Weaponising self-awareness in the online era


Self-awareness is broadly seen to be a good thing. It’s perceived to be a rarity in the online world that dominates the life of my generation. And that’s exactly why self-awareness is being weaponised as a way to pre-emptively deflect criticism.

The online world is dominated by the documentation of bad takes, screencapping, quote tweeting and calling out of people utterly lacking in self-awareness. And no matter what the dispute is about, the message is ultimately the same – does this person not realise how ridiculous they are? Taking yourself too seriously, and claiming false authority off the back of that, that’s the worst crime you can commit online.

This is where weaponised self-awareness comes in. An online presence that accurately reflects on their own shortcomings is harder to criticise than those wrapped in delusions of their own grandeur. Doing so for instrumental reasons, to insulate yourself from potential criticism, is performative self-awareness, reflection taken for the benefit of the audience and the potential critics within rather than for the self.

The easiest way to win an online argument is to make sure it never happens. Being aware of the limitations of your own arguments means you can acknowledge and defuse a bastardized version of the strongest critique before it’s ever made by anyone else. You wouldn’t attack someone for something they’ve already considered, so if you are authentically examining the shortcomings of your own position, you save yourself the pain of an unsympathetic critic doing the same.

Obviously, performative authenticity is itself inauthentic. But the difference between performative self-awareness and performative self-deprecation is while the former critiques hits home, the latter tends towards false modesty. It’s hard to take issue with someone accurately highlighting their own flaws.

One example from my own experience comes from arguments about the nature of the political centre. Some “pragmatic” centrists claim their authority from their “grown-up”, standpoint on politics. Others are falling over themselves to declare their overt ideological biases in favour of liberalism, social justice and the like. They are doing so in response to attacks that paint the centre as conceited; dropping the claim to objectivity makes arguments easier, though it undermines the value of what is being said.

The self-aware statement is a signal to the audience that the participants take seriously the task of compensating for their own biases. Ironically, it might amount to the exact opposite. A self-awareness that amounts to nothing more than an accurate acknowledgement of bias, used for the purposes of argument, does very little actually challenge the flaws that are being highlighted.

At best, self-awareness allows more reflective and constructive arguments. At its worst, it turns intellectual honesty into insincerity. The quicker you can abandon a flawed argument, the more self-aware you prove yourself to be, and the more authentically grounded the remaining positions you hold are.

So what’s the right balance to strike? I’d like to think I’m self aware enough to know I’m not self-aware enough to know the answer.

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