Leveling Up or Leveling Down: Two Approaches to Outrage Culture

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Allum Bokhari is a political consultant, freelance writer, and former Parliamentary intern. He received his B.A. in History and Politics from the University of Oxford in 2013. He also wrote a pretty neat article about GamerGate for TechCrunch.

1966 was a notable year in the cultural history of the 20th century. It was the year in which the legendary musician Bob Dylan, a notoriously reluctant figurehead of the counterculture movement, announced his retirement from touring.

Always uncomfortable with his position as a hero of the counterculture, and in recovery after a motorcycle accident, Dylan wanted to escape fame and go underground. So as the location for his retirement, he settled on Woodstock – a small, unknown hamlet in upstate New York.

Anyone familiar with the name “Woodstock” will be aware that things did not go quite according to plan. In 1969, Woodstock was selected for what became one of the biggest and most well-known festivals of the counterculture, in which more than half a million people descended on the town for four days of free love and music. Ironically, the only way Dylan managed to escape was to go on tour again, just before the first crowds arrived. He later moved out of Woodstock altogether, complaining that “Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all 50 states for gangs of druggies and dropouts,” later adding, “I wanted to set fire to these people.”

“The new counterculture is defined by its lack of regard for other peoples’ sensibilities, and a mischievous joy in shocking them.”

The Internet Aristocrat, an equally reluctant hero of an equally derided counterculture, seems to be following much the same path. Other than his wildly popular videos on Tumblr culture and GamerGate, little is known about the enigmatic YouTuber, who has only ever revealed his first name (Jim). Nevertheless, his departure has triggered an outpouring of disappointment, anger, and general feelings of abandonment across wide sections of the internet. I’m not sure if every one of his fans (who, like Dylan’s, number in the hundreds of thousands) would decamp to his backyard if they found out where he lived, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Needless to say, he would be quickly forgiven should he ever choose to return.

However, this article isn’t about Jim’s similarity to Jewish country singers from the 1960s, but about why he left. In his departing message, Jim expressed his frustration with the direction of #GamerGate.

“I wanted to fight Tumblr, not become it. I will not align myself with people that are just as bad as the opposition … They lost their edge, and they forgot their principles and their values.” – Internet Aristocrat

GamerGate is understandably hurt by this accusation, but there is some merit to it.

The new counterculture

It would take at least an entire article to explain the chaos that lurks in the imageboards and anonymous communities of the web. The fastest way to understand it is through its memes.

Ebola as an anime character. The #BikiniBridge hoax. Dragon dildos. Goatse. Ultra Super Mecha Giga Nigga 20,000. Removing kebab. “Hitler did nothing wrong.” OP is always a faggot, but occasionally a cool faggot like Freddy Mercury. Furfags. Bronies. Lewdness. Neoreactionary monarchism. Stacking TIME polls. Sending board admins to space. Raiding Habbo. Baneposting.

“If there is any value that unites the counterculture, it is hostility to the idea that any one of us is a unique snowflake, or that society owes us protection for our feelings.”

It’s hard to identify a general theme in all that, but at least one can be made out. The new counterculture is defined by its lack of regard for other peoples’ sensibilities, and a mischievous joy in shocking them. Some people believe the full-on offensiveness is a sign of universal bigotry, but there is just too much contradiction (Why does 4chan have such an active LGBT presence? Why were second-wave feminists so successful in winning the support of GamerGate?) and general silliness for this to be the whole picture.

If there is any value that unites the counterculture, it is hostility to the idea that any one of us is a unique snowflake, or that society owes us protection for our feelings. Nothing is sacred and no-one is special when everyone is anonymous.

I will write a more detailed article on the new counterculture at a later date. All you need to know for the purposes of this article is that it is the polar opposite of the censorious, hyper-sensitive group recently described by British journalist Brendan O’Neill as “The Stepford Students”. The counterculture mocks and opposes everything this group holds dear – hugboxes on Tumblr, privilege checking, trigger warnings, casual bigotry against cishet white men, and so on.

The Stepford Students (let’s call them the SS for short) are often the children of privilege. They’re presidents of prestigious debating societies, they’re trust fund children, they’re Bay Area aristocracy. They have the sympathetic ear of the establishment media – which, ironically, is now occupied by the jaded radicals of the old counterculture. Despite claiming perpetual victimhood, the SS are in many ways the vanguard of a new cultural hegemony. And as O’Neill highlights, they won’t hesitate to use that power to ban, control and censor.

Anonymous online communities and privileged Stepford Students represent opposite poles; counter and counterculture. They could not be further apart in behavior and values.

So why does Jim fear that GamerGate is turning people from the former group into the latter?

Alinsky’s Fourth Rule

Saul Alinsky, the guru of activist agitators, had a neat trick for fighting against cultural elites: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.” Those in power inevitably get complacent, and fail to live up to the stringent requirements they seek to place on others.

You’re a ‘Social Justice Warrior’? Then why do you advocate bullying? You’re anti-racist? Then why did you praise Hitler? A supporter of trans people? Then what’s this? Politically correct? Why are you calling for a genocide? Inclusive? Why are you making blacklists? You want more women in game design? Holy shit, what the fuck are you doing?

The relatively simple tactic of highlighting hypocrisy is the perfect way to expose an authoritarian. It shows how they will abandon all their cherished beliefs and values if the alternative is losing a little bit of power.

It also makes their attacks on pop culture tropes and T-shirts considerably more feeble. It’s difficult to blame ‘culture’ for excluding women from a particular field when you are actually launching boycotts against female devs.

Alinsky was right. It’s hard to live up to your own rules. And SJWs love creating rules.

He who fights with monsters

The danger of weaponizing Alinsky is that you do run a serious risk of turning into your opponents. After all, you’re using their powers against them – and power is hard to relinquish.

Worse, unless you are completely clear about what you are doing, you may start believing the values of your opponents. Complain to enough advertisers about bullying, and you might actually start believing that mean words ought to be cleansed from the face of the internet, or that @replying to someone on Twitter counts as harassment.

If that’s happened, then Jim is right – we Tumblr now.

There is also the added complication that many SJWs and moderates have joined forces with the counterculture. Don’t forget that Eron Gjoni is a self-described SJW, and the woman who helped him write his blogpost was too. Indeed, SJWs have been a part of GamerGate since the beginning.

These are the principled SJWs, the ones who aren’t happy being led by hypocrites, and really do want to live up to their own book of rules. When they see their self-appointed leaders failing to do so, they are outraged. It’s admirable.

With SJWs and anons fighting under the same banner, some sense danger. They might actually start liking each other, and maybe even start compromising. From there, some fear it’s a short ride to GamerGate dyeing its hair neon and demanding trigger warnings in its Twilight novels.

Okay, okay, it won’t get that bad. But if both groups want to maintain distinct (and I assume they do), then a core difference in their approach to hypocrisy must be acknowledged.

Leveling up and Leveling down

There is an inequality at the heart of the new culture wars. For years, we’ve seen authoritarian activists try and get people fired by taking their social media comments or campaign donations out of context, or by stretching words like misogyny, racism, and homophobia to cover an increasing number of their opponents. Any attempt to censor, bully, or suppress is taken, yet at the same time activists get to justify hate speech in national newspapers.

There are two ways to respond to this inequality. The first is to level up. The second is to level down. To explain the difference between these concepts, I’ll defer to a famous symbol of feminism:

Thatcher’s point is relatively easy to grasp. If Joe Bloggs has $10 and Steve Nobody has $20, they are relatively equal. Certainly more equal than Jane Doe with $25 and Professional Victim with $160,000. But Jane Doe is still better off than either Joe Bloggs or Steve Nobody.

Leveling up in this example means taking Bloggs closer to $20, or taking Doe closer to $160,000. Leveling down would be leaving Doe and Bloggs where they are (or even making their position worse), while taking money from Victim and Nobody in order to close the gap.

But this is all economics. How can this argument be applied to culture? Let’s try a thought experiment.

  1. Brew Smith writes lewd comics, some of which involve feminists in compromising scenarios. He is chased off Twitter and prevented from applying for a job at a major corporation.
  2. Jessica Valenti wears T-shirts about bathing in male tears, tweets about killing all men and why she loves misandry. She continues to enjoy a high-status career as a Guardian columnist.
“But why did authoritarians create outrage culture in the first place? Why do they embrace hypersensitivity? Because it’s an effective tool of control and censorship, of course.”

Now, this situation is unequal, certainly. But do you want to level up or level down? Do you want to work on getting Valenti fired? Or, instead, do you want to help Smith find an equally lucrative career? Both options would create equal outcomes and rub clean a small section of social hypocrisy, but while the first merely requires that the forces of collective outrage and “call-out culture” be harnessed, the second requires that those forces be destroyed altogether.

The first option is easier than the second, of course. And few people, myself least of all, would care much if a notorious authoritarian saw the very outrage culture they helped create turn against them. Censoring the censors. Frightening the fearmongers. Smells like victory.

But why did authoritarians create outrage culture in the first place? Why do they embrace hypersensitivity? Because it’s an effective tool of control and censorship, of course. Because it’s an effective tool to destroy their opponents.

The true anti-SJWs want to level up, not down. They want everyone to be able to be offensive, which is precisely why they go after the hyper-offended and the moral authoritarians with such dark glee. But the only way they’ve been able to achieve success is by following Boromir’s advice, by using the Weapon of the Enemy. That’s all well and good, but how do you destroy it afterwards? That’s the real question.

The other big issue, of course, is that it’s hard to maintain the core anon image of being deliberately offensive, trollish rogues while at the same time pursuing such a complex and serious cultural goal that requires complex and serious political arguments. You’ll note, for example, that this article contains very little baneposting.

Destroying authoritarians and outrage-mongers with their own weapons may be hugely satisfying, but can you destroy those weapons afterwards? And more importantly, what will you build afterwards? Can you build a less offended, less sensitive world? And how do you even do that without sounding like a ‘moralfag’ or a ‘carebear’?

It really is a tricky question. Let’s have some answers in the comments section please. Jim is waiting.

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