Hot Topics and Heat Exhaustion
The temperature is rising. No, I am not talking about climate change. I am talking about public discourse. It seems to be full of hot topics. This over saturation can be overwhelming; we all know too much heat causes heat exhaustion.
The news cycle is short, and there is so much information we receive outside of it. If information flows make sure that we come in contact with many topics, guilt tripping makes sure they are all ‘hot’. Guilt tripping and shaming are effective to promote engagement. This strategy tends to be used both in media, and especially on an individual level.[i] You probably won’t have to scroll on a platform like TikTok for long before being faced with the fatal question:
Why is nobody talking about this?
It is a question that perfectly encapsulates the pressure to care about each and every topic you can possibly encounter. Firstly, let’s look at what this is. Out of curiosity, I looked at the first ten videos that I could find after typing the question into my TikTok search bar. The ‘this’ is question ranged from movement in the Earth’s core, to support for the victims of the war in Ukraine, to lip-gloss. So we see that ‘this’ does not always have the same significance. But it is approached with the same level of urgency in all cases. Secondly, let’s consider the ‘nobody’. The matter of fact is that some people are talking about this. In many cases, a lot are. The information needed to make videos like these, first had to have been published in articles or discussed in the media to even reach the creators. So it is not that nobody is talking about this — it is that you are not. And that is assumed to be a problem. Every ‘this’ is a hot topic. Everything needs to be discussed. But there are only so many hot topics one can handle before getting exhausted. Engagement with everything cannot be meaningful. And this is where performative activism starts creeping in.
To see how we encounter topics we can then care about and discuss, we need to identify three key elements of the current flow of information. An important note is that it is short. In 2018, the average news story was in the public consciousness for seven days (measured based on Google search data).[ii] This included news that were of great significance, such as the supreme court nominations in the US, so we can conclude that even slightly less significant stories would get an even shorter moment under the spotlight.ii We can also assume the trend has continued over the past five years since the way we consume media has not changed much. Perhaps even more importantly, exposure to the news is both unintentional and intentional.[iii] The very reason I spent time discussing how TikTok treats information is that you do not need to sit down and read a newspaper to get information. You can simply scroll on social media for just a moment and you might (unwillingly) learn about a new topic. And that is the perfect moment for the guilt-trip.
Guilt-tripping can be both direct (you need to be talking about this) or indirect. Indirectly, we can observe the clear calls to action for celebrities and the notions that they must speak up about issues they might not be knowledgeable about, simply by virtue of having a platform.[iv] But don’t we also have small scale platforms? How far does this obligation extend? A second indirect cause can be the overwhelmingness of information we consume. After encountering a certain amount of important (or less important) issues you start feeling the heat and not speaking up can feel irresponsible. In fact, American contemporary philosopher Judith Butler wonders whether being overwhelmed is a condition that encourages an ethical obligation towards issues we have no personal proximity towards.[v] Unintentional consumption of information overloads us with images but also moves us and imposes ethical obligation “upon us without our consent, suggesting that consent is not a sufficient ground for delimiting the global obligations which form our responsibility”.v
However, the overload of information might only work as a moral compass if we were bombarded with only a few top stories. But the seven-day (or less) lifespan of an event overwhelms us in a different way. It can create apathy and news avoidance accompanied by an attitude of ‘news finds me’.iii For some that are more socially conscious it could still lead to action, but sincere action is difficult if only focusing on one cause seems almost ignorant. This then garners accusations of performative activism. Performative activism is often described as activism people engage in to boost their own social capital, be it on social media or in their close circle.[vi] This is labelled not only as insincere, but even harmful is some cases. It invites these so called activists to have superficial knowledge of the topic they are discussing, thereby ignoring important nuance and abandoning the cause quickly. It seems like the people relentlessly posting infographics on Instagram are driven by a selfish virtue-signalling goal; to be recognised as being ‘on the right side’. Of course, identifying every personal motivation for online action is impossible. But we should not be too hasty in shifting the blame for superficial attempts at activism completely onto the individual. I wish for some empathy towards performative activists. Although their form of advocacy might not be the most effective in bringing about concrete change, it can be effective in combating the feelings of powerlessness the overflow of news can cause.
Author and poet Patricia Lockwood asked herself: How do we write now? How will she create poetry when her brain is overflown and overwhelmed, and thoughts turn into cotton candy within a few hours?[vii] I ask myself: How do we do engage in discourse now? How do we find focal points when
“the customary greeting of hello has been replaced with what the fuck is going on, and you grab your friend’s arm almost against your will and shake her a little bit and say no seriously, what the fuck is happening”vii
How do we find focal points when so much is going on and everything is hot, but extracting a few topics we really care about seems either impossible or irresponsible? Lockwood will go to a place of pure concentration. She will do so by taking time. And reading (lots and lots). She will let herself be inspired by spaces she will physically visit and books she will pay close attention to. She will take notes and draw. By the end of it she will create a poem.vii I think we can take a page out of her book and take time. We can allow ourselves to learn about a topic and decide how hot it really is. We can deliberately engage with news and recognise when we cannot process any more information and recognise that we are not irresponsible for it. We definitely should not let ourselves be uninformed and avoid all news. However we can let ourselves have the pure concentration Patricia needs to write a poem, in order to concentrate and become knowledgeable about only some things. And then we listen to others who have done the same for other things. By the end, we won’t die of heat exhaustion.
[i] Muir, S. R., Roberts, L. D. & Sheridan, L. P. “The portrayal of online shaming in contemporary online news media: A media framing analysis”, Computers in Human Behavior Reports 3 (2021): 1-12.
[ii] Laura Hazard Owen, “A typical big news story in 2018 lasted about 7 days (until we moved on to the next crisis)”, NiemanLab, January 25, 2019, https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/01/a-typical-big-news-story-in-2018-lasted-about-7-days-until-we-moved-on-to-the-next-crisis/.
[iii] Goyanes, M., Ardèvol-Abreu, A. & de Zúñiga, H. G. “ Antecedents of News Avoidance: Competing Effects of Political Interest, News Overload, Trust in News Media, and “News Finds Me” Perception”, Digital Journalism 11(2023): 1-18.
[iv] Shivani Gonzales & Alexandra Phillips, “Celebrities have a responsibility to take part in social justice causes”, The Queen’s University Journal, January 15, 2018, https://www.queensjournal.ca/celebrities-have-a-responsibility-to-take-part-in-social-justice-causes/.
[v] Judith Butler, “Precarious Life and the Obligations of Cohabitation”, Nobel Museum Stockholm, May 24, 2011.
[vi] Althea Ocomen, “Performative Activism Kills Social Justice”, The Unread Initiative, December 24, 2020, https://theunreadinitiative.org/2020/12/24/performative-activism-kills-social-justice/.