What do BuzzFeed Quizzes & Racist Mascots have in Common? Durkheimian Undertones.

One of Durkheim’s recurring arguments is that the individual does not precede the society in the chain of creation, but rather, society shapes the individual. According to him, societies themselves create individuation–we would not have personality traits if we didn’t have a group upon which to base them. This is reflected in the ways our society advocates for an assessment of self defined by the group: for evidence, one need only turn to Buzzfeed, which has published a host of quizzes that claim to explain our individual characteristics based on groups. Sometimes they are our groups (“Can We Guess Which Friend You Are in Your Group”), sometimes they are other groups (“Which Supporting Character From Friends Are You?”), and sometimes they are not human groups at all, but rather organizations of non-human entities that nonetheless form a group, (“Which Type of Buzzfeed Quiz Are You?”). In the case of the first quiz, questions ask users to choose which TV characters they identify with, what activity they’d mostly likely be doing at a party, and which values are most essential. The result is a personality designed to fit squarely into a functional niche of the group, like “the responsible one” or “the party animal”.

The significance of these types of quizzes is not that they propose a new way of thinking about our personalities, but rather that they reflect an existing tendency within us to think about ourselves in terms of the roles we play within a group. How can we know that we are responsible or party animals if other people aren’t around to define the standard? In a section on soul, Durkheim explains how elements of individuality within the soul are decided and defined by each individual’s unique perspective and position within the group: “Since bodies are distinct from one another, since they occupy different positions in time and space, each is a special milieu in which the collective representations are gradually refracted and colored differently. Hence, even if all the consciousnesses situated in those bodies view the same world–namely, the world of ideas and feelings that morally unify the group–they do not all view it from the same viewpoint; each expresses it in in his own fashion” (273). In this way, individual is explained in terms of the group, providing a logical basis for the argument that the traits that set us apart and make us special are dictated by the traits of others around us. The BuzzFeed personality quiz approach towards individuation and personality is not new or unique: rather, it is an expression of the Durkheimian view that we establish senses of self through our groups.

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One illustration of the power and control that a totem, and by implication, society,  can impose onto individuals is the case, among many others, of the Lancaster, New York school district. The Lancaster schools used the mascot of the “Redskins” for over seventy years, until, after years of criticism from surrounding communities, the school board unanimously voted to change the mascot to one that was not overtly racist. In an effort to prevent backlash, they allowed district students to propose ideas for and vote on the new mascot. While the thirteen year old girl who submitted the winning idea of the schools going by the new name of the “Lancaster Legends” was proud that she was going to be a part of this period of change in her district’s history, many did not share her same sentiment. Current and former students and parents not only protested the change by holding signs and wearing shirts reading “Bring the mascot back!”, “Change it back!” and “Keep Redskins!” to school, sports games, and school board meetings, but many individuals went as far as shunning the young girl who suggested the new name and her family.

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While the behavior of these adults and children alike is unacceptable, the argument that Emile Durkheim advances in his work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life provides an explanation for why there was such backlash from members of the Lancaster community. The idea of the community coming together under a new name, one that does not insult an entire culture of people, while logical in theory, in practice, received much more backlash than just changing a traditionally used image. The people of Lancaster identify with the old mascot as a totem because it is their collective personified, and part of that collective lives within each individual. So, by changing the mascot, the individuals in the group feel as though they are losing a part of themselves. They no longer identify with the thing that is supposed to be representative of their collective, and, by effect, themselves. They see this new identity as something profane that is replacing their sacred totem, and their integrity as a group feels threatened as a result. In their backlash, the collective even went as far as to shun a thirteen year old girl for being responsible for the new, profane image. Durkheim explains that a society feels vulnerable when their totem is jeopardized because “their unity arises solely from having the same name and the same emblem…from practicing the same rights” (169) and the group “could not have come into being without the totem” (169). The symbol of their mascot functions as more than just an image, which is made evident by the fact that the members of the Lancaster community are experiencing a veritable identity crisis as a result of the loss of their totem.

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Read more about it here!

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On December 6th 1969, the Rolling Stones performed a free concert at the Altamont Speedway and hired the Hell’s Angels for security.  Instead of paying them in cash, the Stones paid them in $500 worth of beer. When this infamous(and now drunken) motorcycle gang was called upon to corral an unruly and drug-fueled crowd of thousands,  things turned ugly, and the night resulted in an apocalyptic disaster. It also happened to provide a good example of Durkheim’s idea of a collective “effervescence” (213).

The crowd’s excitement began to effervesce even before the Rolling Stones went on, agglomerating an inexorable tide of glee and rage. During a set played by Jefferson Airplane, fights broke out, but the Hell’s Angel’s did nothing to stop them. When Mick Jagger got out of his helicopter to go back stage, a crowd member punched him in the face. Durkheim explains the inspiration behind this irrational action, in his description of collective effervescence in which the individual transcends himself in the presence of a crowd. Durkheim writes:

“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation….This effervescence often becomes so intense that it leads to outlandish behavior; the passions unleashed are so torrential that nothing can hold them. People are so far outside the ordinary conditions of life, that they feel a certain need to set themselves above and beyond ordinary morality” (217-218).

When the teenagers thronged to Altamont and took their drugs and heard the music, they entered into a realm of delirium, freeing them from notions of right and wrong. Everything was suddenly sacred and permitted. However, expression of rebellion, freedom, and hipness swelled to a bursting point, when a fan punched one of the Rock Star deities he had come to worship. Durkheim describes this effervescence as violent but ultimately harmonious event where everyone shares their reckless passions, but the Altamont concert exhibits an effervescence full of violence. Not only did a crowd member punch the libber-lipped limey star, but many people rushed the stage, resulting in the knife wound death of 18 year-old Meredith Hunter. Hunter had tried to climb onto the stage along with many other teenagers, but a drunken Hell’s Angel’s member stopped him. In response, Hunter pulled a gun which prompted the Hell’s Angels member to tackle him and stab him at least six times.

Hunter pulled a gun on a motorcycle thug not only because he was on acid, but also because he was steeped in the collective effervescence which delivered him from a world of clearly delineated right and wrong. In the glare of collective effervescence, the profane body of the individual fades away and he becomes a purely spiritual being permitted to do anything as long as instructed by the passion of the collective. Durkheim writes: “Feeling possessed and led on by some sort of external power that makes him think and act differently than he normally does , he naturally feels that he is no longer himself” (220). Amidst the clamor of other people breaking rules, Hunter was free from inhibition, so he did as passion compelled him. However, the Hell’s Angels had been hired to provide some idea of order, so they fought the effervescent current. The resultant tragedy reveals the importance of unity in collective effervescent. The Hell’s Angels and the crowd proved two separate collectives competing for the dominance of the same space.

Most central to Durkheim’s understanding of the individual’s connection to the society in the throes of collective effervescence  is the idea of channeling the sacred excitement of the masses through the body of the individual, transporting, overwhelming, and in this case, destroying him.

Topic: Individual/Collective (Section 20)

Contributors: Sylvia De Boer, Theodore Davis, Seychelle Mikofsky

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14 thoughts on “What do BuzzFeed Quizzes & Racist Mascots have in Common? Durkheimian Undertones.

  1. I thought the Lancaster Redskins are a strong example of Durkheim’s argument that the totem is sacred. The people who did not want to change the image similar demonstrate Durkheim’s thoughts that to do anything that is perceived as threatening to the totem is both profane and threatening to the collective itself. To extend, I feel like the Lancaster Redskins also proves Durkheim’s argument that the image is more sacred than the totem itself because of the representations it holds within.
    -Jason Lin

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  2. I was really fascinated by your use of the buzzfeed quiz to address a need to find ourselves as individuals within a collective, especially because of an inner dialogue I’ve had while we’ve been in class about what ways social media creates a Durkheimian culture where one central platform allows us to become individuated, while remaining within a collective force. Though such systems as facebook, buzzfeed, twitter, etc. hold us to a certain set of trivial norms (concretely in ‘unspoken rules’ like not liking your own posts/comments, and more abstractly in the ways that we interact with others), and while it feels as though these media create ways to individuate ourselves, our individuation keeps us within a system that’s rooted in the collective. One’s facebook page, though filled with photos and posts that are specific to them, is still only minimally different than any other’s, and ropes them into what I see as a ‘false individuation’ from their collective. Buzzfeed’s quizzes, in my opinion, create the same effect: while one’s answers allow them to fit their individual self into predefined social cultures, the sheer inaccuracy (or lack of foundation) in them only create situations where one ‘individuates’ themselves into one of nine unfounded substrata, defining themselves via social structures that, in truth, do not exist. The ‘functional niche’ one fits themselves into shows our reliance on the collective to create ourselves, but when the collective seems superficial, like that of Buzzfeed, what do we really define ourselves by?

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  3. I think the redskins example is a perfect real world application of Durkheim’s explanation of the totem. This example causes me to wonder, though, about instances when totems natural shift or change. Durkheim claims that there will come a time when man’s gods do not incite in him the passion that they used to. I am assuming that, logically, you can apply this same principle to totems. So what I am wondering is, what power or outside influence would lead to a change in a totem or symbol? Or is there a way for a totem to change or adapt in a way in which all of the group members are happy? Is there another way that the Redskins could have gone about the transformation?
    -Sydney Mathis

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  4. For the longest time I never understood why people were so attached to their mascots when they were overtly racist symbols that perpetuated stereotypes and racism in their communities. However, now I think it makes more sense to me. While the symbol itself might be arbitrary, after acting at the totem for the collective it now contains seventy years worth of the collective’s history and effervescence and sacredness. It contains, in a way, the souls of loved ones who were part of the community and have died, and all the relationships between individuals of the collective with each other, and all the joyful rituals and rites performed around the totem at sporting events. As someone who is not a part of that collective, it is impossible for me to feel the same connection to this totem, hence my inability to comprehend its importance. Furthermore, suggesting that the totem is in some way destructive or tainted would imply that the collective is also destructive. Profaning against the totem is kin to profaning the collective. So when I call the redskins mascot racist, in a way I am suggesting that the entire fanbase is also racist. The decision to change the mascot required admitting that the entire collective was flawed, and desiring a change to the collective. Considering that the collective’s one purpose is to perpetuate itself, it makes sense that it would, as a whole, be resistant to any kind of change. I think I understand the fight to keep group symbols and mascots a little better after reading this.
    -Jasmine Barnard

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    1. Jasmine I completely agree with you––this post made the attachment to potentially problematic mascots much more clear to me. My follow up question is, is there perhaps a Durkheimian argument in favor of discarding these mascots? Because as you said, a racist mascot often triggers a response that essentially problematizes the entire collective. The collective gains its power from the shared morals it creates for the group. If a totem brings out the discord in a group’s morals, isn’t it doing the exact opposite of what it should?

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  5. I thought that the BuzzFeed quiz one was really good and shots how we do often think in a futurism way that we have a niche we need to fit into, I knew I take these quizzes and think about how I am definitely a red panda and not a kangaroo. I would not have normally right about these quizzes like this but you brought it out well.

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  6. The example of Buzzfeed quizzes provided a clear connection between the world that Durkheim explicitly engaged with and the modern day, reinforcing his claim that the conclusions he draws from Australian and Native American totemic societies are universal. I thought this connection was insightful, especially because at first I didn’t see how the idea of Buzzfeed quizzes would be related to the social milieu and relationship between collective and individual that Durkheim wrote about. The explication in this post made the relationship very clear and I was able to see the direct link between the project Durkheim engages with and something as seemingly benign as a clickbait online quiz.

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  7. Would it be possible to draw further connections between Buzzfeed and Durkheim by drawing an analogy between the various labels the quiz assigns people and the various clans that make up a given tribe? In both cases, the broader group of participants all buy into the same system of representations, while each subgroup is assigned a specialized set of characteristics it is supposed to possess and a social role for which it is responsible.

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking about this idea too, that you label at the end of the quiz is your totem, really. It might go along with friends feeling closer if they get the same result.

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  8. I find it interesting that many of the mascots in the United States are representations of Native Americans – the high school team mentioned in this post, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, the Chicago Blackhawks, and many more that I have not heard of. It is ironic to use caricatures of other societal groups to represent one’s own group. Perhaps, when these mascots were first selected, there was an implicit connection between the totemic nature of Native American tribes and that of sports teams and their fans. Thus, such caricatures may have seemed like good mascots, since they represent the collective with an image of another collective. Yet, just like the profane animal that becomes a totem, the actual Native American tribes became less valued by fans of the sports teams than the representations of the tribes. This is illustrated by the sign that the boy is holding at the end of the blog post. Although Native American culture is ancient, to Redskins fans it is profane; on the other hand, the mascot is sacred even though it is only 67 years old.

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  9. I thought that both of these were good instantiations of Durkheim’s concepts! The idea of a Buzzfeed quiz is definitely more abstract in its relation, but it is totally true that we get some sort of satisfaction from taking them and being placed into that box it makes for us because our own individuation is derived from society (at least according to Durkheim). When it comes to the “redskins” as a totem, it’s a really interesting way of explaining the attachment to the symbol that may seem completely inane to an onlooker. I wonder if the real reason actually is something related to totemism as you’ve suggested or if that’s simply used as a cover for something more relating to some sort of racist tendencies. That’s definitely a hard question to answer though, especially from an outsider perspective.

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  10. I thought your examples tied in well to the text, but I wonder if your would have been more convincing if you had used a single example, instead of three separate examples of Durkheim’s text. The Buzzfeed section speaks of the importance of the collective in how we view and categorize ourselves (and other things) because of it. It’s not a common thought to just ask ourselves so what kitchen appliance am I, until the quiz is right in front of us, sparking the interest, demanding we put ourself in a category we wouldn’t have otherwise. I also appreciate your argument that the reason racist totems are so tough to leave behind is their power as a totem. Once I realized the mascots had been inscribed with the power of the collective, it’s no wonder the sacrilegious act was met with an uproar. I wonder if you could have expanded it to talk about the people’s view of the totem as not the same of the item it represents. The mascot, the representation of the Native Americans, is greater than the actual people because the mascot represents their shared history and soul. Your last example seemed only relevant in its review of the power of the collective. I feel like your Mascot example could have been expanded to include this idea instead of spending so much time setting up this last example. I’m especially interested in how you would further explain the ostracization of the girl who came up with the new mascot. There feels like there could be such meat there. Also how did your theme influence the examples you chose?

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  11. I loved the idea of using Buzzfeed quizzes to connect to Durkheim’s theory. The modern example definitely reinforces Durkheim’s claim that theories he developed from studying elementary religions are applicable to modern societies everywhere. It’s a very relevant but clear example of Durkheim’s belief that the individual is shaped by society, just how the results from a Buzzfeed quiz places us in a specific category, produced by society. Similarly to the individual validation one gets from their quiz results, the results also create small groups for others to come together, based off of having the same results.

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