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Op-eds, Opinions

Bhaskar ’21: Moralistic branding of movements fosters groupthink and denies nuance to sociopolitical issues

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 11, 2021

Branding signals. From #FeeltheBern’s revitalization of Sanders’s democratic socialism to Trump’s demagoguery-laden “Make America Great Again,” today’s policies and campaigns are dependent on their branding, nomenclature and image, which poise them to garner attention and accumulate a following. In our age of “clicktivism,” taking to the streets in protest is regularly supplemented by passive and performative forms of everyday activism, such as the onslaught of reposted Instagram stories featuring content from @theslacktivists and @soyouwanttotalkabout. The changing face of activism not only facilitates but encourages a sense of identification with common values. 

The rhetorical identity of a social movement offers a clear method to delineate who should believe what and on what terms. For example, the term “Obamacare” was originally created as a pejorative, a rallying cry for Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Beyond the explicit branding of politics, progressive activism has adopted a more implicit identification with morality and the pursuit of justice. Large scale movements proffer a wide enough ideological umbrella such that anyone who shares even a lukewarm desire to combat the injustice at hand feels compelled to join. While it seems straightforward, even intelligent, to use branding and rhetoric to build social solidarity and mobilize change, nebulous presumptions of morality can dangerously prioritize ideals and appearances above practicality and discourse.  

The positioning of progressive social-justice-oriented campaigns as bulwarks of morality grants them a great deal of immunity from counterarguments. Skepticism regarding the stances, evidence and policies of such movements is easily denigrated as antithetical to the values that the movement is rooted in. For example, campaigns targeting law enforcement, such as those advocating to abolish the police, capitalize on a strong moral tie to racial justice and offer selective evidence to wholly decry America’s existing policing system and suggest that creating alternate forms of public safety can effectively lead to “a world without police.” Despite an abundance of historical evidence indicating that abolition would be a terrible idea (eg.: the utter failures of 1960s police free communes), these campaigns have amassed a significant following largely based on their easy rhetoric and high-minded goals to dismantle racism. Similarly, despite the impractical financial and industrial considerations surrounding the Green New Deal, proponents of the Sunrise Movement heavily promote the organization’s values of climate justice and environmental health to appeal to supporters and quell dissenters.  

Branding may also harness first impressions to shape the social perception of an initiative. At first glance, the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement reflect an upstanding call for racial justice and equity — particularly toward historically disenfranchised African American communities. However, a deeper dive into the organization itself both suggests a lack of transparency surrounding the specific causes nearly $10.6 billion in charitable donations were granted to, and reveals a set of policy changes, reparations and calls to action that are seldom discussed on the movement’s public platforms. Closer to home, student group Decolonization at Brown has amassed a following centering around a moral purpose of “decolonizing the institution.” Even though many students may not fully agree with or remain confused about DAB’s claims regarding the extent to which Brown remains influenced by colonialism, there remains a tacit obligation to conform to this group’s agendas so as not to gain the stigma affiliated with opposition to decolonization.  

Behind their witty slogans, aesthetic pastel graphics and bold typefaces, these movements present a deluge of opinions and selective evidence while claiming the authority granted by indisputable facts. Digital echo chambers and social media virtue-signaling amplify these dogmatically branded narratives through shares and reposts. 

This amplification compounds the effects of their social pressure and means that, despite tackling complex sociopolitical issues, these movements depend on dangerously simplified and one-sided fronts instead of reasoned perspectives. Despite the facade of inclusivity, the group mentality spurred by these initiatives often poses an “all-or-nothing” approach, a setback to developing nuanced perspectives on social media. 

Blindly ascribing moral superiority to the doctrine of a campaign diminishes space for disagreement and negates the stances of those who express valid concern to the contrary. Disagreement will likely be viewed as oppositional to the overarching values which a movement claims to uphold, rather than the actions and justifications of a movement itself. Furthermore, the schisms that arise from value-based branding hinder bipartisanship and parlay into a culture of progressive intolerance where individuals are expected to hold the “correct” opinions on topics of identity politics, culture, race and the environment. Voices and platforms that deviate too far from ideological orthodoxy — which claims to rest on a moral absolute — can consequently be declared intellectually inferior and systematically excluded. 

In the words of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, engaging with situations of limited moral diversity “shuts down open-minded thinking.” As political participants and stakeholders, we owe it to ourselves to avoid getting consumed by groupthink and to educate ourselves on what the causes we support truly represent. The packaging of sociopolitical agendas into neat, moralistic messages threatens civic life by providing easy answers to difficult questions and manufacturing public desire to subscribe to this simplicity. The moral undertones of modern social movements greatly limit the extent to which disagreement can be expressed without incurring denigrating judgment. Retaining the ability to simultaneously support a set of values and critique the sociopolitical systems which claim to uphold these values must become more commonplace. Abandoning the illusory “moral high ground,” dissecting the biases of our own viewpoints and investigating both the apparent and veiled agendas of the information we navigate are crucial to furthering informed political engagement.  

Nidhi Bhaskar ’21 can be reached at nidhi_bhaskar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Well written and pertinent

  2. If you want to talk about nuance, perhaps try not to “blindly” condemn all movements that make moral claims. And perhaps try not to ignore so flagrantly the vital work that movements for justice do accomplish despite their flaws. I am saddened that such lacking argumentation has found such a prominent platform.

  3. Credit where it’s due – this is the most intelligent BDH op-ed in some time. Kudos to the author for her reasoning and courage. Hope intellectual diversity will return to campuses instead of being cancelled by rage mobs.

    Food for thought: if you are on the same side as the wealthy and powerful who control mainstream media, multinational corporations, big tech platforms, and government, are you really part of the “resistance”?

  4. I had a very hard time understanding this article. The language used comes off as pretentious, even braggadocious. From what I do understand, I don’t agree with the points made. I believe in this article you fall victim to the same idea you want to criticize, namely it lacks nuance to the groups and ideas you attack. It feels like you formed your opinion out of a feeling of anger and wrote with this pretentious language out of a need for attention and then tried to scrape references by as you went. For example referencing the far right Sinclair broadcast group in a BLM argument, or sprinkling in opinion pieces.

    In all of this, you forget to actually build your case. You give your opinion on social and economic problems (e.g. green new deal and the anti colonizer group), but fail to build the case of a lack of nuance you hypothesized in your title. Where is the proof of this “all-or-nothing” mentality? You cherry pick the articles you reference and ideas to break down these groups, but none of them support the case.

    It feels like you wanted to write a piece criticizing these groups and movements, but lacked the braveness to actually do it. Instead you hid yourself behind the hypothesis of “oh no lack of groupthink is preventing a conversation, so look how brave I am for having these controversial opinions”.

    From my point of view, there is enough conversation within these groups. These things are and will be dynamic. The stances of these groups have changed throughout the years. But hey that’s just based on my feelings. In my defense though, this article I just read is also just based on feelings.

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