In today’s op-ed in the New York Post entitled, Hope springs e-ternal: Overestimating the Democratic power of the Internet, Evgeny Morozov injects a much needed dose of realism to counteract pervasive “Social Media E-vangelism. “Morozov writes,
“Sadly, the vast majority of those oppressed by authoritarianism have pragmatically reasoned that their iPads would be far better employed to play Angry Birds or watch Lady Gaga videos than to download reports from Amnesty International or edit Wikipedia entry on “human rights.” Globalization has boosted the fortunes of the middle classes even in authoritarian states; thus, the Internet, once thought to be the chief tool of dissent, has become the chief tool of consumerism. (In this, modern Russians, Iranians and Chinese hardly differ from Americans and Western Europeans.)”
“Anyone who believes that “Twitter revolutionaries” would be able to topple the regimes in Tehran or Beijing on their own are only playing in the hands of the dictators, many of whom are quite content to see their troublesome youths to protest in virtual — rather than real — town squares. The Internet is more helpful in allowing the dissatisfied to blow off their steam rather than in orchestrating the next revolution.”
Morozov is likely right in the short-term, but I remain cautiously pessimistic for the long-term. It’s all a matter of perspective, or as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his essay, “The Wind and the Trees”, “You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”
Class struggle is an anachronism. There is no middle-class anymore, only the rich and famous, while the rest of us watch them with green eye-filled envy, as they adopt orphans in Haiti or hold a shovel for the next photo-op.
In a recent article entitled “Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy,” Psychological Science XX(X) 1–8 (2010), Michael W. Kraus, (University of California, San Francisco); Stéphane Côté, (University of Toronto); and Dacher Keltner, (University of California, Berkeley) conclude that members of the upper class are less adept at reading emotions. The authors’ hypothesis is that individuals of a lower social class are more empathically accurate in judging the emotions of other people:
“In three studies, lower-class individuals (compared with upper-class individuals) received higher scores on a test of empathic accuracy (Study 1), judged the emotions of an interaction partner more accurately (Study 2), and made more accurate inferences about emotion from static images of muscle movements in the eyes (Study 3). Moreover, the association between social class and empathic accuracy was explained by the tendency for lower-class individuals to explain social events in terms of features of the external environment.”
The authors conclude:
“Lacking resources and control, lower-class individuals tend to focus on the external, social context to understand events in their lives. As a result, they orient to other people to navigate their social environments. One prediction that follows from these tendencies is that lower-class individuals should be more accurate judges of the emotions of others than upper-class individuals are.
Social class affects many aspects of social life—and, in particular, the emotions that people perceive and express in social interactions. Therefore, social class is an important variable in understanding how people relate to one another and may provide insights into the role that emotions play in relationship stability and overall well-being.”
The upside is that when the global economy is strong, rich people feel better about themselves when they think they are helping others by donating to charitable and political causes. The downside is that the global economy remains weak, so it’s likely that making a difference in the world means re-tweeting an article about how Twitter is making the world a better place. Perhaps it is just as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, ”Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Incidentally, it was Ernest Hemingway who said, ”I am getting to know the rich”, to which critic Mary Colum replied, ”The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.”
It’s not just the very rich to blame. Apparently, there has been a general decline in empathy among American college students since 1980:
“The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”
See, Konrath et al, Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis Pers Soc Psychol Rev August 5, 2010
Social media is the great leveler. Where else can you pontificate, proselytize and prostitute yourself all in one place? Twitter may be pseudo-activism, but it’s not just for the celebrities anymore. You too may now lounge languorously from your political armchair, sipping on your beverage of choice. Lift up your head from your high-resolution computer screen, stick your head out the window, breath in some fresh winter air and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m going to take this some more, at least until my mortgage is paid off.”