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.

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

“Support Our Police,” the Thin Blue Line, and the hypocrisy of the right

The American Republican party portrays itself as the party of law and order, the party that supports the police, the party that understands the thin blue line that stands between anarchy and chaos. “Vote for us! We stand against the anarchy of the liberals!”

Yet when we look at right-wing media these last few weeks, we see the forces of American conservatism, the “law and order” party, blasting the Capitol police who stood against the rioters and insurrectionists on January 6. Night after night, millions of Americans tune in to watch right-wing talking heads vilifying the police for hours at a stretch.

What gives? How can this be? Isn’t this the rankest, vilest sort of hypocrisy, so blatant that even the strongest partisan must be appalled to see it?

No. I don’t think so. What we’re seeing is something else, and within the context of the alt-right, their behavior makes a warped sort of sense.

To understand what is happening now, and why the American right doesn’t consider their vilification of the Capitol police hypocritical, I think we need to understand John McClane, the Hero’s Journey, Rugged Individualism, the American monomyth, and authoritarianism. Those are the ingredients that make up that particular toxic brew.

Many people, especially those who lean toward social hierarchy, want to see the police as the classic hero, waging epic battle against the forces of evil like John McClane in Die Hard. Free of the entangling bureaucracy of a stifling and incompetent bureaucracy, they can take the fight directly to the baddies.

Why is this necessary? Look at the Hero’s Journey. It’s a fundamental part of the Hero’s Journey that the hero is set apart from society during the great conflict. The police hero as an archetype transcends the normal rules of society. He works outside the rules because the criminal works outside the rules.

This whole concept of heroism is deeply, deeply steeped in rugged individualism. The hero engages in single combat with the forces of darkness. The hero stands or falls on his own. The hero depends on his own resources and wit. Think about all the classic hero tropes: the sheriff from out of town in spaghetti westerns who rides in to save the townspeople unable to save themselves, Arnold Schwarzenegger going toe to toe with the predator in some far off jungle, everything about Batman…in their role as hero, they transcend the normal rules to fight on their own, self-reliant and solely responsible for deciding the rules of engagement.

We (meaning Smericans and those influenced by American culture) are steeped in this idea of heroism and the Rugged Individual because it’s woven deep into the American monomyth, and has been since the days before the United States was the United States. John Galt is a clumsy, badly-written, lowbrow-posing-as-highbrow interpretation of the American monomyth, created by an American immigrant as an unironic (but still unintentionally funny) expression of all Ayn Rand believed was good and strong in the American character.

When American conservatives refer to police as “heroes,” they don’t mean “people who work for the community.” They mean something quite different: the archetype of the Campbell hero, the hero of a Hollywood big-budget action flick, Arnold going after the Predator. That kind of hero doesn’t obey the rules. They mean “hero” in a very specific and literal sense.

In fact, it’s insulting to think that kind of hero even should follow the rules. Rules are for the weak, for those who don’t have what it takes to be heroes. That kind of hero understands what needs to be done and is willing to do whatever it takes to git er done.

Why do we like that image?

Authoritarianism.

That mentality of police relies on the idea that police are the heroes keeping the forces of evil at bay. They protect our freedoms from the Other, and our sacred freedoms must be defended through strict order and harsh justice.

It’s why American conservatives can say they support our men in blue and fly thin blue line flags, then turn around and ridicule, attack, and condemn the Capitol police who fought against the insurrectionists. To reasonable people, that looks like hypocrisy. To the people who do it, it’s not. Those police weren’t heroes. Those polce stood against the heroes, against the people who went outside the system to right an “injustice” and git er done.

It’s also why they celebrate police who kill unarmed Black people. There’s a deep element of racism writ in this mindset. The police went outside the system to confront the Other, the enemy within us who is not of us, the people who don’t obey the rules, who don’t know their place.

Seen in this light, it’s the Capitol police, not the insurrectionists, who broke the social contract. They aren’t the heroes of this story. By acting against the heroes, they deserve condemnation.

As weird as this mindset might seem, it’s what a lot of conservatives truly to believe, and it’s why pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of flying a “thin blue line” flag whilst throwing the Capitol police under the bus won’t gain any traction among the American right.

The Lucifer Effect effect

Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.

The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.

And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.

Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.


This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.

It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.

When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.

Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)

The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.

I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.

I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.

But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.

The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.

So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.


I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.

But man, this book.

This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.

When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.

I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.

It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.

The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.

But man, it’s turned into a painful slog.

…not just a river in Egypt

Some while back, someone on Quora (a question and answer site on which I’m quite active) asked a question about encounters with racism and white privilege.

I told the story of something that happened to Eve and me at a Walmart in Florida. We were standing in a checkout line with about five people in front of us, when the cashier pulled us out of line. We thought she was opening a new register, but instead, she just brought us to the front of the line and rang us up. It was a little confusing, and it took a few minutes to register: we were the only white people in line.

This is, I think, a fairly typical example of everyday racism. There’s nothing particularly weird or unusual about it; it’s just part of the background institutional racism of life in the United States, one of the many small acts of racism that normalize racism on a larger scale.

What I didn’t expect, and did find deeply weird, was the way people reacted to this story.

This, I think, is very strange. It’s also very telling.

There are lessons in both the event and the responses to it, I think. Both Eve and I didn’t recognize what was going on at the time it happened. As she wrote,

It was crowded and noisy. It happened really fast. We were stressed and distracted. Have you ever had someone pull you out of line because they were opening a new register? At first we thought that was what was happening. […] We weren’t even sure if everyone standing around us was actually in line. There was a lot of information to take in and respond to at once.

It was only after we checked out and were halfway to the exit that we looked around and realized that she was the only cashier open in her area and that the people around us had in fact all been in line – and were still there.

I mean yeah. We felt like idiots afterward for not realizing sooner what was going on. I certainly hope the experience will help us be more aware in the future if we encounter this shit again.

Neither of us recognized what was happening at the time, but we’re now more aware of this kind of thing, and we’re not likely to be taken by surprise in the future.

So that’s the first lesson: sometimes, white privilege means being completely unaware of casual acts of everyday racism even when you’re right in the middle of them.

The second lesson, though, is more interesting: it has become very, very common for people who are confronted with something uncomfortable to deny that it exists. And that’s troubling.


To be fair, this is not limited only to racism. The same thing happened whenever people talk about any kind of topic where there’s likely to be disagreement. I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere about the hysteria around GM food and how the machinery of fear of GM food is totally devoid of empirical evidence, and as sure as night follows day, every time I do, someone will reach into the attic of argumentative fallacy and haul out the tired old “you don’t believe that, you’re just being paid to say it” trope. It’s happened both on Quora and, when a blog post about GM food made it to Reddit, on Reddit:

It hasn’t always been this way. This reflexive, instantaneous denial–“You had an experience that makes me uncomfortable; I will refuse to believe it occurred,” “You hold an idea I disagree with; you do not really believe what you’re saying”–is new (at least to me).

Denial as an argumentative tactic isn’t new, of course, but the fact that so many people reach for it as the very first response is.

This happens in politics (“You support Hillary, that’s the only reason you’re saying Jill Stein is pandering to pseudoscience”), in technology, in everything. It’s pervasive. And it’s gaslighting. It’s built on the assumption that a person can tell you what your experiences were, what you believe or don’t believe, all because he doesn’t much like what you’re saying. (I say “he” because with only one exception, all the responses I’ve screen captured above were from men.)

But when it comes to experiences of racism, it seems particularly deeply rooted.

I’m not sure if that’s white discomfort at the idea of their own privilege, or if it comes from the fact that so many Americans truly want to believe that the election of a black President means we’re living in a post-racial society, or what it is, but it’s bizarre. What happened to Eve and me in Walmart isn’t even that egregious an example. It’s not like, just to use a random hypothetical that of course would never happen in real life, an unarmed black man was shot dead by police for doing nothing in particular.

Yet people really, really want to believe that it simply never happened–that it would not happen. They seem incredibly invested in that belief.


I would like to think that, had I been waiting in that line and seen what happened, I would raise a stink about that.

But here’s the thing: I am white. I was born into a system that privileged me. I have never been on the receiving end of structural racism. If someone were to be brought in front of me in line, of course I would raise a stink about it; being able to raise a stink is part of my privilege. Many folks on Quora expressed surprise that none of the people in the line spoke up, but that’s part of the problem. Being allowed to speak up about racism is not a privilege that those on the receiving end are permitted.

On Quora, several folks made exactly this point:


Talking about privilege is difficult, because a lot of folks who hold some kind of privilege (white privilege, male privilege, whatever) take the conversation as an affront. It’s not always clear what we’re supposed to do with the knowledge that we have these social privileges we didn’t ask for, whether we want them or not.

I’ve heard folks become defensive and say things like “are you telling me I should feel guilty for being white?” or “are you telling me I didn’t work for the things I have?”

And the answer is no, of course not. That’s not the point at all. The point is to recognize these structures, so that you can point them out and you can help level the playing field for everyone.

Had someone in that line objected, he probably would have been seen as just another angry black person. Had we objected, that would have been a whole different ball o’ wax. This video illustrates this nicely:

The right thing to do, had we recognized what was happening, would be to say “Excuse me, these people were in line first, why are you bringing us to the front?”

The wrong thing for us to do (which was what we did) was to be so unaware of what was happening that we simply allowed it to happen. The wrong thing for other people to do was to tell us that it never happened at all.

Of course, all this happens because racism is still a real and genuine thing, openly embraced by far more people than we are comfortable admitting (including, it must be said, a certain current Presidential candidate). Not everyone on Quora denied our experience. At least one person celebrated it. I’ll leave you with this gem: