One of the features of the Donald John Trump presidency was reactive labor. The idiot would tweet or otherwise spew some nonsense, and the media would dutifully try to forensically reconstruct the meaning. They would do work, they would labor, in reaction. It’s not something exclusive to Donald John Trump, or even to politics, but it is an interesting behavior.
Often, when reading news, we’re looking for articles that provide information to generate reactive labor. We want to know what changes are happening in the world so that we can prepare for them. That is why clickbait works. It disguises an article as potentially containing such a nugget of information that we might refine into work that will protect or improve our lives.
But there are other efforts to create reactive labor. Adversarial reactive labor occurs when, for example, Republicans counterfeit outrage in their base over a non-subject like Critical Race Theory. Democrats must react, must undertake efforts to reassure the public that they aren’t evil. A similar thing happens with the border and with increases in violent crimes.
Republicans are not alone in their efforts. They coopt the media in their campaigns. The media, not themselves versed in Critical Race Theory, dutifully reports the outrage, gives it enough credence that the average voter, still uninformed about what CRT actually is and isn’t, worries about it.
That worry is reactive labor of a particular type. It is similar to clickbait, in that the man on the street doesn’t know what she’s worried about, but she’s worried. It is a complete media failure to spread worry without reason. And then I read about that situation and feel compelled to write this essay about the phenomenon.
I’ve read several articles about the rise in violent crime, with their reporting that some Republicans want to pin it on Democrats because of efforts to reform policing. I still don’t have a good grasp on the actual deviation of violence. I’m not sure if it’s a real problem in terms of a shift versus an outlier. And the media isn’t either. Often the media is worried about looking ignorant or worried that they’ll miss a shift, so they’ll report it as real. And Republicans are very good at making them worry about that. Very good at generating reactive labor.
One of the keys to defending media and other institutions against reactive labor is to establish norms that defy such worries. For example, take the obituary. It is more or less a solid form. Everyone knows about what to expect from the obituary. While there are opportunities to write a better or worse obit, the basic form is known and followed. There should be more formulaic journalism done, if only to deprive opportunists trying to generate reactive labor that benefits them or harms their opponents.
Reactive labor happens in all sorts of areas, including business and international relations. The enemies of freedom spew out propaganda? The friends of freedom feel compelled to counter it. The opportunity cost is real. Our neighbors skip vaccines because they reactively worry they’ll be turned into mutants, and come fall we might see fresh surges of COVID-19. The poisons generated through some kinds of reactive labor cause real harms, fear being the most common poison.
Hate is another. Republicans have vilified immigrants over the years, creating hatred that has made America less capable of securing its borders and having an orderly immigration system that would benefit us all. Or the hate generated by Donald John Trump against Asian Americans through his scapegoating of China for his own failures on COVID. And so on.
We must always be careful to ask why we are worried, why we feel hatred, or why we are otherwise engaged in a form of reactive labor. Is the labor productive? Sometimes we avoid labors that seem reactive, because we want to avoid unproductive activities. In the case of the DOJ, they seem set to not reform from the mistakes of the department under Donald John Trump, out of worry it would look political to do the right thing.
We should try to better understand reactive labor and refuse to be abused by those who want to make us miserable for their own benefit.