For many writers, the election of Donald Trump has been presented as inextricably linked to the rise of the alt right, which is alternatively framed as a dangerous, unquantifiable subculture of Internet trolls, or as a youthful spin on the misogyny and racism associated with the so-called silent majority. However, the unifying thread between these perceptions is a type of public invisibility, characterized by public disengagement, a lack of an offline, “real world” organizational structure, and a private, online community seething with resentment over eroding white privilege – in other words, they are organizationally “alone together.” Particularly well articulated by Siyandra Mohutsiwa’s viral Twitter thread (https://twitter.com/SiyandaWrites)1, this viewpoint situates the electoral results as predicated on racism and misogyny, and attributes this group’s apparent invisibility to an intentional effort to blend into perceived, “liberalized” environments. In short:
These tactics are particularly well-suited to analysis using Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical microtheory. Goffman likens social interaction to a stage, best understood by adapting the terminology of the performing arts. Individuals understand the roles associated with particular social situations (for example, the role of “teacher” is expected in a school but not a bank), and associate themselves and others with roles through contextual and physical cues, and through an individual’s performance. For example, individuals can distance themselves from a role by presenting themselves as an apathetic individual, or embrace the demands of the role by conflating it’s characteristics with one’s own sense of self. Furthermore, according to Goffman, social interaction is often characterized by face-work, where individuals mutually avoid actions that might challenge an individual’s social status in a situation, in order to avoid uncomfortable situations.
The incognito nature of the alt right is more than cognitive dissonance – it is a massive face-management effort, brought to be by increasing polarization. As displays of overt racism and misogyny are increasingly sanctioned both informally and formally, it becomes more difficult to reconcile these beliefs with incompatible role definitions – given this context, asking somebody to moderate their speech can be interpreted as a righteously imputed demand. Furthermore, according to Goffman, the more one inhabits a role the more likely one is to embrace is it – therefore, to borrow a term from Anthony Giddens, these changing role definitions threaten these individual’s sense of ontological security.
The solution to this threat is the creation of an alternative role – that of a covert participant. By instructing individuals to blend in, the alt right has allowed for a convenient solution to this threat that not only allows them to maintain their perception of their core selves, but also allows them to save face in radically different settings. One protects their core self from the danger of repeated role taking by defining their roles in terms of the covert participant, who is consciously tricking others into believing that their personal beliefs can be accurately conflated with their role. This deception effectively avoids disequilibriums that require increased face-work, while simultaneously barring this particular performance from threatening their status in less progressive settings. Their online, solitary togetherness could therefore be seen as a form of backstage work – one in which participants try to gain the knowledge and cultural capital necessary to “pass” on the front stage.
Microtheory is often thought of as inadequate to describe complex systems, but in so far that it is capable of explaining this phenomenon it is also capable of offering some proscriptive solutions. First and foremost, the emergence of this structure leads some credence to Goffman’s observation that role taking is linked to role embracement, leading credence to efforts to redefine roles on an institutional level. Similarly, the deep attachment to saving face suggests an aversion to the state of social disequilibrium that Goffman describes – while it is not my intention to encourage empathy for racism and misogyny, it does illuminate the extraordinary fear that we all have of social sanctions, exclusion and inclusion, and shame. That’s not to say that the only acceptable response to violence is compassion, but it is important to consider how empancipatory politics, poorly executed, could plausibly reinforce and pattern racism and misogyny. Attributing these politics to stubbornness is a form of reductionism – albeit it misguided, there are clearly threads of role conflict, threat aversion and rationality throughout.
1I’ve chosen to link directly to her Twitter page, but a succinct summary of the thread which I’m discussing can alternatively be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/explanation-polls-wrong-us-election_uk_58234de2e4b0c2e24ab20c4f .