Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

For my theme song, my leather black jeans on… Kanye, anonymity, free speech, and racism

Let’s reheat this soufflé.

It is very likely that it was Kanye. There he was on Alex Jones’ weird little eponymous show.  Alex Jones has just come off the back of losing a truly blistering defamation case against the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, and Kanye has recently lost a significant amount of his worth as a result of businesses refusing to affiliate with him as a result of his antisemitic commentary.  Five years ago, we would have struggled to imagine a superstar like Kanye being on Alex Jones’ ridiculous little show.  Now, it seems to fit.  The politics-entertainment ecosystem rewards this alignment of people who confuse speaking truth with speaking thoughtlessly.

And yet it wasn’t a perfect alignment.  It is very likely that it was Kanye but, if it was him, it wasn’t his image.

Recalling Kim Kardashian’s 2021 Met Gala body suit that concealed her entire appearance apart from her silhouette and ponytail, Kanye appeared on Alex Jones’ show hooded.

And it was while concealing his identity in this way that Kanye opened up about his warm feelings for Hitler and his views that the Holocaust did not really result in the death of six million Jews.

Many people have begun the discussion about celebrity mental illness and how we engage the issue.  Is Kanye unwell?  Should we diagnose him?  To what extent do our cultural attitudes towards mental illness inform our response to Kanye?  Does ‘I have bipolar disorder’ give you a free kick for Holocaust denial?

But I instead want to turn to the topic of anonymity in political speech.  Kanye, of course, is not anonymous, but symbolically achieves this through concealing his face.

The typical story we tell ourselves is that a level of privacy is needed in order for us to express personal authenticity.  In 2015, the UN appointed a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, Prof Joe Cannataci, who developed the argument that it was through private spaces–those unobserved by others–that we undertake personal development.  The argument rests on a number of unsupported assumptions, including the idea that there is an authentic personality that exists when we are not being observed.

The alternative–and my preferred approach–is that we construct our identity in performance.  By concealing our identity, we are not more authentic; we merely escape the discipline of surveillance.

In The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde creates a dialogue between two of the most insufferably pretentious people you can imagine about the nature of creativity and art.  It’s from this essay that we get the quote: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’  The context of the quote is a discussion about how artists can conceal their own ideas in artistic form, giving them some individual distance from those ideas.  Critics have a different role in the creative process because they cannot conceal their own ideas.  The Critic as Artist was published as part of a group of essays of Wilde’s ideas about art.  The theme of ‘masks’ as a way to conceal identity  recurs across the essays.  In Pen, Pencil, and Poison, Wilde describes a mask as intensifying parts of the personality: the mask allowed only those parts of the self that the author–in this case, the artist and serial killer, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright–wanted to reveal: Wainewright’s pseudonyms ‘were some of the grotesque masks under which he choose to hide his seriousness or to reveal his levity.  A mask tells us more than a face.  These disguises intensified his personality.’

Again, Wilde was interested in some bigger, romantic idea of ‘truth’, and it was through the distance of disguise that people had the tools to explore that truth.  Unspoken is the threat of accountability: if we make you responsible for your views, you won’t say them in public.  But the Wainewright example provides something closer to what I think is really going on: the disguise gave more freedom to the author to construct their identity.  Wainewright was a villain but, through pseudonyms, he could construct the right author for the ideas that he wanted to espouse.

The lack of surveillance doesn’t make us more authentic; it makes us less accountable.  Do I think, for example, that the Kanye who developed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy believed that the Holocaust was a hoax and that Hitler was a praiseworthy person?  No.  Do I think that he had some background level antisemitic views about Jews controlling the media industry?  Probably.  But now he doesn’t have to be accountable for his views, and so he has the freedom to speak carelessly.

More importantly, I think he now has the freedom to pass off other people’s ideas as his own.  It’s one of the aspects of the political culture economy that the alt-right hijacks people who are incapable of accepting criticism: ‘I said something that was a bit off and lots of people told me that this was a bit off.  That hurt my feelings because I don’t want to think I’m a bad person.  Meanwhile, the people who are being really nice to me all of a sudden have some interesting perspectives that I’m now going to repeat…’

But that’s down a tangent.  The main target here is the concealing of identity and the way that surveillance makes us responsible.

The correct balance here isn’t Cannataci’s idea that privacy is necessary for personal development, or Wilde’s idea that privacy is necessary for artistic truth; I think the correct balance here is power.  Discussions about online trolling, for example, are nearly always led by very comfortable people saying that we need to unmask those on social media who made them feel bad about what they were saying.  But we rarely see those same people calling for accountability from the very powerful for their comments.  This was the interesting part of Kim Kardashian’s outfit at the Met Gala: even the very powerful and the very public should be able to control how much of themselves they make public to the world.  The person who wants to participate in civic life now has the very real risk of the powerful in the media just completely ruining their lives.  It wasn’t that long ago that some ordinary person asking a question about welfare policy on the national broadcaster found themselves subject to an extraordinary muck-racking exercise by some other parts of the media.  ‘Cancel culture’ rhetoric, for example, is nearly always framed in terms of consequences for the very powerful and rarely in terms of our political culture economy that makes targeting minorities so profitable.

Framed more precisely: if everybody in the Anglosphere started dressing as Kanye during his Alex Jones interview just to go about their ordinary business, we would have powerful voices in the media crying that it was a security threat.

That’s what symbolically interesting about Kanye’s attire: everybody else would be expected to be open and transparent about their identity.  But he wasn’t told to take it off.  Instead, he was given a platform to pass off other people’s ideas about the reality of the Holocaust.  If we read this through the link between identity, surveillance, and discipline, we can better see the playing field for what it is: we will let some people conceal their identity when they want to say horrifically antisocial things, but we demand complete transparency from those who want to challenge those who are institutionally powerful.


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