On Avatar 2, Virtue, and Pretentious Posing

Liberals doing what liberals do best (image by ddrockstar)

It’s hard to see your heroes die.

So James Cameron’s new Avatar movie is out, and the Internet is in a tizzy. This isn’t actually about the movie, or James Cameron, much as I love Aliens (I’ve seen it 167 times and it keeps getting more inspiring every single time I see it; I spent two years designing a sex toy based on the xenomorph facehugger…yeah, it’s like that).

But I didn’t come here to talk about the movie, or James Cameron. I came here to talk about virtue signaling, and white saviors crusading against white saviors, and offer some hot takes that will almost certainly lead to angry emails in my inbox.

Before we dive in to the rage, let me say that when I talk about “virtue signaling,” I don’t mean Virtue Signaling™, the brand that the American right uses to tarnish any display of empathy or compassion that suggests one is anything other than a complete sociopath. (I expand a little on the distinction between virtue signaling and Virtue Signaling™ over here.)

Okay, let’s do this.

James Cameron and the Synthetic Rage Machine

Back in 2009, James Cameron, of Aliens and Terminator 2 fame, made a movie called Avatar. I watched it, thought it was really good, watched it again, and then forgot about it. It’s showy but, like cotton candy, it melts quickly, leaving nothing behind.

Raccoon watching Avatar

Avatar was fluff. Fluff that was a bit problematic, with its overtones of “white hero saves the noble savages” tropes, but fluff.

However, it made more money than a televangelist with a coke habit, so it was perhaps inevitable there would be a second.

Now the second movie is here, and the liberal internetverse is aflame with acrimony, because if there’s one thing the modern-day liberal is absolutely certain of, it’s that the path to a kinder, more just, more empathic and inclusive society starts with screaming hate.

The issue, which I will confess I haven’t done hours of research about as I don’t actually have much interest in the second Avatar movie, appears to be the issue of cultural appropriation, leavened with a heaping teaspoon of white-saviorism. If you want a dive down the rabbit hole, you can find out more here and here and here and here, and good luck to you.

Predictably, the outrage spread like wildfire on Twitter, where people eager to show other people how much they supported the indigenous without, you know, actually doing anything inconvenient or costly to support the indigenous took to their keyboards:

Oh, no, wait, sorry, wrong Twitter outrage.

Ahem. The outrage spread on Twitter, where one particular Tweet was copy-pasted (not retweeted, not shared, but posted word for word) about 6,000 times, according to Google, not including posts on locked accounts. I won’t bother to link to any of them—you can find them if you want—but I will say they were even copy-pasted by people I once had genuine respect for. People I used to look up to. It’s hard to watch your heroes die.

Now, here’s the thing:

I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t problematic. I’m not telling you to see it…I’ve enjoyed not watching it, and I look forward to not watch it again. This isn’t really about Avatar at all, it’s about public masturbation.

All those thousands of copy-pasted tweets, all those people publicly proclaiming their support for indigenous people in the same way by repeating other people’s words—they’re wanking. “Look at me! Loot at me! Am I a good person now? I’m saying the right things. That makes me a good person, right? Right? Look at me!”

Virtue vs Virtue Signaling

How do you tell the difference between virtue and virtue signaling?

Virtue makes the world a better place. Virtue signaling makes you feel better about yourself.

When I look at Tweets about supporting underprivileged indigenous people by not watching a movie, I can’t help but think, “Point to the person who has a better life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to a tangible improvement in someone’s quality of life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the hungry person who was fed because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the village that had no water but now has a new well because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the sick child that now has medical care because you didn’t watch this movie.”

What? What’s that you say? Speak up. A little louder, please, I can’t hear you.

Oh, really? You didn’t actually improve anyone’s life? You just…didn’t watch a movie? That’s…that’s it?

Then shut the fuck up. You’re not supporting anyone. You’re showing off for the other people in your social set.

See, I could understand respecting someone who said “You know what, this movie has problematic aspects. An average theater ticket costs $15. Instead of watching it, why don’t you take that $15 and donate it to this particular fund that serves this particular underprivileged community in this particular way.”

If you do that, at least you’re actually benefitting someone besides yourself, even if it’s only in a small way. You’re actually, you know, making a tiny change in the world.

But if you’re not willing to do that? You’re showing off. Your “virtue” is empty, pretentious posing, benefitting nobody but you, a way for you to brag to people in your peer group without actually expending anything more than the barest minimum effort. You copy-pasted a sentence into Twitter! Ooh, you’re so courageous, posturing to win praise from your friends. Looking at you, making a difference in the world.

Paving the Way to a Better World

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The thing I like about my fellow progressives is that we—well, most of us, anyway—do sincerely want the world to be better tomorrow than it is today. We do genuinely want to live in a world that is more egalitarian, more open, more honest, more compassionate, more fair.

No matter how many “this is the world the Liberals want” memes the alt-right makes.

But too many progressives want something else more than we want a better world: We want to know where the lines are between Us and Them. Why? Because we want—indeed, need—to feel superior to someone. The most right-wing, hardcore Evangelical Baptist has nothing on an average urban progressive when it comes to sanctimony.

(Side note here: the irony of white men riding in to save the day against white saviors by copy-pasting Tweets, rather than, you know, actually saving anyone…well, if there were a Nobel Prize for Irony, I’m not saying it would win, but it would definitely be a contender.)

Tim Minchin put this superbly:

It cannot, it cannot be okay if the intention of progressives—which I assume it is—is progress forward into a future of more empathy and understanding for more people, it cannot be that the primary mechanism by which we’re going to make that progress is the suppression of empathy and understanding for anyone who doesn’t align with our beliefs. It cannot be that unmitigated expression of furious outrage will somehow alchemize into a future of peace and love.

If you want the world to be better when you wake tomorrow than it was when you woke today, but you want to bask in the warm glow of your own righteousness while you make empty gestures of great vengeance and furious anger those who dare tread too close to the line between Us and Them even more…

You.

Are.

Part.

Of.

The.

Problem.

The next time you sit down at your computer to blast evil from the comfort and safety of your keyboard, you brave and noble cultural warrior, you, but you cannot point to a single person whose cause you champion who actually ends up tangibly better off for it…mmmaybe don’t, okay?

Merry Christmas. May 2023 bring you less virtue signaling and more virtue.

Even if real virtue is harder.

Stochastic Terror as a Tool of Conformity

In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.

What is stochastic terrorism? Dictionary.com defines it as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted

It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.

Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”

This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.

But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.

Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.

All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.

Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.

Stochastic bullying

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:

People like to bully.

People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.

Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.

People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.

Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.

The Story

Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.

All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:

  1. All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
  2. Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
  3. The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.

It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.

Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.

So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.

Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”

You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted

This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”

I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.

I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.

And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.

The Bank Robber’s Gun

Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.

Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.

No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.

So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.

Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.

So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:

  1. He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
  2. He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
  3. Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.

Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.

He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .

What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?

That’s how stochastic bullying works.

And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.

Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable

There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:

But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.

The larger lesson here is this:

Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.

And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.

But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?

Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?

So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.

What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?

This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.

Bumper Sticker Morality

“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.

But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.

“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”

When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).

Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)

Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility

As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.

Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.

Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’

But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.

And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Will no one do something about this conference?

It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.

Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.

But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.

And we all lose.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

The cost of your cat pictures

Every month, almost three billion people use Facebook.

Those people upload photos and video and it all gets saved—about 4 petabytes, four billion gigabytes, of data every day.

Those are abstract numbers. What does it mean? How Does Facebook not run out of space?

Exactly how you think. They buy more than 1,000 hard drives every day. (As of the time I write this, the information I can find suggests they prefer to use 4TB hard drives rather than larger drives for cost and reliability reasons.)

This is a pallet of 180 hard drives:

Facebook adds the equivalent of about 6 of these pallets of hard drives to its storage hive every day. They’re placed in server computers in Facebook’s Hive data store that have 12 hard drives per server, so they’re adding data equivalent to at least 83 servers per day. (That’s only for storing user generated data like photos, and does not include extra drives for RAID redundancy or data duplication, which I imagine likely doubles that amount.)

Here’s the inside of one of Facebook’s data centers.

Imagine building after building, row after row of these. Now imagine 6 pallets of hard drives coming in on trucks and 83 servers’ worth of storage being added today.

And again tomorrow.

And again the day after tomorrow.

And again after that.

And yes, they really do order hard drives by the truckload.

This is why any time some conservative tells you “BuT fAcEbOk iS vIoLaTiNg My FrEeDuMb Of SpEeCh SoCiAl MeDiA sItEs ArE pUbLiC sPaCeS DuRr DuRr,” you can laugh in their face and walk away.

See all those servers? See all those buildings? See all those pallets of hard drives being trucked in? See all those people installing them?

Are you paying for them? No. Is the government paying for them? No. Is public money paying for them? No. They are private property. Billions of dollars of private property.

Facebook spends, as a first order approximation, about $30,000,000,000 a year on server infrastructure, not including buildings, land, facilities maintenance, installation, or salaries.

Anyone who thinks that social media sites are “public spaces” is welcome to propose that Congress gives Facebook $30,000,000,000 a year to keep up that infrastructure. Otherwise, no, it’s not. That’s $30,000,000,000 a year in private money being used to buy private property.


Okay, so.

You can’t have a service where almost three billion people communicate without having tremendous political clout. Facebook can, and arguably has, influenced elections and changed the course of nations.

And that’s (rightly, I think) got a lot of people worried. When you have a private company with no public accountability that has that much influence, that’s a bad thing, right?

Well, yes.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t new.

People forget this isn’t new. It’s always been this way. In the 1700s and 1800s, elections were decided by newspaper barons.

Remember William Randolph Hearst? Remember the Spanish American War? That was a war basically started by one man, a newspaper mogul, who totally dominated public political discourse and established a whole new world of journalistic propaganda.

This is probably the most effective fake news in history.

So what’s different?

Ah, now that’s a question.


Modern social media is different from the media empires of old in one important way: they are participatory, many-to-many, not one-to-many. In the past, “media” meant the owner disseminated information to content consumers. Today, we are all content creators and content consumers.

And this has led to a great deal of confusion betwixt “public” and “private.”

The Internet allows anyone to use it, but few people actually know how it works, or what scale it operates on. Hundreds of companies spend billions per year on the infrastructure to give everyone a way to communicate with everyone else, so what feels like a public square is actually a private space. And that leads to confusion: “Facebook banned me! My CoNsTiTuTiOnAl RiGhTs!“…when in fact you have no right to use other people’s stuff for free at all.

And make no mistake, that’s what Facebook and Twitter and all those other sites are: other people’s stuff. Billions and billions of dollars of other people’s stuff, that you’re using for free.

In the past, this confusion didn’t exist. In the past, nobody felt they had the right to someone else’s newspaper. You could write a letter to the editor, which they might or might not print, but nobody (well, nobody serious, anyway) had the notion that they had the Constitutional right to use someone else’s newspaper to say whatever they want.

We understand when something belongs to someone else, right up until the moment we’re allowed to use it ourselves…at which point we tend to assume an entitlement to it.


Owners of of media distribution companies have always had an outsized impact on social media. This isn’t new.

What’s new is that people are more aware of it, and want more of a voice. What’s unfortunate is that so many people aren’t going about it the right way. You don’t have a right to use Facebook, and if you’re kicked off you aren’t being “censored.”

What we need is entirely different conversation, and that’s one we can’t have whilst everyone is looking at the wrong thing.

Repugnant “Pro-Life” Views on Contraception

I first posted this on Quora in 2017, when we lived in a very different world. Now that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has explicitly said that Griswold v Connecticut should be overturned on the same grounds the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and Mississippi governor Tate Reeves (R) has said he won’t rule out a state ban on contraception, and Trump-backed candidates in Michigan and Ohio have called for a Federal law banning contraception, I thought this deserved a repost.

I keep hearing the argument that Griswold is safe because the overwhelming majority of people in the US still think contraception should be legal. Well, that was also true of abortion before Ronald Reagan. People forget how a few decades of persistent, well-funded managing can shift the Overton window.

So let’s take a look at the “pro-life” groups in the United States and see what they say about contraception, shall we?

The largest pro-life group in the US is the Roman Catholic Church, which has no fewer than seven sub-groups within its overall organization dedicated to opposing abortion. The Catholic Church opposes all forms of contraception except the rhythm method across the board.

The second-largest group is National Right to Life. It takes no formal stand on contraception, a policy which it reiterates many times. However, it has consistently lobbied against bills in Congress that make access to contraception easier, as well as against bills that would provide education about contraception both domestically and abroad.

The American Life League opposes contraception. They repeat the false claim many times on their Web site that birth control pills work by inducing abortion. They also claim that other forms of contraception increase abortion, showing statistics that abortion and contraception use in the US increased at about the same time (which is like saying ice cream causes sunburns; prior to Roe v Wade, most places in the US also outlawed contraception). They seek to overturn Roe v Wade and also ban contraception.

The Susan B. Anthony List opposes contraception across the board. The group’s president says, “the bottom line is that to lose the connection between sex and having children leads to problems.”

Americans United for Life, the oldest pro-life organization in the US, opposes all forms of hormonal birth control and IUDs, repeating the false claim that they work by inducing abortion. They oppose measures to teach about contraception, domestically or internationally. They support laws forbidding a company from firing a pharmacist who refuses to sell contraception. They do not have a stated policy on condoms, but they endorse only abstinence-based sex ed and oppose teaching about condoms.

Live Action opposes contraception. They claim that hormonal birth control induces abortion. They also claim that condoms do not work, that statistics showing 97% efficiency of condoms are lies promoted by Planned Parenthood and the “abortion industry,” and that making condoms readily available increases teen pregnancy.

The Family Research Council opposes hormonal contraception and IUDs. They do not have a formal position on condoms, but their Web site does say “we do question the wisdom of making it available over the counter to young girls.” They support a system where hormonal contraception and IUDs are banned, and condoms and diaphragms are available only by prescription.

Focus on the Family opposes hormonal birth control, IUDs, and contraceptive implants. They are neutral on condoms and diaphragms within marriage but oppose making them available to unmarried people. They oppose sex outside marriage across the board.

The American Family Association opposes hormonal birth control and IUDs. They do not formally oppose condoms, but they do oppose advertising condoms, making condoms available for free, and any sex education that mentions condoms.

American Right to Life opposes all contraception. They use scare tactics claiming that hormonal birth control causes cancer and strokes. They support legislation banning hormonal birth control and restricting access to condoms and other barrier forms of contraception.

Campaign for Life in America has no stated policy on contraception.

The Center for Bioethical Reform, the anti-abortion group most famous for showing grisly pictures of dismembered fetuses at protests in front of clinics, opposes contraception. The group’s leader, Mark Harrington, compares condoms to “drugs, gangs, rapes, assaults, and murder” as proof that America is abandoning its moral heritage as a “Christian nation.” He says legal decisions overturning bans on contraception were done by “terrorists in black robes” with a “warped view” of the Constitution.

The Human Life Foundation opposes all forms of contraception except the rhythm method.

Operation Rescue opposes all forms of birth control and states that the only legitimate purpose of sex is procreation.

Choose Life opposes hormonal contraception, IUDs, and contraceptive implants. It endorses the rhythm method, condoms, diaphragms, and sterilization. It supports teaching of barrier methods of contraception.

Coalition for Life opposes contraception across the board. It claims that hormonal birth control and IUDs cause abortion. It states on its Web site that only the rhythm method for birth control should be used, and its Web site urges its members to “help end the ravages of contraception.” It supports legislation to ban all contraceptive methods.

The Right to Life Federation opposes all contraception. Its position is that “abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and contraception are intimately connected” and that a person opposed to any one of those things must be morally compelled to oppose them all. It claims that use of contraception is statistically correlated with abortion, and supports an across-the-board legal ban on both abortion and contraception.

If you support any anti-contraception group financially, even if you do not oppose contraception yourself, this is the message you are funding.

Make no mistake: Griswold is next.

Virtue Signaling Left and Right

(Note: This blog post started as an answer I wrote on Quora.)

As I’ve grown more experienced and looked out over the world, I’ve noticed that self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives love to attack each other for “virtue signaling,” even though it’s far from unique to one side of the political spectrum. They often end up talking past each other, though, because they do it in different ways, against different targets.

One key difference between the left and the right is often the way they feel about hierarchy. Political conservatives tend (with some exceptions, of course) to lean toward vertical hierarchies; political liberals, toward flat egalitarian social structures.

This isn’t just an American thing. Peer-reviewed, published studies have observed this difference across different societies. [1] [2] [3] There appears to be a structural, neurological basis for this division.[4] [5]

So how does this play out in virtue signaling?

The simple answer is: While both liberals and conservatives frequently virtue-signal by denouncing external threats or perceived threats—members of the out-group—liberals are far more likely to turn on their own, virtue-signaling by attacking members of the in-group seen as violating the norms and standards of the in-group.

That might seem contradictory at first. If conservatives value hierarchy, and with it conformity, doesn’t that mean conservatives would be likely to turn on people perceived to be insufficiently adhering to the group’s thinking?

And the answer is no.

When you are part of a hierarchy and have strongly hierarchical views, it seems like a natural consequence of that hierarchical thinking is a set of double standards for those at the bottom of the hierarchy vs those at the top. This is how conservatives can claim to support “family values” while worshipping—sometimes literally—a twice-divorced serial adulterer who’s had five children from three different women.

Adherence to the hierarchy itself is what’s important. The people at the top aren’t subject to the rules.

Liberals don’t accept this. Liberals are biased toward egalitarianism; the same rules apply to everybody.

On the one hand, that makes liberals far less likely to overlook transgressions on the part of those at the top. Al Franken was urged to resign when a photo showing him pretending to grope a woman (without touching her) started circulating; on the other side, Matt Gaetz is the subject of a criminal investigation for statutory rape, pandering of a minor, sex trafficking of minors, and obstruction of justice—an investigation that has already resulted in the criminal conviction of a co-conspirator—and conservatives are like “eh, whatever.”

This difference in reaction comes directly from differences in attitude toward hierarchy and egalitarianism.

What this means is that liberals and conservatives both virtue signal, and in many of the same ways, but when they, for example, crank up the Twitter rage machine, conservatives are more likely to target members of out-groups, whereas liberals are much more likely than conservatives to eat their own.

Which is not to say that conservatives never target their own or liberals never target the out-group, of course. One of the biggest modern examples in American history of cancel culture was the conservative rage at the Dixie Chicks, which resulted in employees of radio stations that played their music being stalked and receiving death threats, and venues that hosted Dixie Chicks concerts getting bomb threats.

But the Dixie Chicks committed a crime against hierarchy; they questioned George W. Bush’s rationale for war in Iraq.

This is a big part of the disconnect between liberals and conservatives about cancel culture and free speech. Conservatives will cry about “Liberal cancel culture! Liberals don’t care about free speech!” But when liberals are like “wait, isn’t that what you did with the Dixie Chicks?” conservatives will say “no,” leaving liberals thinking “what a lying pack of hypocrites.” But from the conservative perspective, they aren’t lying and aren’t hypocrites. The Dixie Chicks were attacked for undermining the hierarchy, not for speech. The fact that speech was the tool they used to undermine the hierarchy is an irrelevant detail.

Liberals, on the other hand, turn their virtue-signaling on their own, often for “offenses” that seem inexplicably petty and stupid to conservatives.

This happens to an extraordinary degree in small liberal subcommunities—often, the smaller the subcommunity, the more vicious the virtue-signalling and infighting. I’m reminded of the Henry Kissenger quote, “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because stakes are so small.”

A real-life example:

Some years ago, a woman complained on Tumblr that she didn’t like polyamorous people because polyamorous people would talk about being “poly” on Tumblr posts, and it made it harder for her to search Tumblr with “poly” to find Polynesian Tumblr users.

Now, this was one person on one social media platform, not Polynesian people in general.

But the polyamory scene, or parts of it, started to turn—sometimes with incredible viciousness—on polyamorous people who used the word “poly,” demanding that they use “polya” or “polyam” instead.

To polyamorous people, those who use the term “poly” committed a crime against the marginalized.

This, too, is a big part of the disconnect between liberals and conservatives about cancel culture and free speech. Liberals will cry about “Conservative cancel culture! Conservatives don’t care about free speech!” But when conservatives are like “wait, isn’t that what you do when you police language around minority groups?” liberals will say “no,” leaving conservatives thinking “what a lying pack of hypocrites.” But from the liberal perspective, they aren’t lying and aren’t hypocrites. The people using the word “poly” were attacked for undermining a historically disenfranchised group, not for speech. The fact that speech was the tool they used to undermine this group is an irrelevant detail.

This kind of policing of the “insufficiently woke” is far more common in liberal than conservative scenes, and it turns easily into virtue signaling when people uninvolved with the original whatever-it-was start to pile on because piling on is an easy, no-cost way to be seen on the side of the righteous. (There’s another pile-on starting up these days about people who use “consensual non-monogamy” vs “ethical non-monogamy” to describe polyamory; the idea is that consent isn’t necessarily ethical, so the people who use “consensual non-monogamy” clearly don’t really care about ethics.)

The pile-on is kind of the definer of virtue signaling. Once it becomes socially acceptable within a certain group to attack a certain person or subset of people, those without any dog in the fight will pile on merely for the admiration of their peers.

Well, also to congratulate themselves for being moralistic too, I suppose, but I gotta say, when you express your virtues only when it’s safe and easy to do so, costs you nothing, and there’s no risk…are they really virtues?

Left and right virtue signaling is generally quite similar:

  • It involves attacks on perceived threats to the orthodoxy. In conservative circles, the orthodoxy is likely to be the current hierarchy, or dominant religious or social tradition. In liberal circles, the orthodoxy is likely to focus on perceptions of egalitarianism and power imbalances: men always have more power than women (hence “believe all women”), and so forth.
  • It is an easy tool of bullies to use to exert authority and control. Bullies skilled in whipping up outrage can direct that outrage against targets of their choosing by manipulating the values of their social group.
  • It is safe, risk-free, and no-cost for those who jump in. Hopping on a bandwagen is pretty much the safest thing you can possibly do; in fact, the person who stands up against bandwagoning is the one who risks more. (Ask anyone who refused to name “Communists” during the McCarthy witch hunts!) The real determinator of your virtue is not what you do when proclaiming your virtue costs you nothing, but what you do when holding to your ideals costs you something.

Where they differ is in the common targets, and of course in the rhetoric used to justify the virtue signaling.

Footnotes

[1] Conservative and liberal, hierarchical and egalitarian: Social-political uses of the concept of “home” in Greco-Roman antiquity and early Christianity

[2] Liberal and Conservative Representations of the Good Society: A (Social) Structural Topic Modeling Approach

[3] Political identity, preference, and persuasion

[4] A Neurology of the Conservative-Liberal Dimension of Political Ideology

[5] Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults

Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by franklinveaux.com, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on franklinveaux.com and morethantwo.com increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

The Fine Art of Flinging Poo

The contradictions and inconsistencies are a feature, not a bug

Image by Colin Lloyd

I’m writing over on Medium now, and I’ve just put up a piece you can read (free) there. Here’s the teaser:

I’ve been thinking about the Capitol riots lately. I don’t mean “how could this happen?” (anyone who’s read even a little bit of history already knows the answer) or “what role did the former President play? (that answer is self-evident, and getting more so every day).

No, that’s tedious, dreary, and altogether too predictable. What I’ve been thinking about is the fascinating narratives that have sprung up around the failed coup, how contradictory they are, and how those contradictions don’t seem to matter.

I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: The fact that the narratives are inherently self-contradictory is part of what makes them compelling. The mutual impossibilities in the narrative threads are precisely why they work.

Okay, so hear me out.

In the aftermath of the January coup attempt, a bunch of different, competing stories started to coalesce on the political right about what happened. There were no riots; the Capitol attackers were just tourists. It wasn’t insurrection; it was completely peaceful. The attack wasn’t peaceful, but it also wasn’t Trump supporters, it was Antifa. Or no, not Antifa; it was an FBI false-flag operation. But the rioters were martyrs. If Trump is re-elected, he will give them all pardons.

Clearly these can’t all be true. The attack was orchestrated by peaceful tourists who were really FBI Antifa in disguise, yet they’re all martyrs who deserve pardons? Nobody can believe all of this.

And that’s exactly the point.

I’ve started calling this strange, scattershot approach to propaganda the “MSTF technique:” Make Something That Fits.

Propaganda 101

When I was growing up, my mother always used to say, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.”

Check out the rest here!

“Orwellian”? I don’t think so.

In which Franklin ventures an unpopular opinion.

Okay, so we live in a time when the word ‘Orwellian’ is used rather a lot, often by people who clearly haven’t read any Orwell. (“The liberals don’t want to shop at Hobby Lobby! That’s so Orwellian!” “That dude got fired for going to a Nazi rally That’s so Orwellian!” No. No, it isn’t.)

But I’m going to offer a hot take, which is that Nineteen Eighty-Four hasn’t aged particularly well. I’ll even go further: the ideas in it don’t map well onto modern society, current political events notwithstanding.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s a literary classic. Yes, yes, I know, lots of people say it’s more relevant today than ever.

I disagree—not because I think everything now is all sunshine and roses, but because Orwell wrote from a specific place and time, with a particular set of assumptions, and as a result the dystopia he imagined isn’t the dystopia we got.

Orwell envisioned a future of old-school authoritarian totalitarianism, very much rooted in Post-WWII geopolitics, where totalitarians looked like Joseph Stalin and government enforcement looked like the East German Stasi.

Who would’ve guessed the real Big Brother would be a weedy computer nerd with poor social skills in a cheap T-shirt?

He projected his ideas about authoritarianism onto the technology of the day, imagining TV sets broadcasting State propaganda, and cameras in every room sending images back to the State apparatus.

He never imagined a pervasive Panopticon might just as easily be turned against the State. In an age where we all carry cameras with us everywhere we go, corruption and police brutality can be recorded and exposed.

He also could not imagine a society where common communications media were anything other than top-down—he was still trapped in a broadcast-television mindset, where content creation was centralized and transmitted out to the population.

We live in a much more decentralized world, a world where citizens are empowered in ways that Orwell couldn’t (and didn’t) imagine. Because of that, his vision feels very old-school, very Grandpa’s Dictatorship.

Who would’ve guessed the real Big Brother would be a weedy computer nerd with poor social skills in a cheap T-shirt?

It turns out—surprise!—that everyone in the 40s and 50s was 100% wrong about how societies work.The free and vigorous exchange of ideas doesn’t mean that good ideas rise to the top. Giving everyone instantaneous access to the world’s sum total of facts and knowledge doesn’t lead to a more enlightened society. Instant, unfettered worldwide communication doesn’t break down barriers, erode prejudice, promote egalitarianism, or increase understanding.

It took a long time for me to wrap my head around this. I was one of those naive optimists, back in the era before a pervasive Internet. Turns out that shit doesn’t happen. All the optimistic forward thinkers from the 1940s through the 1990s were utterly, 100% wrong.

Ah HA ha ha ha ha! Good one! Now pull my other leg, Mr. Mill!

Dystopia is here, but it isn’t Grandpa’s “boot stamping on a human face forever.” That’s so last-century.Today’s authoritarianism is agile, data-driven, shaped by analytics and A/B testing, tested with focus groups, refined with demographic polling, all of it carefully tailored for different market segments.

Todays doublethink and thoughtcrime aren’t engineered by the Ministry of Truth and pushed out by the police apparatus. They’re crowdsourced, enshrined in tribal identity politics, and enforced by the Twitter rage generator and the 4chan hate machine. Offenders aren’t whisked away for extraordinary rendition; instead, the rage of the internet is summoned upon perceived offenders, anyone who appears to support perceived offenders, anyone standing too close to perceived offenders.

In this dystopia, narratives matter more than facts, secret courts are replaced by the court of public opinion, and we don’t need the Stasi to enforce this because we enforce it on ourselves.

George Orwell was right that the impulse toward authoritarianism is written deep in the social DNA of Western societies, he was just wrong that authoritarianism is always top-down. Turns out, paradoxically, it’s often bottom-up.He thought government would need to control our speech and our thought to control us.

Nope.

Give us unfettered communication and unlimited access to knowledge and we’ll do it ourselves.

In this post-fact dystopia, the government doesn’t create our reality, we choose the reality that best appeals to our biases and prejudices. Knowledge? That’s, like, just another opinion, man!

Some (more) thoughts on cancel culture

Okay, so. Let’s talk about cancel culture.

Cancel culture isn’t what a lot of folks think it is.

You can’t reasonably address the notion of what “cancel culture” is until you first address what it isn’t. Cancel culture is not saying “I don’t like the way that company does business, so I’m not going to shop there.” Cancel culture isn’t “I don’t like what that person did, so I’m not going to watch her movies.” Cancel culture isn’t even “I don’t like what that company or that person did, so I’m going to tell others how I feel about them.”

All those things are simply you making your own choices. No company is entitled to your money; you’re not taking something away from a corporation that rightfully deserves it by not shopping there. No movie star is entitled to you seeing their movies. No TV comedian is entitled to have you watch their shows. No author is entitled to have you read their books.

Cancel culture, if we are to be intellectually honest, is something else. Cancel culture is the idea that someone or some company did (or you think they did) something wrong, so you aren’t going to patronize them, and you are going to try to force other people not to patronize them either.

Probably the classic example of cancel culture in United States history was McCarthyism, where the government used political witch hunts to force people out of their livelihoods because someone said their brother overheard their hairdresser telling someone else they might be Communist.

Anyone who stood by someone accused of Communism was also branded a Communist. Anyone who defended someone accused of Communism was also driven out of their jobs. Anyone who stood up and said “hey, wait a minute…” was branded a traitor and publicly hounded.

The most dramatic recent example of cancel culture was probably what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who incited the wrath of right-wingers by criticizing the Iraq war.

Many people stopped buying their albums. That’s not cancel culture.

However, they also demanded radio stations stop playing their music. They stalked and harassed managers of radio stations that played their music. They sent death threats to radio DJs who played their music. They phoned firebomb threats to venues that hosted their concerts.

That’s cancel culture.

Cancel culture is not “I will not patronize this person.” Cancel culture is “I will make sure nobody else patronizes this person.”

There are a lot of moving parts to cancel culture; while it predates the Internet (and possibly human civilization), the Internet has made it a flash phenomenon, able to incite enormous fury at the slightest breath.

And while in the past it has frequently been dominated by the political right—I laugh every time an American conservative accuses liberals of “cancel culture,” given the Dixie Chicks thing and the Starbucks thing, cancel culture is neither a left thing nor a right thing. Folks of all political persuasions do it.

Some of the key elements of cancel culture include:

Mass outrage. “Look what they have done! They have criticized our President/sold us out to Commies/said a bad thing/whatever! Outrage!!!” Often, the outrage comes with scanty supporting evidence, and frequently it’s presented with the most emotionally laden spin possible.

Appeal to popular narratives. Narratives are powerful. Human beings are a storytelling species; we understand the world through stories. The stories we tell ourselves—”the government is bad and trying to harm me,” “men are abusers; women are victims,” “nothing an opposing politician says is ever true,” “gay men are pedophiles”—shape our understanding and perception of the world. Stories we hear that fit our narratives tend to be believed without question. Stories that contradict our narratives tend to be rejected without consideration.

These two things often work in synergy. Something that contradicts or violates a narrative we accept will often generate a disproportionate emotional response…not only because it introduces cognitive dissonance, but also because these narratives are:

Tribal markers. The narratives we accept become the way we tell in-groups from out-groups. They are, in a literal sense, virtue signaling and identity politics; the people who believe the same narratives are ‘us,’ while those who reject our narratives are ‘them.’

A clearly defined Good Guy, clearly defined Bad Guy, and clearly defined crime—often, a crime against whatever values once made the Bad Guy a Good Guy. In the political right, this tends to be defiance of authority figures the Right accepts (President Bush, Donald Trump); in the political left, this tends to be perception of or accusation of sexual or social impropriety.

This is why the US left and US right accuse one another of “cancel culture” but don’t see what they themselves do as “cancel culture.” We didn’t cancel the Dixie Chicks; we responded to their unacceptable disrespect of our President! We didn’t cancel that comedian; we responded to defend disadvantaged groups from his attack!

Targeting not only of the person being canceled, but anyone nearby. Cancel culture is, by its nature, an attempt to coerce everyone into shunning the person or entity being canceled. The best way to do this? Target anyone who stands by that person or entity. Doing this sends a clear and unmistakeable message: Defend the person we are canceling and we will ruin you, too. People like to think of themselves as upstanding moral entities who will do the right thing under pressure. Threaten someone’s livelihood or reputation and I guarantee, guarantee, the overwhelming majority of those who think of themselves as good, stand-up people will fold like wet cardboard. There’s no percentage in having your own reputation ruined and your own livelihood destroyed for the sake of someone else. 

Intolerance of dissent. This same targeting happens to people who say “hold up a second, are you really sure this is what you say it is? Are you certain this person did what you think they did? Should we hear from this person?” Reminding someone in the throes of a full-fledged righteous wrath that stories have more than one side invites you to be cast out, set on fire, and nuked from orbit.

Rejection of nuance. Cancel culture thrives on self-righteousness. The people who engage in canceling truly, absolutely, 100% believe they are truly, absolutely 100% right. They truly believe they are on the side of the angels, casting out unutterable darkness itself. The idea that there might be anything other than a purely good side and a purely evil side lets the air out of that self-righteousness, and that invites in feelings of shame and guilt.

The trouble with all of this is it allows for no self-reflection and once started, cannot be recalled. The people who phoned bomb threats to Dixie Chicks venues continue, to this very day, to believe that what they did was right…because once you’ve taken that step, how can you sleep at night if you tell yourself ‘no, actually, I was over the top, I shouldn’t have done that’? Once you’ve accused something of some wrongdoing, even if on some level you know it isn’t true, you can’t take it back without the risk of that same outrage machine turning on you; you have to keep going. 

In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote:

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.

He was talking about populism, but where populism is the politics of human tribalism writ large, cancel culture is the politics of human tribalism writ small, and the same idea applies. When you’ve saddled up that tiger, you don’t dare dismount lest it stop eating your enemies and eat you instead.

So what does this have to do with political correctness?

“Politically correct” is a fudge phrase. It’s like “respect” that way.

In 2015, a Tumblr user on a now-deleted blog wrote

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

So when you hear the word “respect” in a political conversation, that should raise the small hairs on the back of your neck. Odds are good someone’s about to pull a lingusitic switcheroo on you, and if you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna get snookered.

Sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “treating other people with decency and compassion” and sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “adhering to a rigid dogmatic orthodoxy.”

And sometimes people will go into a conversation using it the first way, and when you agree you think that’s a fine idea, they’ll point at you and say “See! You’re just trotting out your identity-politics dogmatism!”

And then whatever idea you’d been advocating gets dismissed as empty virtue signaling.

It’s easy, oh so very easy, to pick up the torch and the pitchfork when you hear something that presses your emotional buttons. And yes, you do have buttons, and so do I, and so does everyone.

Outrage is the enemy of reason. It’s easy to get swept up in the righteous fury of outrage. I’ve done it. I struggle to name anyone who hasn’t. That outrage makes you a tool, a weapon in someone else’s hands…and sickeningly often, if you scratch the surface of justifiable moral outrage over some clear and obvious moral wrongdoing, you’ll find something cheap and tawdry beneath.

Something like money. Or influence. Or political power.

The irony is that political correctness of the first sort—compassion, empathy, a sincere desire to see things from many perspectives, a rejection of the easy and convenient narrative—is actually the antidote to cancel culture, which rests on a foundation of political correctness of the second sort.

But political correctness of the second sort feels better. Picking up the torch and the pitchfork feels good. You feel like you’re in the right. You feel like a superhero. You feel like you’re riding into battle against evil itself. And best of all, you can do it easily, from home, without risking anything!

Funny thing about that. If what you’re doing makes you feel heroic without risking anything…maybe it’s not as heroic as you think it is.