Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 | 8 minutes (2,066 words)
This will be impossible to tweet. It always is. How do you siphon 2,500 words into 280 characters? More importantly, how do you turn a measured thesis into something interesting, and by interesting I mean shareable, and by shareable I mean divisive. It’s one thing to say, I don’t know, “Todd Phillips is a no-talent ass clown;” it’s another thing to imply that over more than a thousand words analyzing the bottomless lack of depth in Joker. “It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker,’” the director told The Wrap in September, his defense against accusations that his film intentionally glorified a character who many considered an incel antihero. And it wasn’t just the critics. Victims of the 2012 Aurora shooting, which took place during a The Dark Knight Rises screening, even asked for donations to survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs. Phillips was confused by the controversy. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” he asked. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”
It’s not a bad thing, except this isn’t a discourse. To have a discourse you need a modicum of intellectual humility on both sides, which is to say, both sides need to have some idea that what they believe might be wrong in order to actually be receptive to the opposing opinion. Neither Phillips nor the social media mob he was taking issue with were having a discourse. It’s hard to blame the latter, since the thing getting in the way was not so much them as it was the medium. It’s easier to blame Phillips, whose party line is that he broke the mold by taking a simplistic trope and turning it into a profound piece of art that explores contemporary fears, when, in actual fact, it only signals depth while remaining superficial. In a similar display of contradictions, now that his clown movie is being swept up into a complex discourse, Phillips is refusing to engage with it, instead opting for reductive dismissal that mirrors the online critiques he so openly disparages.
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Our social media networks are composed of concentric circles: real-life friends, online friends, online acquaintances, strangers. The farther we move from the center, the less civil we become. University of Connecticut professor Marie K. Shanahan, author of Journalism, Online Comments, and the Future of Public Discourse, tells me this is called the “online disinhibition effect.” With no one’s eyes to look into, she says, “I can drop a bomb and run away. I don’t have to deal with the aftermath.” This is where we get a lot of confused people arguing that actually, that guy on Twitter calling women cunts for not liking Joker? He’s really quite genial in person. Because in person there are standards that have been in place forever. In person, you have to risk losing face, to quietly deal with your defensiveness as you search for a socially acceptable way to handle morons criticizing Joaquin Phoenix. Then, when you’re alone in your bedroom, marinating in all the anger you choked back during the day in order to be a functioning member of society, social media invites you to release it undiluted and, in a mock display of power, dip in and out dropping clown poison like a leaky neutron bomb. I use “invite” intentionally, because not only do these sites literally traffic in controversy, but, as Shanahan points out, the 2016 election proved that there are actual bots “stoking all those bad feelings to cause chaos.”
Social media’s inability to support a Joker discourse — in fact any discourse — is part of its DNA. “Flow,” a form of engagement which started out as a reference to a psychological idea before it was adopted for video games and then social media, is designed to keep us darting from one thing to another, searching for but never achieving gratification. The goal is to keep us gorging on shallow content without any reflective commentary interrupting the next meme. With video games (but also social media), per Jay David Bolter in his new book The Digital Plenitude, “the play is neither too difficult and frustrating nor too easy and boring.” This maximizes the moment-to-moment satisfaction of participation and the illusion of empowerment, both of which trump falseness (Joker is complex) and even contradiction (Joker implies complexity without actually being complex), because no one waits long enough to find out the truth. In David Barsamian’s 1998 book The Common Good, Noam Chomsky describes how this sort of narrow scope, and the scant limitations within this scope, keeps the population passive. “That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on,” he says, “while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
So what happens when you have no power but a lot of rage, like Joker alter ego Arthur Fleck? Social media is there for you to let out your barbaric digital yawp (Fleck doesn’t have this option — he lives in 1981). Everyone rushes to shout out their frustration in one form or another, reacting to headlines, pillaging threads, stumbling over history and even actual fact in order to confirm or deny their bias before their vitriol crashes into everyone else’s like a pixelated tsunami. “Is anyone really listening?” Shanahan asks. “That’s my greater question.” Fellow UConn professor Michael P. Lynch proposed an answer last month in an op-ed for the New York Times. He cited a study showing that at least 60 percent of shared news stories had not been read by the sharer; strongly emotional posts were among the most popular, but moralizing did even better (it increased sharing by 20 percent). Lynch’s answer, then, was that social media users were feeling more than they were listening (remember “truthiness”?). “I think it is plausible that the stabilizing function of the practice of sharing content online is to express our emotions,” he wrote, explaining, “we often are signaling our outrage and thereby hoping that others will share it. That’s one way that tribes are built and social norms enforced.” It’s also the way America’s capitalist obsession with success is enforced. By denigrating others, we reinforce our superiority. And don’t try to pin it all on “alt-right” Fleck types: “Everybody’s doing it on every side,” says Shanahan.
I have wondered why so many pile-ons in my Twitter feed seem to be in the name of something ostensibly good — inclusivity, parity — like a kind of ham-fisted attempt at forcing progress. I thought maybe I just followed a lot of misguided, effusive lefties (though Shanahan says that because journalists were early adopters, it does tend to lean left). Consciously or not, Phillips used this effusiveness to discard virtually all critiques of his film. “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda,” he said, to wide nonacclaim. It’s true that online skews hyperbolic. On social media you aren’t rewarded for not being extreme, you don’t get the endorphin rush of multiple shares and comments for being diplomatic. Or for understanding what free speech is, unfortunately. As Kovie Biakolo wrote in Thought Catalog in 2013, “Freedom to participate in public discourse is misunderstood when people believe that they have the right to simply express ideologies and that those ideologies have to be accounted for, based solely on their ability to express them.” The free speech argument has a penchant for ignoring all context, for failing to admit that all voices are not created equal, nor are all subjects, nor are all media. Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch recently addressed a similar oversight in race conversations: “It seems like people are hoping that with dialogue we can sort of reverse engineer inclusion into spaces that were designed to be separate. We can talk and then come together. … But it doesn’t work like that. We can’t have the dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue to begin with.” People are heavily invested in squawking on social media, of course, but that’s not the same thing as being invested in an actual conversation.
So what seems to be happening is that dialogue is increasingly moving away from the large, unmoderated public plaza of the internet. Engaged conversations occur between like-minded people in small circles, which may mirror online echo chambers but at least they aren’t violent. “There are a lot of people who are not participating [on social media] because it is not a safe space to do so,” says Shanahan. A recent study of almost 200 college students published in the International Journal of Communication confirmed that, though they consumed and shared online political “discourse,” the students chose to examine it offline in order to limit their exposure to threats and to allow for better understanding and control of the discussion. This despite the findings in Nasty Talk: Online Incivility and Public Debate, Gina Masullo Chen’s 2017 book that coined “the defensive effect,” which signifies how an initial negative reaction can lead to greater political involvement. It makes sense that kids would want to avoid this though. No one wants to be pummeled into action. That’s some Joker shit.
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Vanity Fair’s November cover story on Joaquin Phoenix is a perfectly inoffensive profile that could have been the rare low-stakes puff piece around Joker’s release — except Phillips ruined it. Buried almost halfway down is a quote by the Hangover series director that overshadowed the rest of the article, in which he claims that he pitched Joker because “woke” Hollywood was no longer receptive to his comedies. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you,’” he said. “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’” The problem is not that Phillips is refusing to entertain the Twitter mob, but that his response to good-faith criticism is as empty and emotive as the social media attacks are — it’s as though the only option for being heard (read: felt) is social media’s nondiscourse, or nothing. The problem is that he chose to take an established antisocial comic book character to try (and fail) to make his own version of Taxi Driver, with all the real-world sociopolitical implications that entails. But his pusillanimity on screen — he tries to show us how our destructive society can shape destructive individuals without actually owning the decision — is echoed in Phillips’s unwillingness to participate in the discourse around the nonfiction context of his fictional film. He thinks he is responsible by virtue of Joker’s signifiers alone, but his inability to engage on-screen or off further echoes the shallowness of the social media that he so despises.
It’s ironic that Phillips would fear offline conversations when they’re so much friendlier than those online. But to actually be able to discourse, he would have to put his own emotions aside. The 1985 book The Ending of Time, a dialogue between physicist David Bohm and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, introduces a more progressive approach to discourse that attempts to transcend conflict. The Bohm Dialogue is a conversation in which there is an exchange of ideas without judgment that leads to mutual understanding. Part of this is acknowledging how your feelings can prevent you from listening to the other, part of it is dropping the idea that a dialogue needs a solution. Ironically, Bohm uses the metaphor of a stream to convey the flow of meaning between people, though the Bohm Dialogue’s definition implies the opposite of social media’s approach, and the opposite of Phillips’s. “In dialogue it is necessary that people be able to face their disagreements without confrontations and be willing to explore points of view to which they do not personally subscribe,” Bohm explains in 1987’s Science, Order, and Creativity. “If they are able to engage in such a dialogue without evasion or anger, they will find that no fixed position is so important that it is worth holding at the expense of destroying the dialogue itself.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.