shot by MS 13 gang members in a schoolyard in Newark. I was teaching in Newark at the time. I remember the palpable tension between Blacks and Hispanics on the public buses I took to and from work. I invited those involved in the immigration panic to mourn, with me, for Iofemi Hightower and Lesandro Guzman-Feliz. I invited them to consider how their feelings might differ if they lived in neighborhoods where gang murders occurred. None responded.
DIVORCE FROM OBJECTIVE REALITY. Perhaps the surest proof that the social media panic is a ritualized behavior is its theatrical divorce from objective reality. One would think that those engaged in the panic would focus on changing laws, taking up a collection, or volunteering to contribute to others alleviating the human suffering in question. In fact I have never seen, among my own contacts, a social media panic that involved any of these actions. No donations, no volunteering, no petitioning of elected officials. Hundreds of people are focused on problem X, and, during the social media panic, anyway, none of them does a thing to address the real-world aspects of problem X.
In fact, efforts to alleviate wrong are mocked as a drop in the bucket. Again, Jews and Christians are to “walk humbly with your God.” We are not in charge; God is. We can’t save the world, but we can donate a small coin, as did the widow. Panic participants reject such efforts as insignificant. The entire edifice must be brought down.
This divorce from objective reality is most obvious to me when it comes to panics involving race. My most fervent social media contacts on race are white liberals who have chosen to live not only in towns with few to no Black residents, they often live in states with few to no Black residents. I’ve known Chet for over a decade. I’ve never seen him talk to a Black person. I’ve never seen a photo on his walls of a Black person. He hosts parties with dozens of guests, none of them Black. He has no idea who Shelby Steele is, or any other Black conservative. Chet is certain that America is a white supremacist hellhole, and that only the ushering in of socialism will change that.
I’ve known Igor, a curmudgeon, for a quarter of a century. Igor does not give dollars to bums; he does not send sympathy cards to bereaved friends; he does not pet dogs; he does not wish anyone “Merry Christmas,” though he will say “Happy Holidays” if it will piss someone off. I’m not sure he’s ever managed to utter two sentences together without a reference to himself.
Igor is one of the most enthusiastic participants in social media panics that I know. The interesting part is not what occurs in his posts; they are boilerplate. “Christians are hypocrites; America is Nazi Germany; my heart bleeds, it bleeds, I tell you, for these poor people of color / immigrants / transsexuals.” He’s been posting the same script for twenty-five years. Rather, it’s the replies that make you sit up and take notice. Igor’s hundreds of fans applaud him. “Igor, you are compassionate / empathetic / sensitive / kind / woke.” Social media panics, like all theatrical productions, demand OSTENTATIOUS DISPLAY and APPLAUSE.
Panics are also divorced from objective reality in that they are often based on a dubious body of alleged facts. This is nowhere more the case than in the immigration panic. As even mainstream media has pointed out, every feature of the current panic has existed, in greater or lesser form, under previous administrations. In June, 2018, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin said to US Senator Tammy Baldwin, “So many people in this country are certainly outraged by the cages, the thermal blankets, and the facilities housing these kids. You know, they were all there in 2014 under President Obama. And my question to you, Senator Baldwin, did you speak up against them then?” Senator Baldwin never replied.
Also in June, 2018, Rachel Maddow melodramatically broke into tears when reporting what she insisted was “new news” just “broken by the Associated Press” that young children were placed in “tender age shelters.” This isn’t new. “Tender age” was terminology used during the Obama administration. Further, as The Federalist pointed out, in 2105, 21,000 children were separated from parents who had committed crimes. There was no panic that year over those separations. In 2014, the Brookings Institution wrote of 47,000 Central American children who entered the US without any adult. No panic in 2014 condemned the parents who tossed their own children away. I wonder if Rachel Maddow cried when covering what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s heaven-earning bomb did to Martin Richard’s little body. I wonder if she even covered that victimized American child at all.
Perhaps the most Orwellian fabrication of the immigration panic was the exploitation and misrepresentation of the suffering of Yanela Hernandez, the toddler featured on TIME’s cover as emblematic of children separated from parents. Yanela’s father, Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, a port captain, alleged that his wife Sandra, against his wishes, abandoned him and her three other children, paid a coyote six thousand dollars, and attempted to enter America illegally because “she always wanted to experience the American dream.” US Border Patrol Agent Carlos Ruiz, who does not in any way resemble Heinrich Himmler, strikes the viewer as a kindly, concerned, Hispanic man. In his CBS This Morning interview, he described his own responsible and compassionate behavior toward this child, whose mother has abused her as a human shield to facilitate her breaking the law.
In fact, though, the entire social media panic over immigration policy is based on absurdity. Participants insist that America is the equivalent of Nazi Germany, and that Donald Trump is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler. They insist that America is racist and that racist America “destroys Black bodies,” in the words of lefty darling Ta-Nahisi Coates. And then they go on to insist that the only salvation for Central American immigrants is to be admitted into the racist, sexist, United States, thus, to any rational mind, undermining their beloved Nazi analogies. Can you imagine anyone in 1939 insisting that Jews must be admitted into Nazi Germany? “If America’s so evil, why does the left think immigrants keep coming?” Heather MacDonald asked in the New York Post.
DESTRUCTION RATHER THAN CREATION. These panics always invoke destruction of their stock demons as cure. This focus on destruction is related to the participants’ rejection of the Judeo-Christian emphasis on self-examination, confession of sin, and rededication to participation in God’s plan of salvation through humble service. Panic participants do not examine themselves. They are utterly unaware of their own hypocrisy, their own unthinking, trance-like theatricality. Rather, they scrutinize their chosen demons, obsessively seeking evidence of their cherished sins: racism, sexism, homophobia. Unlike Jews and Christians, who examine themselves, confess their sins, and rededicate themselves to obedient service to God and their fellow humans, panic participants do not serve. They do not feed the hungry, or cloth the naked. Their underlying assumption, expressed or not, is that such acts are a waste of time. Western Civilization is hopelessly corrupt. The widow donating her tiny coin, the Lamed Vov Tzadikam’s humble and anonymous adherence to God’s law, are worse than useless. What is needed is a violent revolution that will take down the entire corrupt edifice of Western Civilization.
During the immigration panic, I repeatedly pointed out that Maryknoll and other Christian organizations have been working in Central America for years. Indeed, not a few martyrs have given their lives to such work. See, for example, Sister Maura Clarke and her companions. Aid organizations accept donations, and they offer many volunteer opportunities for persons eager to help Central Americans. I mentioned Father Gregory J Boyle, whose Homeboy Industries helps rehabilitate former gang members. These posts were, for the most part, ignored.
The POLITICAL SYSTEM of a social media panic is ONE-PARTY RULE. Its ECONOMICS are MONOPOLISTIC. The contested COMMODITY is VIRTUE. Only one side may lay claim to it. The THEOLOGY of a social media panic is MANICHAEAN. Those involved in the moral panic are virtuous. Participants flamboyantly display their commitment to orthodoxy, and, thus virtue. Public declarations of the CREED are as loud and repetitive as the fall of a hammer in a blacksmith’s shop. There is no such thing as one’s private conscience during a panic. One must be seen to be declaring the creed, loudly, repetitively, in lockstep.
Gad Saad observed that during the 2018 immigration panic, UNESCO tweeted the phrase “No human being is illegal” ten times. Saad said that anyone who uses simple repetition to make a point is the intellectual equivalent of a kindergartner. UNESCO is a piker. I have Facebook friends who have posted dozens of times that Trump’s America is the equivalent of Nazi Germany.
Those who do not make public declarations of fealty to orthodoxy are accused and purged. As one of my social media contacts put it, anyone who disagreed with him about immigration is “Satanic.” Any solution to the problem at hand can come only from the only virtuous side. There can be no negotiation, no compromise, no listening to one’s opponent.
The heterodox are purged. Normally grandmotherly Betty issues fiats. “If you agree with ___, you are not fit to associate with. Your exposing me to your toxic bigotry poisons my world. I have a chronic illness, and just reading your posts worsens my symptoms. I am an open-minded, caring, empathetic, nurturing person, and I’d like nothing more than to invite all my Facebook friends over for a big meal of my special, homemade jambalaya, but I will not allow haters on my page. Please remove yourself, or I will unfriend you.”
Those who refuse to repeat the creed are challenged. Example: “If you don’t agree that Roseanne’s post is racist, and is part of systematic, structural oppression of Black people in this country, unfriend me right now.” During the Charlottesville social media panic, I received negative feedback because I refused to sign on with the phrase that “Charlottesville is the world epicenter of hate.” “What about ISIS-controlled territory? North Korea? The caste system?” I asked. I was unfriended and blocked by two men because I recommended that we attempt to understand, and initiate dialogue with, white nationalists, rather than to demonize and ostracize these men who are, like it or not, our fellow citizens. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that liberals are more likely to unfriend someone because that person’s political views differ from their own.
David Horowitz, a former leftist, has written, “Tainting and ostracism of sinners is in fact the secret power of the leftist faith … This spectacle … is a warning to others not to try [independent thought.] … The community of the left is a community of meaning and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious … For the left [politics] is the path to social redemption … it is about us being on the side of the angels, and them as the party of the damned.”
After Horowitz left the left, stripped of elevating ideology, “For the first time in my conscious life, I was looking at myself in my human nakedness, without the support of revolutionary hopes, without the faith in a revolutionary future – without the sense of self-importance conferred by the role I would play in remaking the world. For the first time in my life I confronted myself as I really was in the endless march of human coming and going. I was nothing.“
Well, yes. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” asks Psalm 8. And yet, Judaism counsels each person to feel as if God created the world just for him. Christianity teaches that “Jesus died for you.” Jews’ and Christians’ intimate connection with a loving God serves as a shield against human insignificance. We don’t have to save the world. We can’t. We participate with God in nurturing the world, through the acts we are capable of performing that, feeble though they are, mean much to God.
Horowitz’s powerful words spark compassion in my heart as I think of my latest unfriending. I posted a brief objection to ubiquitous and constant equations of Trump’s America with Nazi Germany. One of my Facebook contacts called me a liar – she insisted, astoundingly, that she had seen no such comparisons. I briefly and politely indicated that I do not interact with those who falsely accuse me of lying. My Facebook contact responded, at length, in ten different posts. I read none of them. I responded to none of them. Finally, after three days of her posting every day, she sent me a private message, over three hundred words long, accusing me and our “conversation” of exacerbating her health problems, deepening her depression, causing her to obsess on death, and “shutting her up.” She also sent me a TED talk on empathy, entitled, “How I Have Conversations with People Who Hate Me.”
Applying the insights provided by Horowitz, we can see that my former Facebook friend had invested her very identity in her open-borders stance. To encounter someone who does not share her point of view didn’t just irritate her, it devastated her. Social media panics are not about alleviating suffering. They are about the universal human urge to use religious ritual to establish identity. They are serious business indeed.
Quotes are taken from The Collected Writings of David Horowitz: The Black Book of the American Left IX: Ruling Ideas. Los Angeles: Second Thoughts Books, 2017: 166, 144.