Monday, August 27, 2018

On Culture Wars

I just finally got around to Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies. It's a comprehensive book outlining the history and categorization of various groups online that have seeped into real life, but, although she mentions numerous scholars in her analysis, with zero endnotes and nary a reference section, it didn't surprise me to find that she's been accused of plagiarizing (see herehere, and here for some undeniable examples of lifted sentences and paragraphs). Some speculate that the book was rushed in order to be first out with this kind of content. The cribbing seems to be primarily explanations of terms or descriptions of events, but the analysis and compilation of these ideas into a whole appears to be her own work. I wouldn't let it slide in a classroom, and her editor/publisher should have caught it, but, as a reader, it's still compelling to see the various ideas assembled so succinctly.

There are so many terms being used to describe various views, so here's a brief and incomplete table of people, media affiliations, and basic characteristics I compiled as I read Nagle's book. It's all a little slippery and contentious, but it's a starting point. She's weeded out the racist alt-right from the more playful, yet shockingly offensive and sometimes harmful alt-light. I'm not convinced there's any clear consensus on any of this, though. We're all using the terms in slightly different ways, further muddying up the waters of the whole mess.

The main problem with all this is people of all persuasions trying to figure out which box you fit in, then dealing with you accordingly instead of actually listening to your specific position on an issue. Ad hominems abound as we spin in circles trying to be heard above the volume of our label. We're using the terms as shortcuts to understanding one another when we really need more nuance.

Here's recent tips from Warren Buffet on how we should advance knowledge:

As if! We can't do that if we only see each other as parts of a whole, and if we're immersed in this polarizing debate rather than curious about the best responses to individual issues. Anyway...

In a nutshell, Nagle starts back in the 1960s, when the left was the force of rebellion against the establishment. But after many decades, the left has made some serious progress. We have free and legal access to abortion, same sex marriage, and some basic equal rights protecting people by race, religion, gender, etc. on the books (even if it's still not always as solid in reality). And we got comfortable in our belief that everybody really wants equality and democracy. But the youth of each generation love them some good rebellion, and, because of the legal gains made on the left, the anti-establishment position is now found on the right. The alt-right is fighting the egalitarian democratic model that we've embraced in the past few decades, and working towards establishing the "reality" - or their frightening perspective - that white is right and women are there to serve men. The youth likely wouldn't be as involved in the fray except the radical left has gone too far in the list of things that offend them, and, at the same time, a group of (mainly) young online personalities, the alt-light, have taken to hilariously mocking the radical left. Well, they started out sometimes being actually funny, but it's morphed into being next level cruel and for real dangerous. BUT, she also points out that, while these are significant groups, and they are affecting political discourse, the majority of people are sitting in the middle of these camps (and need to vote more).

THE 1960s

Back in the day, the right was puritanical, telling kids to save yourself for marriage, while the left was about free love. They wanted to break taboos around sex. They were the counterculture, destroying moralism and freeing the id.
"C. Wright Mills depicted the post-war US as a dystopian iron cage of conformity. His readers envisioned an alternative or antidote of creating a counterculture of non-conformity, individuality and rebellion" (58).
This was a time of fighting back with the civil rights movement, the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Liberation Front, and protests against the war in Viet Nam. Milgram and Zimbardo did their famous experiments that provoked people to question authority and heed the dangers of groupthink.

But the left divided. Feminism began to split into the free love camp and a group that zeroed in on some problems with some men's idea of what free and easy access to women actually look like. Free love has to be consensual.
"The pornified culture produced by the sexual revolution soon came under its harshest criticisms from feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon by the 80s, and soon the war-on-porn feminists even aligned with conservatives, who had previously denounced feminism as central to the debauchery of the 60s" (37).
When I was first immersed in blogging about 15 years ago, on a private blog in a former life, it was all sparkle pony sex positives like Renegade Evolution fighting with the anti-porn radical feminists like Twisty Faster. It was fascinating because they actually argued the issues, real issues, instead of yelling random insults. Well, mainly. Now we're in a "strange period of ultra puritanism" (8) with the right still about controlling sexuality (see Ford's anti-sex-ed stance in Ontario and a near resurgence of an abortion debate, which recently lost party support in a 53-47 vote by the Cons), but the left also about restricting offensive behaviours.

The internet changed everything, and both sides recognized that,
"Establishment old media could no longer control politics, that the new public sphere was going to be based on leaderless user-generated social media. This network has indeed arrived, but it has helped to take the right, not the left, to power. Those on the left who fetishized the spontaneous leaderless Internet-centric network, declaring all other forms of doing politics old hat, failed to realize that the leaderless form actually told us little about the philosophical, moral or conceptual content of the movement involved . . . this leaderless formation can express just about any ideology even, strange as it may seem, that of the far right" (27).
And then political groups divided in new ways:


The term "radical left" is used to distinguish from the alt-left, which is what the Clinton supporters sometimes called the Bernie supporters, but alt-left is really the original left of Tommy Douglas, and is now also referred to as "New Socialism." Got that?

It was in the 1970s, when the democrats' adopted 'New Politics,' which focused more on appeasing identity groups rather than relieving economic inequality. Over the following decades, the working class started "becoming reactionary and culturally conservative while the identity movements along race, gender and sexuality lines were becoming more radical than ever" (62).

I tend to lean this way, and I've embraced the term SJW, yet even I see that, as a group, it's become extremist and sometimes obnoxious.

Things went downhill when the call-out culture of this faction of the left stifled a tipping point of people, which provoked a backlash from the right, but also from comedians of all political bents, and they have a long reach. Check out Tracey Ullman's take down the "woke" culture. In 2014, Facebook offered 50 gender options and Nagle lists three pages of potential identities (70-72). One of my concerns with this, as I've spoken to it in classes, has been the self-obsession involved in crafting an uber-specific (and then limiting) term for the self. As Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, and Noam Chomsky have all suggested, we're getting to a place of hyper focus on the individual at the expense of true community solidarity. Nagle says,
"recognition of diversity over economic inequality reached its most absurd apotheosis with a politics based on the minutia and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities, and the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudice. Symbolic representative diversity and recognition became its goals, as it admonished transgressors for 'erasing my identity' and urged white/straight/male/cis people to 'listen and believe'" (69).
The belief that identity is entirely a cultural creation means we can be absolutely anyone or anything. While I'm also opposed to the biological determinist, Social Darwinian perspective of the alt-right, I believe the pendulum has swung too far to the other side.

The foundational premise of the radical left is reasonable - to keep a watchful eye on the harm that might be caused by others through words or actions - but it's gotten too engrossed with scrutinizing innocuous details that can inadvertently derail more vital issues. Furthermore, virtue signalling through an understanding of each term and its proper use has become a means of winning (an obsession we'll also see with the alt-light below). It's a way to separate us from them, which sets itself completely against egalitarian politics.
"The strangest feature of the online 'call-out culture' was this mixture of performative vulnerability, self-righteous wokeness and bullying . . . creating scarcity in an environment in which virtue is the currency" (76). There's a "vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars . . . the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism, sexism or homophobia" (77). "The brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting" (80).
Todd Gitlin explained that
"the left 'marched on the English department while the right took the White House'. . . . He argued that the relativism of radicals would bring about the 'twilight of common dreams' arguing that: 'The cant of identity underlies identity politics which proposes to deduce a position, a tradition, a deep truth, or a way of life from a fact of birth, physiognomy, national origin, sex or physical disability'" (83).

THE ALT-LIGHT: "An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom." - Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire

This manosphere started with enticing fun content: anime, LOLcats, memes. It's fun to provoke others to argue, watch them get all worked up, and then take them down in a clever way. It became an "unreflective contemporary endorsement of the transgressive" (28) as they asserted their "own right to transcend the morality of the lesser masses" (31).

Instead of reading up on Mill's endorsement of free speech, this is all a misread of Nietzsche's master morality. Their goal is not about ensuring every voice is heard, but about being untouchable, couching insults in jokes and anonymity. It's a transgressive tradition that provoked the anti-moralism of
"dominance as sexual sovereignty . . . it is precisely the transgressive sensibility that is used to excuse and rationalize the utter dehumanization of women and ethnic minorities in the alt-right. The future of transgression they have produced liberates their conscience from having to take seriously the potential human cost of breaking the taboo against racial politics that has held wince WWII" (38).
Nagle thinks, "Trump remains closer to the sensibilities of Yiannopoulos and the trolling online right that he does to conservatism" (59). Trolling increase "the moment the Internet became populated with non-technologically-minded people. . . . Trolls work to remind the masses that have lapped onto the shores of the Internet that there is a class of geek who, as their name suggests, will cause Internet grief, hell, misery"(102). It's about winning the space for themselves, the truly deserved. They have a hatred of "clueless girl with mainstream tastes trying to infiltrate a geeky subculture has become central . . . who fails to use the correct markers of belonging, such as correct slang and depth of elite knowledge" (107).

The radical left and the alt-light are both scrambling for an identity through group association, wherein it's important to be exclusionary in order to maintain the integrity of the group and, therefore, the self. But the self is on shaky ground if it just exists by association.

Then their methods got more sophisticated as they started attacking female tech bloggers (Kathy Sierra, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian...). The internet helped a group of tech fanatics to find one another and normalize cruelty, and, largely male, they took on a Revenge of the Nerds trajectory. They spread false information about their targets, doxed them, and threatened them with the worst sort of violence. Their victims "receive a level of abuse that in the pre-internet days were reserved for few other than child murderers" (22).

Then came RIP trolling, where they'd mock people grieving because, for them, nothing is sacred. That's the whole point. But with thousands of them, the grieving parties would be bombarded with heinous online messages from all sources of social media including the funeral home's message board: "ironic meme-making adolescent shitposters formed a reserve army of often darkly funny chan-style image-based content producers, who could be easily summoned . . . to swarm and harass their opposition" (45). They "have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak" (119).

They advocate having total free speech to offend, with the overt expectation that their opponents can do the same (and the covert expectation of owning their victims), but since the book was published, both Milo and Peterson have played the victim card as it suited their needs.

And then came the Incels. ContraPoints has a great bit about this. Roger Elliot's murder spree in Isla Vista gave him a cult status with some of the men on these sites, and then others followed.
"A more openly hateful culture was unleashed under the conditions of anonymity and it took on a more right-wing character, living up to the most negative feminist caricatures of men's rights activism - rage-filled, hateful and chauvinistic" (88).

They used Neil Strauss's The Game as a playbook, a "Darwinian guide to tricking the loathed female prey into surrender" (89), and some advocated making rape legal in order to provoke women to behave more proactively to avoid rapey situations (90). They're angry at feminism and think it leads to the decline of civilization since women should be here to serve men: "women will either trick them into raising children that aren't theirs, get pregnant intentionally in order to trap them, or falsely accuse them of rape" (94). Their idea of a girlfriend is a mix of maid and prostitute because that's what it traditionally was for thousands of years.

I mean, when I was a kid, I thought this was a great song, and it made me want a maid of my own:

It gets weirder with Proud Boys and MGTOWs and MRAs as they realized,
"the breakdown of monogamy results in promiscuity for the few, loneliness for the majority . . . the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far right among young men. . . . Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites" (97).
But, of course, they
"want the benefits of tradition without its necessary restraints and duties. They simultaneously want the best of the sexual revolution (sexual success with pornified women, perpetually dolled up, waxed and willing to do anything) without the attendant insecurities of a society in which women have sexual choice and freedom" (96).
The alt-light movement started, not necessarily on the right - beyond their hope for old-timey gender roles - but as a reaction to the new leftist identity politics.
"Milo was part of a movement against overprotected students, but university campuses dropping their in loco parentis policies to protest the virginity of students was a major loss to the conservative establishment at the time" (63).
They generally want less protections and more personal freedom, which are not typically right wing positions. They're pro-gay men, but anti-feminism even though those two groups have worked together for decades against the establishment. Once they both won equal rights, the teams changed: "gays were no longer considered the harbingers of civilizational decline, while the finger of blame continued to be pointed at feminism and multiculturalism" (65).

That need to find a scapegoat, to blame someone for the ills of society, is part and parcel of an id mentality, a simplistic belief that says, If we just get rid of X, everything will be better. It's at once the most dangerous premise, and also completely ineffective. It's a refusal to grow up and take some authentic responsibility for the self. Nagle doesn't address that specifically, but there's a clear undercurrent of it throughout.
"The rise of Milo, Trump and the alt-right are not evidence of the return of the conservatism, but instead of the absolute hegemony of the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression and irreverence for its own sake - an aesthetic that suits those who believe in nothing but the liberation of the individual and the id, whether they're on the left or the right" (67).
Nagle calls the alt-light, "the youthful bridge between the alt-right and mainstream Trumpism" (41), and says, "Milo has done more than anyone else to give the alt-right a presentable face, giving even their worst fascistic incarnations positive coverage, despite himself being Jewish, gay, etc." (49), but she also insists "those who made the right attractive will have to take responsibility for having played their role" (9).


While the alt-light claims to be apolitical, the alt-right is clearer in their position. The alt-light was about having fun and being outrageously offensive, but then "the real wolf eventually arrived, in the form of the openly white nationalist alt-right who hid among an online army of ironic in-jokey trolls" (8).

The alt-right call the left cuckservatives because left wing passive acceptance of differences enabled the minority groups to take the best positions and take those great previously white-dominated jobs. They claim the left's "failure to protect the nation aggressively enough by playing too nicely and thus not being up to the job of defeating feminism, Islamification, mass immigration and so on" (59).

They follow Antonio Gramsci's ideas, adapted by The French New Right: "political change follows cultural and social change" (40) to affect the world by altering the culture. It's "a movement almost entirely based on influencing culture and shifting the Overton window through media and culture, not just formal politics" (41). If they can get us to accept racist views, then they can get us to accept genocides. She says Richard Spencer "believes non-white Americans should leave in a 'peaceful ethnic cleansing'" (51).
"In modern politics, liberal leaders are forgiven for drone bombing as long as they're cool with gay marriage, while on the right, enacting policies that devastate families and stable communities was cheered on at any cost as long as it dealt a satisfying blow to the trade unions" (54). 
As Graeme Wood explains, in an article on Richard Spencer,
"The upshot of this philosophy is, in Spencer’s interpretation, to devalue the homespun truths that have united America’s political parties for decades. Good ol’ boys, neoconservatives, and liberals all honor democracy, freedom, markets, human rights, and various other abstractions. To Spencer, these are idols, and their twilight is upon us."
They follow The Fourth Political Theory, a new political ideology that integrates liberal democracy, Marxism, and fascism and primarily opposes establishment political conservatism. It seeks to destroy more than it proposes to build. That we're electing people who are not clearly opposed to their ideas, that we have overt racists and sexists in the White House and our provincial legislature, is reason to come together to better protest this vile ideology.


Both extremes are looking for scapegoats rather than actually working through the harder problems. Their focus on problems with feminism or immigration ignores the very real problems with our economic system, but that's harder to affect, so it's scarier to address. Attacking each other feels like making headway when we're just spinning our wheels.

The problem we face now is that the left is
 "completely unable to deal with the challenge coming from the right. The problem with the contemporary style of Tumblr-liberalism and a purely indentitarian self-oriented progressivism that formed in online subcultures and moved on to college campuses is that the very idea of winning people over through ideas now seems to anguish, offend and enrage this tragically stupefied shadow of the great movement of the left, like the one that began on campuses like Berkeley in 1964. Milo may be vanquished but not through a battle of ideas" (120).
We need to get back to ideas, to critical thinking, to ignoring group affiliation and producing more light than heat when we debate. Nagle cautions, "everyone's "flogging the dead horse of 'edginess', it may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture and the entire paradigm to rest and create something new" (116).

In a panel discussion with the author, she said we have an incoherent desire for something beyond the culture wars, the battle of culture where everyone's seeking out most radical subculture, and everything's about style not content. If you consider yourself on left, then you must ask what's in this tradition that's worth rescuing. We have to think more than we react. We need to fight for rights of people in general rather than by identity - your neighbour is not the reason for your debtload.


And then I happened upon a podcast, Two Psychologists, Four Beers, talking about whether or not it's possible for the left to go too far prompted by that Munk Debate, specifically Peterson's response that, "we know the left has gone too far when we see the evil trinity of equity, diversity, and inclusivity" which they call a ludicrous position.

They also recognize the problems with the radical left when arguments from identity are made:
"Someone claims you can't understand what they're going through because you're white or Christian or cisgendered, etc. So you can't respond to their argument. So people are silenced, conversations are stifled. Yes, people have privilege, but they can still empathize. Worse, this line of reasoning stereotypes the person trying to develop a rebuttal to the claim."
If a black person discusses their experience, it's uncontroversial to say it's not the same as white experiences, but it crosses the line to suggest that other people can't understand and speak to that lived experience. The assumption that there's a line you can't cross because you're a different identity is a problem. We'll never 100% get another person's life, even if we have the same cultural identity, but we can still discuss issues. This all reminds me of debates in the 80s around men being allowed to write about women's lives, and the reality is that some do it brilliantly. And, furthermore, how can any author write without writing about the lived experiences of people different from their own lives. That's precisely what most writers do.

We can use whether or not a line of reasoning can develop empathy or if it prevents empathy as a means to determine if it's gone too far. I often demarcate the line when a claim shuts down further inquiry.

They psychologists also recognize the power move that comes from special status: It's "already intrinsically a self-limiting tactic . . . crossing some sort of moral line."

Microaggressions aren't always aggressive, but can be innocent comments and questions that are twisted as if they are, and taken as an affront. It's a problem when there are questionable perceptions of a slight when it's unclear that a slight was given. Their example is someone not making eye contact, and the perceived victim decides it's because of their race. "Yes, it's a possibility, but there are so many other possibilities for weak eye contact. Some say it's indisputable because it's a lived experience; but the intention is very much in dispute and open to interpretation."

People are taking the worst possible interpretation, which isn't going to bring us together. It works better for our community solidarity and for individual mental health if we assume the best unless there's compelling evidence of ill intent. They say, "It's dangerous to rely on individual subjective experience as the truth without considering the other side."

Ricky Gervais said something similar recently: "People started thinking they could say I'm offended, and then we'd have to do something about it. . . . People now think their opinion is worth as much as facts, and that's just not true."

We're at a point where people's lives are being ruined from assumption of ill-intent. They discussed the example of a woman claiming racism when she wasn't allowed into a store after closing. Even though the employees had followed the rules, they were fired because "sometimes impact outweighs intent." It's really about image, I'd say, and the potential impact to business, rather than morality. It's virtue signalling to throw those employees under the bus. Innocent people are punished to save the image of the company all because one woman "perceived a slight when it wasn't clear that a slight was given." They add,
"It's just morally wrong to fire someone who's done nothing wrong because a perception of injustice. . . . How should we proceed as a society? Truth needs to come before justice. The left can go wrong when justice comes before truth." 
What kind of world do we want to live in? I don't think it's the one we're creating.

ETA: May 2020 - ContraPoints created a great update to this online world here!!

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