I recently tweeted about the concept of the “in-group contrarian” – a figure on social media who nominally belongs to a given ideological formation but consistently dissents from its orthodoxies. Although the thread didn’t get shared all that widely, it did get some good feedback, including being listed as a “thread of the week” at OneZero. So I’m inaugurating this new blog with an expanded post on the topic.
For background, the terminology I’m using here and in the thread comes from the work of the cultural theorist René Girard. Girard was above all interested in the mimetic, or imitative, aspects of human behavior, a quality we can see illustrated constantly in online spaces. Put simply, the path of least resistance when using a platform like Twitter is to observe what others are doing – what they’re talking about, what they’re sharing – and copy them. Retweeting, liking, and reusing hashtags is easier than composing an original post, and the posts you’re most likely to retweet and like are ones that have already been retweeted and liked by many people. Whenever a tweet is widely shared, we see the “mimetic snowballing” Girard described. This is how these platforms prime us to behave at all times.
(I’ve written more extensively on mimetic structure of digital platforms and on Girard’s surprising link to social media’s origins; if you’re interested in a fuller account of all of this, follow the link.)
So with the basic mimetic patterns of platform behavior in mind, we can see that ideological in-groups are fueled by imitation. We can also see that group identities cohere around moments of mimetic coalescence. The spread of a hashtag is probably the simplest illustration. By repeating the hashtag, you merge with a social formation. When a hashtag trends, the result can be what Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim argued that experiences of ecstatic cohesion formed the basis both of religion and of any collective identity.
Girard drew upon Durkheim’s account, but added other dimensions to it. He was interested not just in behavior, but in desire. And for him, desire is never just a desire for things, but a desire for being – that is to say, a desire to fill an inner void by attaching it to something that validates our sense of self. The point is relatively simple to make in the instance I’ve been describing. When people participate in pile-ons, share viral hashtags, and so on, there’s a deeper desire at work: a desire for the reaffirmation of our identity by fusing with a larger group.
We can now return to the concept of the In-Group Contrarian (hereafter IGC). Anyone who has observed social media platforms, especially Twitter, will know the type. This is the person who, precisely when mimetic snowballing is in progress, attempts to apply the brakes. What’s important is that this figure is not simply an outsider to the group, in which case they could probably be ignored, but instead claims to share the group’s goals, beliefs, etc and merely objects to some aspect of this manifestation of them. The appearance of this figure is as predictable as the mimetic snowballing itself.
Of course, the majority of IGCs are low-follower anonymous accounts, and can be simply ignored. But a few IGCs already have, or gain, a certain reputation and a following (more on that in a minute), and become harder to ignore. The reaction to these high-profile IGCs differs from the response to an ideological opponent (out-group member). The latter’s criticisms of one’s group can usually be dismissed. Often, in contrast, the IGC must not just be dismissed, but destroyed. In fact, many in-groups seem to dedicate more time and energy to attacking the IGCs attached to their group than they do to attacking their straight-up enemies. In fact, hatred of the IGC can become one of the main things that binds the in-group together.
This would be a version of the scapegoat effect, central to how Girard modifies Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence. For Girard, groups only truly coalesce by expelling, or sacrificing, a group member. It is in the act of violent unity against this “surrogate victim” that the group’s collective identity reaches its apotheosis. That’s because whatever antagonisms exist within the group are displaced onto the designated scapegoat. The repudiation of the IGC represents an incomplete version of this operation, because usually s/he never goes away, because the in-group itself can’t fully expel him or her. That’s partly, I would argue, because on some level it doesn’t want to.
It’s easy to observe that the IGC, rather than simply being cast out, often becomes a persistent object of perverse fascination for the in-group. Here too Girard is helpful. The IGC’s objections function as an obstacle to the fulfillment of desire for collective effervescence and self-affirmation in the group. In this way, he or she functions as a skandalon or “stumbling-block,” a term Girard takes from the Bible.
But the relation to the skandalon is more complex than it seems, because it is never simply an obstacle, but an obstacle to which we return again and again, as if addicted to it. We see this when in-group members obsess over and fixate on the IGC. Why? To restate a prior point, if my desire is mimetic, it comes from observing others. I copy my desire from the large mass of similar people I observe engaging in herding behavior together. But then, the IGC transmits a counter-signal that blocks the full movement of desire. As a result, my desire, and the sense of being I obtain from group belonging, is placed in question. The IGC becomes an object of fascination because of the power he or she is capable of exerting on me by attenuating the fulfillment of my desire. But this, in turn, makes the IGC into another potential model – a prospect that throws my sense of self into crisis.
There are two possible results when this has occurred. One, the most numerically likely, is that I remain fully attached to the group, but must periodically, ritualistically cast out the IGC (in sync with the rest of the group) – an act that both conceals and reveals his/her enigmatic effect on me. But in a certain percentage of cases, the IGC will show my desire a different path, and I will follow it. In this way, the IGC can peel off certain in-group members and push them to the outer boundaries of the group. These IGC hangers-on become mimetically attached to the group’s fringe, rather than its orthodox core.
All the incentives at first seem to work against embracing IGC status. Occupying the role of scapegoat, of object of collective rage and repudiation, is not an attractive prospect to most. But to a few persistent gadflies, IGC status can bring dividends. Since platforms prime us for herd behavior, they tend to produce sameness. But at the same time, success in the attention economy necessitates differentiation. Thus, by standing out amidst the mimetic uniformity of the in-group, the IGC can build a following. (Of course, once this following reaches a critical mass, it may display the same tendency to herding as the original in-group.)
One of the ways the in-group attempts to cast out the IGC is to call him or her a “grifter.” In some sense, it may be true that some IGCs have recognized the pattern I’m describing – specifically, the way that dissent from the herding dynamics can be an effective way to game the attention economy – and are exploiting it consciously. But of course, plenty of in-group members in good standing reap far greater dividends (both socially and monetarily) from reinforcing orthodoxy. These are simply two attention economy self-marketing strategies, and it’s unclear why only one should be demeaned as a “grift.”
Beneath the antagonism, there is a symbiosis between the in-group and the IGC formations that crop up around its edges. To return to a prior point, as IGCs appear and gather followings, the in-group will increasingly define itself in opposition to these fringe figures – again, often more so than against their nominal ideological enemies. So, paradoxically, even as the IGC functions as an obstacle to the in-group’s fantasy of full mimetic apotheosis, the in-group also needs the IGC’s antagonistic presence to consolidate itself against. This, again, is a kind of half-realized scapegoat effect: the in-group maintains the IGC as a reserve of sacrificial victims whose presence can be invoked in order to reconsolidate group identity. Conversely, of course, the IGC’s project is premised on the continued existence of the in-group.
You will likely have a sense of where you fall in the orbit of the group(s) you affiliate with: closer to the core or closer to the fringes of some formation. Your feelings about IGCs will probably depend to some extent on this. But from the systemic perspective I am attempting to outline, there is no point in decrying “contrarians” – or in seeing them as essential. They are a component of a self-regulating cybernetic mechanism. You, too, are part of this mechanism.