We were having a debate about an article about the supposed demonization (not de-monetisation) of male bonding on a Whatsapp group. The article talked about how popular culture stigmatized men who wanted to spend time with their male friends, rather than their wives. Several people objected saying marriage changes everybody’s lives and women spend less time with friends too and just don’t crib about it. Notice what happened here? The debate was about how this applies to men vs. women although the real issue or topic was actually whether people are demonized for spending time with friends, or maybe about the correct balance between spending time with friends vs. family. However, the author chose to paint it as ‘demonization of male bonding’ and instantly got men and women to debate about it on the basis of gender. I don’t know what exactly to call that – click-bait? attention-bait? debate-bait? I’m going with debate-bait- its got a nice rhyme to it.
How does this help the author or the publication? Let’s break down the formula for getting a large audience for an opinion piece.
- A catchy headline that will get a few people to pause the repetitive scrolling motion of their finger on a screen.
- An appeal to the reader’s sense of belonging to some group – man, woman, liberal, orthodox, Modi fan, non-Modi fan, patriot who wants the national anthem before a movie, people who should go to Pakistan, you know, simple, undeniably mutually exclusive groups.
- Content matter that fills the reader with glee, glorifying their group or talking about how they are victimized by the ‘others’ and prompting them to use it in a battle cry and a challenge to everyone else. This of course gets everyone else incensed enough to counter-attack, for which they will probably read the article to look for loopholes or reasoning flaws or maybe just to share it with a derogatory comment about how the author and his or her group is completely retarded and evil or hypocritical (insert any insult that can be applied to a group at large).
Ta-Da…pretty effective right? Of course, most authors are probably not consciously aware of following a formula. It comes to all of us quite naturally, which is why this formula is so common.
We are still a tribal species at heart, I believe. We evolved as a tribal species and we managed to make up institutions and concepts that helped us find a sense of allegiance to very large groups across distances, even when we don’t know all of them personally. We feel a kinship to our countrymen, people of our religion across countries, people of our social class, people of our skin color, and many other such groupings. But there are still tribes, just that they are a lot bigger and fluid. When you are log onto social media after reading the morning news, you’re ready to shit post on behalf of your political tribe. Once you reach your workplace, you belong to the tribe that goes to coffee together. When you’re watching an IPL match, you’re in another, and on and on it goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling kinship on the basis of a shared belief system or ‘fiction’ is actually what sets up apart from other primates and lets us co-operate in large groups without knowing each other personally, a point made forcefully by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’. However, it’s important to realize this, because there are other people who do understand this instinctively and use it for their own ends.
Next time you read an article, ask yourself if it is unnecessarily appealing to your tribal nature. Does every topic or issue that applies to you apply to ‘people like you’ or are you just trying to turn it into that? If at all you have to go with the tribe vs. tribe mentality, try to do it with a little more sportsmans spirit, like sports fans or teams who compete based on the basis of these made up tribes but can shake hands or have a beer afterwards. Don’t let your outrage simmer, because that’s what translates into easy votes or magazine sales at your expense.