Online Social Democracy, Cultural Appropriation and…the Mardi Gras Indians?

In New Orleans, there is a private group of revelers known as the “Mardi Gras Indians”; if you’re familiar with them, fantastic, if not, you will be soon.This article is the first installment of a four part series covering the Mardi Gras Indians.  Throughout this series, we’ll be discussing four major ideas. The first, as the subtitle suggests, includes our online social democracy and outrage culture. From there, we’ll discuss cultural appropriation, the Mardi Gras Indians themselves, and what role they play in said social democracy, eventually coming to a conclusion as to whether or not they’re guilty of cultural appropriation. So, before we discuss who they are, their history, and their implications within our internet culture, it might help to sort through the functions of this culture that may pose a threat to their existence. So for now, forget about the Mardi Gras Indians, and brace yourselves; this parade route is a long and winding one.

Let’s start by defining a few terms and giving an outline of three key components that help characterize the internet in how it relates to social democracy. We need to know how viral information spreads, understand the complexities of outrage culture, and maintain the importance of a personal filter for the vast amounts of information we encounter every day.

Within the many folds of our social democracy are individuals who are prone to expressing their particular views as fact, or as otherwise unchallengeable under the guise of political correctness or social justice. This so-called “vocal minority” is, more often than not, misrepresentative of the general public’s views, yet the masses tend to rally in huge numbers in support of or in severe opposition to more extreme political or social perspectives. Often times, the processes that determine virality magnify relatively trivial “microaggressions” that stem from legitimate social or political issues; in effect, they unconsciously delegitimize the greater issues at hand when the vocal minority adamantly attaches itself to perceived injustices. All of this is especially true online, where anonymity encourages such behaviors.

Now, what is “social democracy”? Essentially, the opinions that the majority find agreeable or equally as outrageous are subsequently propelled greater distances across a preferred medium for political, social, or economic criticisms. Typically, this is through an online social media platform, like Twitter, reddit, or Facebook, where dissemination is fueled by retweets, upvotes, and shares. Additionally, “microaggressions” are verbal, nonverbal, intentional or unintentional communications that are perceived as hostile or derogatory toward a marginalized group.

Think of social media or the nightly news as a sort of highlight reel, where algorithms and confirmation biases determine the types of posts one might find on their feed, and editors choose the stories for broadcast on the television. Not only are more popularly accepted or popularly rejected ideas more prominent; on social media, they are more likely to be catered to an individual’s specific tastes. We can assume that if one particular story or post observes increased audience interaction, the types of opinions we see more frequently are more likely to garner greater controversy or at the very least, heightened opposition as they begin to travel outside of their target audiences. Following that same train of thought, the information that travels only short distances online receive less opposition, as they receive very little interaction at all, be it positive or negative.

Most of what we see, hear, or read in cyberspace is empty, an unremarkable expanse of nothingness that, in the grand scheme of things, generally does not matter. But the opinions that have the irregular and inconsistent advantage of being supported by the majority of a given audience can be found more easily than the opinions that are less “relatable.” Those within the vocal minority have even greater odds of seeing themselves rocket towards larger audiences, as they articulate the ideas that the general public may not be able to put into words, or they may have the most extreme and unique perspectives.

However, there is an important distinction that should be made between the two types of media that succeed in attaining increased online traffic. The first is an honest, genuine opinion that someone has been led to put faith in based on past experiences, knowledge on particular subjects, and other legitimate beliefs. The second, known as “outrage porn,” is any type of media specifically designed to evoke outrage for the sake of attention or internet traffic.

Either of these forms of media can be the result of any slight of perceived injustice against the name of a particular cause. Even if it is one isolated instance of hypocrisy among a group the vocal minority oppose, because they have higher success rates when it comes to virality, more attention is brought to an injustice that may be trivial or loses sight of the bigger picture. In politics, for example, this phenomenon marginalizes centrist ideologies; both sides could be found guilty of condemning moderates as traitors.

It’s no secret that people love to be angry, to mob, to be utterly disgusted and outraged. It’s the stop that so many fringe groups get off on. While their blood boils and jets of steam shoot out of their ears, the vocal minority writes think pieces and op-eds about why armadillos should be able to decide their own gender or how it was scandalous and unpresidential for Barack Obama to wear a tan suit. It’s become a fairly-commonly shared idea that what we’re currently experiencing is an “outrage culture” that follows the trend of overly entertained microaggressions.

Even still, not all of the outrage expressed online is meandering and useless, and we have actively apply a filter to the incredible amounts information that we absorb every day. Some of the outrage is well-articulated, a serious and justifiable comment against some event or movement or particular ideology. Consider cultural appropriation as a poignant contemporary example. Since 2012, the relative frequency of Google searches containing the phrase “cultural appropriation” has seen a sharp increase in occurrences, and the media database Nexis cites 439 occurrences in 2012, compared to 5,751 in 2018. Perhaps this an example of a way people are becoming more socially aware of the moral implications of particular practices. Given what’s already been said about hypercritical arguments online, it’s also possible that this increase in media frequency is also largely a part of outrage culture.

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with these concepts, we’ll soon be able to focus on a question that still hasn’t been answered: who the hell are the Mardi Gras Indians, and how does any of this relate to them? Now that we’ve pushed our way through to the topic of cultural appropriation, those questions will be answered, but in the name of something that is much bigger than the group itself. We want to know whether or not this mystery group, the Mardi Gras Indians, are guilty of cultural appropriation, and if so, how they have managed to escape the many folds of social democracy.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, “How Do We Define Cultural Appropriation?”

COVER PHOTO: New Orleans Website

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