Culture war profiteering

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Another bomb has gone off in the culture wars. Gillette, the razor manufacturer, has sparked outrage — OUTRAGE! — with its advert suggesting men can and should do better. It’s been watched 19 million times on YouTube, rapidly attracting a million dislikes, as well as half a million likes.

Like it or hate it, people are talking about it. It’s generated a huge amount of publicity for Gillette, just like Nike’s advert featuring NFL refusenik Colin Kaapernick.

It’s a marketing tactic that goes all the way back to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of public relations. He formulated shocking, attention-grabbing marketing tactics, like arranging a march of suffragettes in New York, who all lit cigarettes at the same time. A press release announced they were lighting ‘torches of freedom’. The campaign was intentionally provocative. Bernays obviously didn’t really give a damn about the suffragettes. He was making waves, then riding those waves to get attention.

This is what’s known as culture war profiteering. War profiteers don’t care who’s winning, they see any war as an opportunity to make money. The last thing they want is for the war to stop, so they stoke it to continue cashing in.

Piers Morgan understands the game better than most. He obviously weighed in on the major issue of the day — the Gillette advert — declaring it ‘the worst ever betrayal of men’. Does he really believe that? It doesn’t matter. He seeks confrontations, so the media can report on his ‘furious row with Carol Vorderman’, or ‘Twitter feud with Ariana Grande’. It’s the Trump playbook. Provoke outrage. Get attention. Get clicks.

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Milo Yiannopolous was a very successful culture war profiteer, for a while. Did he really believe that ‘feminism is cancer’? Who cares. It got a lot of attention. And hundreds of thousands of angry online men bought into his stage-managed provocations. Ghostbusters is being re-made with a female cast? Who gives a shit. But any incident can be stoked up by culture war profiteers. Here’s a riot, and I’m selling bricks.

Even a well-meaning intellectual like Jordan Peterson can’t resist but profit off the culture wars. It’s just too easy money. There’s the Jordan Peterson who writes earnest but mediocre books like 12 Rules for Living, and there’s the online Jordan Peterson, who goes into extraordinary paroxysms about post-modernism and social justice warriors. And it’s this latter Jordan Peterson who is truly raking it in.

On the Left, the same rules of the attention economy apply. Hone your message into the most simplistic polarising headline you can. ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. That will really get the white people talking. Genius.

The tactics for both sides are the same: scour the internet for any evidence of the extremism and idiocy of the other side, seize it, trim it, share it. Stoke the outrage of your side. Get the clicks.

Find footage that appears to show young white students taunting a Native American. Perfect. Does it matter if the story turns out to be more nuanced? No, you got some clicks, and the culture war intensified.

Politics and culture have become a Punch and Judy show, and internet giants like Google, Facebook and YouTube are the puppeteers. They’re the ones who really profit off all this outrage and polarisation. Perhaps they didn’t plan it like this. But they created an economy based on attention and clicks, and it rapidly became obvious that the more obnoxious and polarising you are, the more you get clicks. Oh no you don’t! Oh yes you do!

Yes, male mental health could be better, and male suicide is a problem. But is there really a crisis in male mental health? The statistics suggest the real crisis is in the mental health of women and girls. The rates for hospitalisation for self-harm among teenage girls has gone up 189% in the last decade in the US, and nearly that much in the UK.

Why? Psychologists think it’s mainly because of social media. Some evidence suggests girls are on average more empathetic than boys, and this natural, biological social sensitivity has been heightened and wrecked by social media. It’s not men who are screwing young women up. It’s Instagram and Twitter — exactly the technologies that fired up #metoo.

All sides of the culture wars buy their ammo in the same gun shops. We are all being played.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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