The Appeal of Performative Grievance

Performative grievance is the engine of the social internet.

This is part three of a multi-part series on Christian Twitter.

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Part four will arrive next Monday.


We have come to the point in this series on Christian Twitter in which it’s time to start looking at the actual trends that concern me and motivated me to write this series to begin with. Allow me to reiterate that it actually pains me to be writing this series of posts. I don’t enjoy it. But even since this series started a few weeks ago, I’ve received enough feedback and agreement with preliminary concerns that I continue to feel the need to write it. So, know my heart here, please. I’m not trying to be an angry old man on a porch or something like that. I’m just trying to call attention to trends in which I have participated and which I find concerning. I’m not exempt from this stuff either.

Also, as a matter of housekeeping before we dive into our first of three major concerning trends, let me say this: none of the concerning trends you read about in the next three weeks are unique to Christian Twitter. In fact, I think Christian Twitter has just gone with the flow of the worldliness of Twitter and adopted these trends without even really thinking about it—fruit of being so in the world we have become of the world. So if you’re reading this and you find yourself feeling convicted or defensive or otherwise mad, save the comments about how “It isn’t just Christians who do this,” because I know, and that isn’t the point. The reality is we do these things just like everyone else, and we shouldn’t.

Now that those introductory notes are aside, let’s dive in.

An Overview of Performative Grievance

Have you ever heard the term “performative grievance”? You maybe haven’t, and that’s OK. What is it, then? There is no “official definition” so let me give you the best definition I can muster:

Performative grievance is acting like you have been offended, hurt, angered, or otherwise victimized in order to gain attention and make someone else look like an aggressor/offender/bad person, when in fact you weren’t really hurt or angered at all.

Performative grievance and “performative activism” are sister terms that are often thrown around together. Performative activism is a bit more commonly used and refers to much of what we see on social media around social justice movements, like when people change their profile picture to support a movement but then maybe don’t actually do anything to support that movement in real life.

Performative grievance comes in many forms, and it can be hard to identify if you don’t know the person engaging in it.

A lot of more liberal Twitter users, who tend to be some of the loudest in the broader Twittersphere, like to ascribe performative grievance to Republicans/Trump supporters. Their premise is that Republican politicians act really mad about something in order to generate passion in among the voter base when, in reality, the Republican politicians don’t really care that much and just want attention and support from voters. Remember when Dr. Seuss was “canceled”1 and Republican politicians made a big deal of it, even reading Dr. Seuss books on live TV and otherwise expressing support for the children’s author?

This was cited as an example of “performative grievance” by many because the issue is of no real substance and was simply used as a way to generate anger, attention, and, theoretically, financial contributions from voters.

But it isn’t like it is only the Left accusing the Right of performative grievance, either. Here’s one example of it being used by a more right-leaning user:

In general, I do think “performative grievance” is a helpful term because it identifies such a common tactic in how we communicate on the social internet. Just below, in the next section, we will briefly explore why performative grievance is so prevalent.

But I do need to say that I think a major problem with performative grievance as a concept is that identifying an action as “performative grievance” rather than actual, legitimate grievance leads us to assume the motives/heart of someone’s action. My concern with the term is that it could be wielded to dismiss someone’s actual grievance. I fear that, for instance, Left-leaning people will say that any time Right-leaning people get mad about something that Left-leaning people don’t see as a problem it is “performative grievance,” and vice-versa.

That aside, I do think performative grievance is real and is a huge problem because it is so common and because our most popular forms of communication today lend themselves to it. But I do think we need to be careful labeling action as such because we could be ascribing motive to a situation incorrectly and unnecessarily.

So why is performative grievance so common right now?

Why Is Performative Grievance So Prevalent?

It certainly feels like live in a world in which the most effective way to communicate is to do our best imitation of Peter Finch in the Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

I can think of two primary reasons performative grievance is so popular right now: the promotion of victimhood and the allure of conflict.

1) The Promotion of Victimhood

Before we hop into this section, I need to be clear upfront: I am about to be pretty blunt about what I think are some clear negative, unintended side effects of social activism and victim advocacy on social media. I think social media has provided a legitimate avenue for many victims of various injustices to share their stories. This is a valuable phenomenon that has created some negative, unintended consequences, which are the focus of the concerns I express below. Thank you for your grace. :-)

Below is a logical line of thought on how the promotion of “victims” to the top of our sociological food chains has laid fertile soil for performative grievance. Then, I explain.

Performative grievance is common right now because:

  • A significant amount of our social interaction takes place on social media, and

  • Social media is like an incredibly noisy room filled with countless people, and

  • The voices who receive the most attention are those who are victims, and

  • We want to be heard, so

  • We find ways to identify as victims in an effort to be heard.

To summarize the above train of thought: performative grievance—or acting like you have been personally wronged/hurt/offended when you really haven’t—is popular because it is the surest way to be heard in an increasingly noisy space.

One of the negative side effects of novel social justice movements that have deep roots in social media is that this phenomenon creates a culture in which the victim (or the person who believes they are a victim) is the top of the sociological food chain. This is a problem not because victims are in the wrong (they aren’t!) or shouldn’t be cared for (they should be!), but because if you put the category of “victim” at the top of the sociological food chain it becomes appealing to paint oneself as a victim even when one isn’t a victim. This is performative grievance in its purest form: to make yourself out to be a victim when you aren’t actually one.

This, in my view, is one of the core reasons performative grievance is so prevalent on social media today. If one of the negative side effects of advocating for victims on social media is an implicit or explicit understanding that “the victim is always right” then of course people are going to don the costume of a victim in order to be heard and get their message out. If someone can manufacture a way in which they have been aggrieved by another party, this gives them an immense amount of influence and power over that person in our present social internet hierarchy.

In many social media circles, there is no one more worthy to be heard than one who has been hurt in some way. It is almost as if, whether for good or for bad, if you can convince an internet community that you have been hurt, you earn your right to speak. So, in our sin and in an effort to gain the attention of others, we will manufacture grievance and claim that we have been hurt just because we want to be heard.

This runs parallel, I think, to why so many people are so easily offended today. Social power dynamics are such right now that if you are offended by what someone says you become a victim and therefore grow in power and influence. So it follows, when people recognize this, that the appeal of being offended grows because following the offense one is rewarded with the most heralded class of person in our modern social landscape: a victim.

Another trend that I think fits into this phenomenon is the popularity and promotion of “exvangelicals,” or people who grew up in the evangelical church and are now vocally opposed to it. These vocal former evangelicals are the darlings of journalists who want to report their stories as a sort of indictment on evangelicalism, and they are featured in national publications with such frequency that an outside observer may wonder if there are any evangelicals left!

Exvangelicals have been endowed with some measure of power and influence because they often paint themselves as victims of purity culture or some other element of late 20th century evangelicalism, often when they weren’t victimized as much as they simply don’t agree with the principles anymore. “Evangelicalism hurt me” is a more compelling angle than “I don’t believe what my parents taught me as a kid.” An exvangelical who simply disagrees with the purity culture of his or her youth is much less compelling than an exvangelical who was victimized by purity culture.

One could argue that there are few cultural boogeymen as dubious as “evangelicalism” right now, so to claim you have somehow been hurt by this boogeyman when you haven’t plays well into the “evangelicals are bad” narrative that is presently popular. To claim you were traumatized by parents who told you to wait to have sex until you were married or discouraged you from watching MTV when, in reality, you just don’t agree with those principles anymore, is a pretty effective way to get attention.

Again, let me reiterate: none of this is to downplay the importance of listening to people who have been legitimately hurt or victimized or abused in some way that demands justice and reconciliation. But if you are reading this and you consider yourself an advocate for the weak and victimized, you should be aware that people have figured out how they can manipulate your heart for the vulnerable to serve their own social promotion, and they may manufacture offense so that they may engage in performative grievance and achieve a social status they want for its power, not its integrity.

2) The Allure of Conflict

The second reason performative grievance is so prevalent is because we lust for conflict.

Below is a logical line of thought on how the allure of conflict has made performative grievance so appealing. Then, I explain.

Performative grievance is common right now because:

  • A significant amount of our social interaction takes place on social media, and

  • Social media is like an incredibly noisy room filled with countless people, and

  • One of the best ways to get eyes and ears is to start fighting with someone, but

  • Fighting requires us to have an opponent or adversary, so

  • We invent a conflict and engage an enemy in a pursuit of the attention we crave.

It’s really tempting to blame social media platforms for how negative our experiences can be on them. To some extent, the platforms are to blame—they incentivize negative content disproportionately and lend themselves to mob mentalities that thrive on negativity and strife. But Twitter isn’t forcing us to retweet negativity, nor is Facebook forcing us to share or comment on incendiary content. Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest are megaphones for our own hearts while also slanting their own platforms toward conflict a bit as well.

In our sin, we want to be in conflict with others. We’re going to explore more of this next week, so I don’t want to go into this too much here. But conflict is one of the best ways to get attention, and one of the best ways to generate conflict where there is no conflict is to engage in performative grievance. It’s like if you punch yourself and then blame someone else for starting the fight—of course people will turn to watch you fight yourself and blame it on someone else.

Performative grievance is the engine of the social internet.

But Christian Twitter thrives on it, too.

Christian Twitter Thrives on Performative Grievance

The sort of performative grievance that lives on Christian Twitter isn’t the invention of conflict where there is none, because there is plenty. Rather, the performative grievance I have observed on Christian Twitter is the undue inflation of conflict to the point that it appears to be a huge deal when, in reality, it isn’t.

Without getting so specific as to call out individual people, here are some real events that have been batted around Christian Twitter as though they are of utmost importance when they are, in reality, far from it:

  • A famous Bible teacher is berated by theological opponents for particular theological beliefs

  • A pastor leads a church to leave a denomination

  • An author has a book pulled from a Christian retailer

  • A Christian organization doesn’t list its employees salaries publicly

  • A Christian leader doesn’t meet alone with someone of the opposite sex

  • A pastor endorses or doesn’t endorse a particular politician

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I have witnessed and participated in plenty of conflict within Christian Twitter around the issues listed above, as well as others, and my concern is that the conflict around these issues is outsized in relation to the importance of these issues. None of these issues are of major import, but yet, the way Christians argue about them on Twitter, you would think that God is relying on us to fight his battles for him!

It’s like we make a big fuss over issues of relatively small importance because we need to justify the time, effort, and attention we’re giving to the conflict at hand. Does an insurance adjuster in Nebraska need to comment on the departure of a church in New York from its denomination? Does a farmer in Montana need to pontificate on the political endorsement of a pastor from Tennessee? Do famous Bible teachers need theobro reply guys to come to their defense against bored pastors lobbing criticism behind anonymous avatars? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “No,” but by watching some of these events take place on Twitter, you’d think we want to reenact the Council of Nicaea while waiting in the car line to pick our kids up from school. Ultimately, I think, we fight because we want to feel a part of something important (but more on that next week).

We choose sides and engage in performative grievance when we get upset (or act like we’re upset) about something we either don’t really care about or have no business caring about. It’s almost like we aren’t content with our daily, proximal lives, so we try to find our significance in gearing up for the Twitter Battle of the Day. Part of this, too, is that if you’re really into connecting with strangers on Christian Twitter, you can’t really connect with anyone if you aren’t commenting on the Twitter Battle of the Day. So it’s almost like you need to pick a side and fight, or risk not engaging with anyone at all.

Also, I think we shouldn’t ignore the longing for appreciation and sinful discontentment angles of this phenomenon. “My kids aren’t listening to me, but maybe someone on Twitter will,” we think. “I don’t have many friends at church, but I’ll make friends on Twitter,” we fantasize. Sometimes I wonder if some of the most active influencers in the Christian Twittersphere are so active online because they don’t have many friends offline. I wonder this not because I know these people or their lives, but because trying to make friends through Twitter war would be one way to search for community if you can’t find it in your neighborhood or church. And, if you spend your days meeting and talking with neighbors or fellow church members, you will have less time to take up arms in and care about the Twitter Battle of the Day.

I think the unique allure of performative grievance for the Christian social media user, as opposed to the agnostic Twitter user, is that we feel justified in our fight because we somehow decide that we are fighting on behalf of God on Twitter. This mindset, that we are fighting for God on Twitter, leads us to justify all kinds of action that we wouldn’t otherwise.

More on that next week as we dive into the constant clang of conflict.

1

Dr. Seuss was not canceled, rather, the estate chose to pull some books because they were offensive.