The emotional dynamics of ego-fodder

I’ve written plenty about ego fodder since I invented the term almost ten years ago. I have even managed to slide it into various things I have written elsewhere (e.g. here).

What I haven’t described – or if I have haven’t done recently – is the emotional dynamics within this notion of ego fodder. These dynamics help to explain its endurance, despite it actively harming movement-building, which is what we all say we want…

So let’s look (again?) at the emotional needs of three groups, three actors, and how they derive benefits from the formats that create ego fodder, and are therefore less likely to push back against (there’s another post to write some day about that – what happens if/when someone tries to foreground ego fodder, and undermine it).

Firstly, the speakers at these events: Well, they’ve worked hard to gain whatever status they have. If they’re a politician, they’ve knocked on a lot of doors endured a lot of boring meetings, made tactical alliances with people on their side who they really don’t like. And now they’re the councillor for this, or the Shadow Minister for that, or the hard working local MP for Rotten Borough East. And if they’re an author, they’ve endured the the frustration of publishers and deadlines and research and rewrites and so forth. If they are there as an activist then, like politicians, they’ve been in lots of boring meetings, tasted lots of defeats. Ditto for academics, they’ve slaved over papers, dealt with reviewer two’s objections, revised and resubmitted. Lots of teaching, lots of university admin: life hasn’t necessarily turned out like they thought it would

And these people who are invited to pontificate are like any human being – they have a desire/need to be recognised and applauded and told that they’re a good person. They think, rightly or wrongly, that the undivided obedient, safe attention of 20, 35, 500 people is their due: payment for services rendered. And of course, like most appetites it enlarges – what used to be enough is not enough for those on the downward slide. They never know if it’s gonna be the last time so they don’t want their “narcissistic supply” interrupted.

Secondly, onto the event organisers. Well, there’s a tacit deal here isn’t there, for some of the reflected glory if they can get a Big Enough Name (BEN). BENs can get bums on seats, or these days, I suppose, zooms on screens, and get a sense of their own importance and usefulness, to “the movement.” Also, just all the hassles of putting on a live event (venues, publicity etc), the last thing you need as extra cognitive load is thinking about formats.

And finally, those attendees who come to obediently sit in rows, and be taught that by their betters by the people who are more informed, or more dedicated, or more high status. I think here the motives, of course, because you’re dealing with a large number of actors, will be more diverse. But on the whole, I suspect that people are there to feel that they at least have made the effort, they’re not relying on the tube to keep them informed. They’re showing that they are responsible, concerned, citizens.

And now we come to the class aspect. Because these meetings are overwhelmingly like, being in a classroom, I mean, they’re usually public lectures – the format is very much “start the meeting, someone drones, someone else drones, then there is a q&a, which allows a certain number of people to display their virtue, or intelligence, and then it ends.”

Now, for middle class people, school was usually not a terrible experience (1). So these formats, the public meeting, the lecture, the speeches at the rally, have an emotional resonance for middle class people – the comfort of being young and relatively carefree. No mortgages, no mistresses. No missed promotions, no downsizing: easy days, if not necessarily happier days.

And so the emotional signal that is sent by this information deficit model is not just the comforts already described, but it is also that sense of a return to childhood. And for me, ego fodder is explicable through this.

If that is too reductive and cod-Freudian for you, well, also this –

Ego fodder is less cognitively taxing. Because there’s less of a question of strategy of what do we actually do? (Instead of merely interpreting the world, the point is actually surely to change it.) That ‘what do we actually do?’ question would require a different conversation, which would quickly become more awkward because it would lead inevitably to supplementary questions – well, what resources do we actually have? How long are we likely to have those resources? What is the strength of our opponents? Do our opponents have the ability to split us, to create sheep and goats, to co opt to repress (the answer to those last questions is usually an emphatic “Yes”).

So to wrap up, let’s put ourselves in the heads of those mice who were dismayed at the way the cat keeps eating them. They called that meeting and got an agreement from all the mice present that the cat should wear a bell to alert them to the danger the cat posed. And they must be so jubilant, they must really think that they have cracked something.

Now secretly, some of those mice know that the really dangerous work is well dangerous and scary, and is likely to fracture the superficial coalition of those mice who agree. So for all these reasons, it’s easier to keep describing the world’s problems than to ask, what specifically can we do about them? And what do we need to change in our efforts, given that our previous efforts have probably not met with very much success?

So, there is a pull and a push in ego fodder- the push is away from danger (fractured coalitions, a specific program of difficult work and a very high probability of failure-with-consequences). The pull is towards ritualised dissent (not resistance) and echoes of happier if not halcyon days.

No contest.

Footnotes

(1) Now, that’s obviously not true for everyone. If you were not sporty in a sporty school, if you were LGBTQI before about 2010 (not that it’s necessarily easy now), if you were a girl who was academic, etc, if you had acne, any number of issues, but on the whole, middle class people have been trained to absorb information, sponge it out on the appointed day, squeeze out the sponge, get the certificate that says they are a fit and proper human being. And then move on to the next certificate, keep their heads down, noses clean and reap such rewards as there are… – Dimitri Orlovs’s Reinventing Collapse has some hilarious things to say about the education systems of the Soviet Union and the United States, and what they produce…

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