April 24, 2020 Repository 226: Mixed Reality | The Debilitating Forces of Moral Outrage & Conspiracy Theories in a Time of Pandemics Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, culture, exhibition of note, perspective, philosophy, Uncategorized

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
– A Tale of Two Cities (1859) Charles Dickens

As an artist in this pandemic, I feel at a great loss and at a great advantage. My practice is successful because I gain confidence in asking questions, and not having answers. Ergo, I do very well with ambiguity, uncertainty and discomfort – it’s where my best work is done. Unfortunately, for the mass of people, certainty and answered questions bring them a sense of security and courage. People are looking for answers, wanting leaders, and will believe almost anything in order to be comforted with the thought of tomorrow, and that we have figured things out.

Conspiracy theories are always a curious offspring of thinking in troubled times. It’s healthy to consider other points of view, especially when our media has been consolidated into small and too-powerful camps. Over the years I have enjoyed a handful, my favorite is Zeitgeist: The Movie, where they parallel the religions of the world to the conclusion that we are not all that different, and we actually share the same ingredients in our beliefs. This is thinking extrapolated from theories presented by my favorite professor of literature, who was a comparative mythology and religion genius Joseph Campbell, so I am OK with promoting it. Other conspiracy theories are cringe-worthy, laughter inducing or all-out mechanisms to dismiss things versus truly explore them.

Currently there is serious hysteria going on, where conspiracy theories are turning into the new handbooks for how to deal with media, science and complicated system disruption. The PEW Research Center has reported nearly a third of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory about the origins of Corona Virus. The conspiracy theories are coupled with an unfortunate serving of schadenfreude. So while conspiracy theories are glossy veneers of suggestive truth, schadenfreude is taking pleasure out of other people’s misfortune. Oddly we have not as a Western culture developed a word that means the opposite – taking pleasure from someone’s success or good fortune. Schadenfreude is a delight in someone’s misfortune: you lose, I laugh.

I am on a serious media diet since March 13, 2020, so it took a call from a friend in Marfa, Texas to introduce me to the pandora’s box of the current situation. I dipped into this last night and was horrified. The comments on videos and news articles seem fake – do people really think this way? How on earth is an artist, who has won the Golden Lion in Venice, Italy in 1997 and has had an incredible 50-year career now being vilified as an offspring of satan and a baby eater? Oh wait – she’s a woman, so there’s that in the blood thirsty sport of woman hating in the US. And there’s the fact that it is art, and well, what the hell is that worth to people who can’t think beyond the screen 18 inches from their face?

The artist is Marina Abramović, beloved internationally and truly a trail blazer. While I can put myself in someone else’s shoes, and on first blush see that her work is aggressive, and physically taxing – both characteristics are not strangers to men. She has used blood and bones, but so has Ozzy Osborne and Judas Priest. And oh – have you seen any of the video games that have been made since 1995 (an annual $21.53 billion domestic video game industry)? They are full of blood, bones, guts, violence and are painfully aggressive. All of which should bring pause, and retaliation. But somehow the quiet, nuanced thinker – the artist – gets the tar and feathers. We are low hanging fruit, and easy targets. There is a long history of pulling out artists to serve as an example of nonconformity and dissonance. What people don’t understand is that the dissonance and awkwardness are keys to learning and innovation.

While we are all talking about this as an “unprecedented” time, there is actually research about how humans react to prolonged periods of trauma historically. There is precedence, and one of the most incredible pieces of evidence that link this pandemic to conspiracy theories is a data point discovered by researchers in Canada. In a webinar I attended yesterday, Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., RP., CCC cited research where they found that thirty days into a traumatic period (trauma may be described as isolation, abuse, extreme conditions), humans stopped thinking clearly. Bing, bing, bing,….. we are about a month and change into our traumatic period of isolation and the number of conspiracy theories and vitriolic moral outrage on the internet has hit a fever pitch. Clear thinking has been abandoned.

Returning to Marina Abramović’s work, and the 45,000 dislikes, which caused Microsoft to take the advertisement of her new work and their technology down: her work is about the body, it’s about death, it’s about relating to oneself and others, and how we respond to socio-political events with our bodies. Her biography was written in order to instruct her friends and family on a ritual for her death. She is now older, ostensibly nearing death so she has created a work titled “The Life”. Whether you agree with her aesthetics or not, the piece is symbolic, and poetic. You can not appreciate it, unless you give it space, time and actually experience it. The moral outrage to this artwork, to be auctioned off at Christies, has been nothing but painful to witness.

To dive deeper into the context and root of the wild response, and here is where I get not only suggestive, but possibly conspiratorial. Microsoft users use a search tool called “Bing”. Bing has been notoriously easy to hack, where the random, innocent user may search up “best lawnmower” and up pops salacious, inappropriate and likely illegal content. So is it possible that the Microsoft advertisement was widely disseminated by its own search engine Bing, and users are conditioned to getting whacky and inappropriate content? The Bing user also sways to the older, more conservative population. So maybe launch indie style on YouTube or Vimeo next time MSFT?

We are wired to be outraged: when we lived in tribes of 24-50 people, we were meant to call out the bad apple. In fact, we are biologically wired to do so. When we do it, we release a chemical associated with reward, so it actually brings us pleasure to call people out. Back when we had outrage in person – to another human standing in front of us – there was a surge of adrenaline, there was risk of physical retribution, and we generally would avoid it unless totally necessary. Pan thousands of years later, when we continually perform these acts of moral outrage, but behind screens: we get all the pleasure and with no retribution. So we become addicted to the cycle of outrage regardless of where we stand on the issue, and it seems to be building at a warped speed, where it is endangering our ability to connect, explore nuance and accept diversity from all corners of the globe. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett notes “given that the psychological benefits are high and the physical costs are low, there are few checks on outrage anymore. This is why many of us today feel surrounded by outrage. It’s nearly impossible to escape.”

Nowadays we only experience outrage in person less than 5% of the time. However in a sea of click bait in the attention economy, we are given the opportunity to be morally outraged 95% of the time we spend on social media. Our outrage is commended by our echo chambers, and we never look for the opportunity to address the offense to the accused – we just gossip around the person with damaging words, accusations and general vitriol. It’s lazy, arrogant and strangely the group of people who are supposed to believe in a man who hung around with the lowest of the low in society only to lift them up, are the ones who are the fastest to tear people down in the current digital climate of persecution.

In sum, please take heed and don’t suppress productive social discourse – disagree with me – it’s OK!! Let’s talk through things, comb each other’s hair, not pull it. I want to know where you are coming from, and would love to meet you halfway. Is there a way to reintroduce long thinking and nuance in a society that has atrophied to art, poetry and reality? I’ll close with something I learned for the volunteer work I am doing, where secondary trauma and transference are a real issue. All of us have a vagus nerve that is lit up like a Christmas tree right now – it’s on fire when we are stressed. Here are four ways to calm it down. Once you do them in some order, or your preference, your mind and body will know it is OK to relax:

  1. Breathe deeply
  2. Hum
  3. Smile
  4. Make eye contact (Zoom/Facetime/Skype count!)

Carry on, speak with a brave heart, and listen with big love.


PS. I realize that right wing conspiracy and left side cult traps can weigh “against each other”, though the thread that binds them together is that most of the biggest believers on either side have been through trauma. Let’s let that sink in – we are ALL in a variant of trauma right now, be careful where you draw your allegiance and anchor your mind.

PPS. Other pandemics that are ongoing include domestic abuse. In the US each year – Over 12 million women and men are victims of intimate partner violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 30% of every partnered women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime. While many are NOT reported, 50,000 women worldwide are killed by intimate partners or family members every year. In 2017 that was 2,237 per year in the US – that’s 6 a day, and it’s increasing.

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