The rise of moral bubbles?

We may be headed for a world of endless moral bubbles, where targets for outrage can be identified and turned into bogeymen in record time, with record audiences. It would be QAnon, but for anything you can think of and some stuff you can’t.


Author’s note: What follows is speculation. It may very well be wrong. I’m thinking out loud. Let me know if it prompts any thoughts at your end.

Now that technology has democratised authorship and boosted signals about audience response, we are finding out where mass demand for narrative really lies. And it lies with not with nuanced storylines but with something else: simple moral tales.

Simple moral tales are powerfully attractive to a wide audience. The US film industry learnt this in 1977 with George Lucas’s Star Wars, and didn’t look back: these days, superhero flicks have taken up permanent occupation of the US box office.

But these are stories. The interesting new development is this:  the hunger for black-and-white stories is infecting the real world.

Black and white in the real world

The most remarkable characteristic of two remarkable real-world 2021 events is this: large numbers of people have been ready to put themselves on the line for stories that are black and white and dumb all over. They are silly almost beyond comprehension.

Most of the people involved in them have been watching black-and-white morality tales most of their lives, and they evidently have developed a powerful urge to take part in one.

First QAnon believers stormed the US Capitol in disorganised insurrection, convinced that then-president Donald Trump was leading a secret movement to root out election-stealing paedophiles from the top levels of US government.

Then a crowd of Redditors from the /WallStreetBets forum tried to do the same in the world of investment, convinced that by taking down one small US investment house in a short squeeze they could demonstrate their power over the same Wall Street that was busy selling them wildly overpriced shares. They said, loudly, that they just wanted to prove a moral point.

The bubble

These two episodes, and a few others in recent history, display a brand of dumb that we haven’t seen much before, certainly not in this quantity.

True, these affairs make suddenly more comprehensible all those puzzling quests in the history books, from the Grail to the communist paradise.

But the big dumb moral quests of 2021 have lacked any big idea like communism or fascism or even the prospect of vast profit.

Wedge Antilles and Darth Vader

Black helmet, white helmet. This won’t end well.

 

 

Their followers are not in the grip of anything that really counts as a worked-out view of the world. Reading what they say, they seem to have been animated much more by the desire to embark on a quest, any quest, with a moral purpose that can be summed up in a few incendiary words – like, say, “Hillary Clinton sacrificing children” or “Wall Street rigging the game”, or “Bill Clinton controlling us with vaccines”, or “George Soros controlling our thoughts”.

They needed a moral mission. Anything would do. They took the first one they saw.

Both QAnon and WallStreetBets seem already to be receding into the distance, despite what Donald Trump and a few holders of overpriced stock would like. QAnon rioters are beginning to show up in court, mostly crestfallen that their quest turned out to be a tilt at a windmill.

And these causes don’t have obvious staying power. If they resemble anything, they resemble the investment bubbles that pop up every few years, the ones where you start getting stock tips from taxi drivers. Then, as they say in the markets, the bubble bursts.

So if we need a label for them, here’s one: “moral bubbles”.  

How moral bubbles grow

Moral bubbles seem to happen when values manage to shove facts right out of the way. They often happen in small communities , such as the US town of Salem in 1692. Occasionally they have broken out in larger communities, as in the 1980s when southern California was gripped by the McMartin pre-school case. (A single spurious claim of child molestation triggered an epidemic of bizarre tales, their creation fuelled by those aiming to help the children “tell their stories”.)

In 1692 Salem, isolation was enough for a witch panic to briefly take hold. The McMartin case was fuelled by journalists and prosecutors keen for a righteous cause. But online forums, fuelled by their visitors’ desire for views and likes, seem to provide a particularly powerful device for inflating moral bubbles.

Moral bubbles need something stronger than the analysis that drives many political causes. They need raw moral outrage. It’s no surprise that paedophilia featured in both the McMartin and QAnon stories.  Nothing could be better calculated to cause rational people to lay rationality aside. As motivating forces, even racism and tribalism and envy cannot match the chance to express hatred of kiddie-fiddlers.

Now, I admit I was startled to see the cross-hairs of outrage move so quickly from paedophiles to Wall Street short-sellers. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. “They’ve taken all the money” worked as a powerful narrative for communism, despite the thinness of its philosophical foundations. Now we see that unmooring anti-capitalism from political theory works just as well, at least for a few days or weeks.

Politicians, being fairly responsive to feedback, have jumped on this emerging trend. Trump is the giant here. Other politicians have been interested to see that a man almost completely uninterested in policy and incompetent in execution can nevertheless gain a huge following. That it has never been quite enough to win him a majority vote in an election hardly matters. He is teaching a masterclass in developing and exploiting moral bubbles. People in the same line of work have been taking notes, from Tucker Carlson to Vladimir Putin. (The woke end of politics hasn’t generated a true moral bubble yet, preferring to stay with political ideology – but that could soon change.)

The digital bubble-blowers

And social media such as Twitter and Facebook seem to provide a warm, moist place for such ideas to take root and grow.

Moral bubbles may have been less common in the back half of the 20th century because mass media mostly filtered out the wacko messaging that would have let them happen. But now the media filter is gone. Online media has taken over. And for all its many advantages, online media seems a good place for moral bubbles to pop up.  

I have no idea how this ends. Perhaps QAnon and the Capitol insurrection are a couple of one-offs that happen to have occurred close together in time. Or perhaps these moral bubbles really are suited to the times, and we face a future full of them.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The rise of moral bubbles?

  1. Graham Young says:

    This article appears to me to be a sign of yet another “moral bubble” – nice neologism btw. The author appears, by his selection of examples, to think that only one small part of the spectrum is subject to this problem, but why pick on them when the largest moral bubbles are on the left. Bubbles like the idea that racism is systemic (and rampant) in the least racist societies in the history of the world?

    I see the member for Hughes being counselled for his “wrong” views on COVID, when they appear to me, on a reading of the facts to, in fact, be “contestable” views where he may well be “right”.

    These are more serious moral bubbles than QAnon, because there is huge buy-in from mainstream media and significant institutions. Salem witch trials don’t happen at the fringes of society, they happen in the centre.

  2. David Walker says:

    Graham, you’re right. On reflection the piece needs to include the moral bubble that is BLM, when I have the time.

    • David Walker says:

      Graham, on further reflection I remember why I left BLM out of it, and so won’t for the moment revise the piece to include it. (Memo to self: think before you comment.)

      Regardless of what one thinks about BLM, its political claims are not outside the conventional territory of political dispute. Racist police do exist, regardless of differences over how many there are, how deeply racist they are, or how that ends up skewing the administration of justice.

      For that matter, the social dynamics misguidedly theorised by Karl Marx might be said to be within the conventional territory of political dispute. You and I may not agree with Marx’s theory – I’m personally surprised by how long it has lasted and how deeply it has penetrated – but it seems a legitimate concept for debate. There’s a reason Karl Popper spent half a book demolishing it. Popper couldn’t have spent more than half a page on QAnon; there’s just not enough there for him to get his teeth into. (This may be one reason why the originators of the Capitol insurrection looked at times more like a fandom than a movement.)

      There’s a qualitative difference, I’m suggesting, between claims like BLM’s and claims that the US government is run by a massive paedophile ring. The first is a political evaluation that, in its more extreme versions, I disagree with. The second involves the use of not just contestable but wildly untrue statements to justify actions that are thoroughly crazy.

      The difference between the two is not a bright line, but it seems to me there is still a line. Just where we draw that line is hard to say, but I have had the feeling for some time that there is a qualitative difference between “the US policy apparatus is biased to the left” and “the entire world is run by a secret cabal under the control of secret billionaire communists/lizard people/the Illuminati”. You probably see that difference too – as do rather a lot of conservatives.

      The bigger question that you raise is whether moral bubbles are more a feature of the right than the left. I’m beginning to think they are, partly because I can’t yet come up with a good left-wing example of what I’m talking about. That could be political bias, but I think there’s something else going on.

      It’s this: while left-wing politics seems susceptible to too much daft theory (communism, post-structuralism), right-wing politics seems more susceptible to ideas that are virtually theory-less, but shot through with almost primal moral claims. Jonathan Haidt would probably say that the far right is particularly susceptible to ideas about contamination of the purity of the community. And right now, parts of right-wing politics – thankfully, so far not the Australian ones – seem to be suscepting.

      Footnote: I’ve removed the passing reference to the member for Hughes. You correctly intuit that I don’t really know enough about him, and he doesn’t deserve to be slagged off just because I disagree with his general politics and presentation.

  3. Graham Young says:

    Something else I thought of after I left the comment was the abuse that Gigi Foster, and I’m sure Paul Frijters, have copped for performing a cost benefit analysis on COVID and being prepared to talk and write about it. Just a thought.

    Look forward to seeing any revisions you make.

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    Super post Don.

    However, “The woke end of politics hasn’t generated a true moral bubble yet, preferring to stay with political ideology – but that could soon change” leaves me breathlessly incredulous. Identity politics is one huge moral bubble and can be just as oxymoronic as QAnon. Everybody has to pretend Caitlin Jenner is a women otherwise you are contributing to suicide. There are woke folks and hateful bigots – exactly the black and white you began the article with.

    BTW: Here is Victoria we just passed a bill making it compulsory to affirm whatever sex a patient says they are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.