The Internet and the Proliferation of Narratives
A Rambling Hypothesis
CW: I briefly talk about some of the attitudes that radicalized young men have on the Internet which might be upsetting to some.
A Story of Two Radicalizations
This summer I’ve been watching the January 6th hearings pretty regularly. This is not necessarily because I think much will come out from them, but primarily because it feels like something historically important even if it ultimately amounts to nothing. From what I’ve gathered by asking around, very few people my age and of my political persuasion are watching this stuff.
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I really don’t blame others for being disinterested. It’s all very depressing, and even more so in light of the Supreme Court decisions that have come down this last month (something that I won’t speak on here). For someone like me who is already disposed to get discouraged and demoralized, the kind of hopelessness that I feel after every one of these hearings can only be described as an exercise in masochism.
Still, I naturally find myself struggling to understand how things got so bad. Now, of course, comrades will rightly point out that things have always bad, and that, what I’m experiencing at the moment is all part of a continual process of disillusionment with the existing capitalist system. This is all good and well, and, in the final analysis, I believe, correct. However, we should be careful not to jump from the claim that ultimately this is all to be explained by an appeal to the dynamics of capitalism, to the tempting conclusion that there is nothing new or different about the present situation and how it came about.
And there is something that feels really odd about the present situation that is really hard to diagnose. Something around 2016 just seemed to break in so many people of my parents’ generation—and so suddenly, too—that many in my generation (i.e., millenials) are still struggling to put it all together even if we are well aware that the answer lies in the material conditions.
I used to know quite a few older people—friends of my parents and parents of my friends—who seemed to transform almost overnight into cultural and social reactionaries. The same people with whom I used to have forceful but pleasant political conversations with over a beer, were now displaying a kind of revanchist condescension. Almost every (left-leaning) person I know has experienced this in some form or fashion. Now, I’m not one for respectability politics, and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I will never see my brother in law’s father again after he threatened to kill me at Christmas, and I’ve come to terms with how many former teachers of mine turned out to be rooting for January 6th. Worse things have happened to better people, after all. However, it’s still very odd to see it all develop in real time and I can’t keep wondering what exactly happened to turn so many (relatively wealthy, I must add) boomers into Q-Annoners and Trump supporters. What material changes could have precipitated such drastic psychological changes?
The full answer to this question is, undoubtedly, multifaceted, and I won’t try to provide it here. Nevertheless, I do want to talk about one general kind of explanation that is often floated by that seems to have some legs, but which, I believe, often leads people in the wrong direction. I don’t have any one specific person or argument in mind here, so take this with a grain of salt, but the general explanation offered goes like this:
The defining feature of the American political landscape today is that of polarization and radicalization. This feature, in turn, is to be explained by the introduction of a new kind of technology—namely, the Internet and social media—which has had an increasingly large role to play in not only our day to day life, but the way we do politics. If one wants to understand the problems with America today, one has to understand how the Internet has warped our psychology and made radicals out of ordinary folks.
This seems like a reasonable suggestion, but one that needs to be filled out. Here, there are different approaches, but some of the most common ones seem to revolve around the importance of “the algorithm” in various social media, and the production of “echo chambers” or “epistemic bubbles.” In short, the idea is that we, humans, have certain psychological dispositions that tech companies exploit in their pursuit of profit—and which, mind you, are very effective in generating their profit—but which, nevertheless, cause irreparable damage to civil society. They do this by making people believe (or fail to believe) certain things that, in the absence of this technology, they wouldn’t have believed.
More specifically, the reason why your uncle went from being an annoying libertarian to someone who stormed the Capitol is because, for whatever reason, he once clicked on a YouTube video that exposed him to some dangerous idea. That dangerous idea would have been forgotten and he would have remained ‘normal’ but for two things: first, YouTube’s algorithm automatically suggested a related video connected to this dangerous idea, and second, he didn’t have anything better to do but to watch the next thing that was suggested to him. Thus, he spent night after night, sinking deeper into conspiracy theories, watching video after video, until he finally came to the belief that there’s a shadowy cabal responsible for every bad thing that has happened that is opposed by the hero Donald Trump and his ally, JFK Jr.
This general argument is, I believe, especially compelling because it seems to apply equally well to a different kind of radicalization that hit a different population slightly before 2016: namely, the radicalization of so many young (white) men.
It was perhaps “Gamergate” and the related rise of the alt-right and ‘incels’ that made people aware of this radicalization, but I think the problem goes back earlier by quite a bit. For example, one should neither discount the rise of the “manosphere” nor the importance of the few early websites where such people first gathered (after all, before there were ‘anons’ there were ‘goons’), nor, of course, the fact that misogyny and sexism predate the Internet by a couple thousand years.
I more or less came of age in the early days of the Internet and remember some of this stuff pretty vividly; SomethingAwful was my homepage for quite a few years and I would occasionally dip my toe in 4Chan in high school.1 I don’t want to overplay my participation here or give the impression that I have some kind of insider’s perspective. For example, I never posted on the SA Forums because not only did you have to pay $10 to join, but once you did, it seemed like it was just everyone else who had already joined making fun of you until one of the mods banned you and you had to pay another $10. No thanks. I primarily went to SA because they had funny photoshops and fairly innocuous goofs that I liked. Likewise, I most went to 4Chan because it was the easiest place to find pornography as a teenager (remember, this was at a time when one still had to find free pornography), but even there, it was a mixed bag—the whole thing was so chaotic that you were just as likely to find something you liked as you were to find a crime scene photo. And that kind of tended to kill the mood for me. Even more than SA, 4Chan was just so mean that I couldn’t ever see myself as a part of that “community.”
Regardless, it seemed that this particular ecosystem held something appealing for certain kinds of young men, and that by the mid-2010’s it was transforming and producing some of them into nihilistic, racist, and violent misogynists. At this point, it’s a virtual certainty that every new mass shooter will have spent quite a lot of time on the Chan boards, and that many will have posted their manifestos or streamed their crimes directly to those boards.
In any case, a very similar story could be told about the radicalization of these young men that could be told about the radicalization of their parents and grandparents. Just as Mom and Dad were radicalized through the echo chambers they found themselves due to Facebook and YouTube’s algorithm, so Junior was radicalized through the echo chamber he found himself in on 4Chan and ReturnOfKings. Just as one innocuous video led your conservative uncle down a rabbit hole until he was ready to kill to stop the trafficking of underground mole children, so one article about how few men receive custody over their children led your dumpy nephew down a rabbit hole until he was ready to kill ‘sluts’ who wouldn’t sleep with him.
To reiterate, these dual radicalization make an appeal to the Internet and its workings as an explanation very enticing. Here are two seemingly disparate groups (boomers and millenials) who appear to be rapidly radicalized over a short period of time, and who engaged in broadly the same kind of behavior on their path to radicalization: being chronically online.
That, at least, is the general story as I’ve seen it.
Focusing on the Wrong Place
The standard explanations proffered tend to be ones that focus specifically on the dynamics of epistemic bubbles and echo chambers as they appear online. In turn, the kind of explanations that they provide are ones that show how the presence of these particular structures can turn someone who is, broadly speaking, normal into someone who believes seemingly insane things; e.g., that the Earth is flat, that politicians drink the blood of children, that what’s keeping you from having sex is that you’re too nice or that you don’t have the perfect chin, etc.2 The primary focus, then, is on how, for example, being told the same information over and over by a group of people will make you believe it, or how hearing something you already believe will make you believe it even harder.
Now, maybe this is correct, and I’m not going to argue with any specific explanations given by epistemologists (in part because, as it’s patently obvious, I’m not engaging with anyone’s work on the matter!), but there’s something odd about this kind of focus that I’d like to explain.
In particular, I think that in explaining why these groups became radicalized, we also need to take into account that the vast majority of people did not become radicalized. Now, this wouldn’t need explaining if those who weren’t radicalized weren’t in echo chambers/epistemic bubbles, or, broadly speaking, didn’t use the Internet that much. But I just don’t think this is the case.
First, it seems to me that the vast majority of people who weren’t radicalized engaged in the very same epistemic habits that those who are in an echo chamber are supposed to engage in. Consider, for a moment, whether you and most of the people you know evaluate new pieces of information (or old pieces of information for that matter) by seeking out alternative analyses, different explanations, and eclectic viewpoints before making up your mind. Do you “do your research?”3 Do you try to get the full gamut of political opinions before deciding whether a particular decision was a good one? Do you remain steadfastly agnostic on issues until there’s a sufficient amount of evidence presented by experts?
If you’re like me, the answer is of course not! I get most of my information from one or two places that are usually in line with what I already believe is the correct analysis. I didn’t read both Jacobin and The Federalist before thinking that the overturning of Roe is a really bad thing, and I didn’t check with the Wall Street Journal before deciding that the significantly reducing the EPA’s power to limit carbon emissions will have dire consequences for climate change. Now, doing this might make me in some way less than ideally rational (more on that in a bit), but that doesn’t mean that I’m in any less of an epistemic bubble than someone else who does the same thing but with Q-Anon.4
The point here is that my very strong suspicion is that if we were to catalogue the epistemic habits of the vast majority of people we would find out that they mostly surround themselves with people who broadly agree with them on the same political, scientific, and moral matters, that they get their information from one or two sources that they already expect to agree with, and that they aren’t constantly reevaluating the things that they already believe in. And I think this has pretty much always been the case. I would be very surprised to find out that our great-grandparents, for example, had an eclectic group of friends with different opinions, that they would have spent the time to read multiple newspapers before making up their mind on some topic, or anything of the sort. This is an empirical matter, of course, and I could be wrong about this, but, again, I would be very surprised.
In other words, most people occupy and have always occupied some kind of epistemic bubble or echo chamber, but, crucially, most people do not and have not become radicalized.
This could granted while still insisting that the difference between those people who became radicalized and those who didn’t has something to do with their rationality. That is, those who were radicalized were somehow less rational, or less willing to look at the facts, weigh the evidence, or consider opposing views than those who weren’t radicalized.5 In this respect, the effects of echo chambers might be a bit like alcohol: alcohol is addictive because of the way its properties interact with our psychology, but its not true that everyone who uses alcohol (even everyone who uses alcohol frequently) will develop an addiction to alcohol—of all the people who drink, only some develop dependencies while others can maintain control over their use. Likewise, even though each of us might be in some echo chamber or other, some people (because of their irrationality) are simply more susceptible to their pull than others. They become radicalized, while the rest of us just continue as usual.
I’m skeptical of this explanation as well, in part for the same reason as above: I just don’t see widely divergent epistemic practices between radicalized and non-radicalized people. It’s true, I see the latter believing fewer crazy things, but not because they’re much more adept at weighing the evidence—the reason most people believe that the Earth is round or that politicians don’t drink blood is not because they’ve considered both positions thoroughly, but, I believe, because it’s just not worth it to even consider this stuff.6 Granted, sometimes knowing what is and isn’t worth looking into is a mark of rationality, but I suspect that most non-radicalized people end up being rational on this metric entirely by accident.
I’ll return to this point in a second, but before I do that, we have one last factor to consider: the amount of time spent on the Internet. If we grant that the difference between being radicalized and not being radicalized isn’t a factor of whether one is or isn’t in an echo chamber, and if it’s not a factor of whether one is or isn’t rational, it’s still possible that the primary difference is to be explained in the amount of time that one spends online. Here, I think there’s a notable difference. In the first place, I think even though most people are clearly everyday Internet users, not everyone spends the same amount of time on the Internet. Consequently, there’s a great difference in the amount of time spent in our respective echo chambers. To use myself as an example, even if I do get my news from only a few sources, I don’t remain on the comment section of those newspapers and talk with other people who also read them. Likewise, even if I’m part of such-and-such Facebook group, I rarely post in those groups. I’m simply not an agent in those spaces.7 By contrast, I think that a great deal of people who are radicalized do become agents in such spaces. In fact, I think it’s this willingness to be active online in these ways that both explains what unites the radicalized boomers and the radicalized young men of my generation, as well as what makes a difference between those who are radicalized and those who are not.
However, this takes us to a further question: why does this happen to some people rather than others? What is it that the Internet promises for some groups of people that isn’t as appealing to others.
I want to answer this question by starting from a place that might seem a bit odd but which, I promise, will make a bit more sense by the end. I’ve written about this previously (there’s a chapter of it in my dissertation), but it’s worth running through it again.
I believe that we make sense of our lives and our actions through the kind of narratives we construct for ourselves. In turn, these narratives are constructed around the question of who we are, or what kind of character we have.8 What guides our actions, what makes a difference in how we deliberate, and what makes certain options appealing on the one hand or unthinkable on the other is, to a very large degree, a question of whether we do or can see ourselves in a particular light. Given that one thinks of oneself under such-and-such a label and as having (or “playing”) a certain character, certain ways of acting or ways of reasoning appear as necessary, others as forbidden, and the vast majority of other options as simply compatible.
A simple example will do to illustrate what I have in mind: a doctor takes care of the bodies of sick people and restores them back to health—a person who is unwilling to do this is simply not a doctor and is certainly not one at the moment at which they they refuse to do so.9 Thus, given that one takes oneself to be a doctor, one must engage in this activity (and a whole slew of others besides). On the same grounds, given that one is a doctor, one is also forbidden from (purposefully, let’s say) making someone sicker. The former imperative appears as a requirement, the latter as something forbidden.10 Now, these imperatives are clearly hypothetical ones since one can obviously give up on being a doctor. Once that’s done, the force of the imperatives disappears as well; this is why the vast majority of us don’t have the imperative to improve the health of others in the same way.11
Given that this is the case, there are some cases in which one might find oneself facing a serious dilemma: either one does/refuses what is required/forbidden to do given the kind of character they occupy (in our case, the character is that of a doctor), or one gives up that character either temporarily or permanently. In some cases, the dilemma is resolved easily and one is either able to shed their character and give up the narrative they’ve been using to make sense of their lives, or they’re able to maintain it and do what it requires. In other cases, however, losing one’s character comes at a significant cost.12 This is because by definition, this loss also comes with a loss of a narrative that is used to structure and make sense of one’s life.
Let me use a personal example that I may have used elsewhere: I think of myself as an aspiring philosopher. The narrative that accompanies having this kind of character imposes a few (though not very many) restrictions on what such a person does and doesn’t do, how they present themselves, who they talk to, how they reason, write, argue, etc. I implicitly (though sometimes quite explicitly) use this narrative to structure my life, how I spend my free time, what things I read, and so on (“Come on, Pavel—real philosophers get published. Get to writing!”). As such, it is certainly an important part of how I make my way around the world and what makes my actions within it sensible to me. Nevertheless, given the bizarre option of, say, never speaking to my friends and family again so that I can retain that narrative, I’d gladly give it up.13 Now, in doing this, I imagine I would suffer—not only because I wouldn’t be able to do something I still enjoy quite a bit (being a philosopher that is), but also because in the absence of some other narrative that provides such a structure to my life, I would be at a loss as to what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m confident that in the absence of some positive answer to who I am—however inchoate—life would become quite literally absurd for me. And I’m confident that this would be the case even if I also thought that the decision to give up on this particular narrative would be a good one. Something would have to fill that vacuum that was created by the loss of the narrative.
Crucially, I think that in some quite important cases, whether one is capable of maintaining a certain narrative and of having a certain character is not up to the individual. In the example above, I presented matters as a kind of bizarre choice that I had to make. However, it’s clear that the same kind of absurdity and suffering can come about not because the individual in question chooses to violate the conditions that allow them to maintain a narrative, but because external conditions foreclose one of those options.
To use the same example as earlier, the narrative of the aspiring philosopher can become untenable for me by the fact that for whatever reason, I simply cannot live as a philosopher. This could be for very good reasons (both for the profession and for myself); after all, I could just be too shitty at philosophy to make a living at it! But it could also be for purely material reasons: e.g., lack of tenure track lines, gutting of department funding, an inability to find adjunct work that pays enough, a serious medical condition, a shifting political landscape, etc. Crucially, regardless of what the cause is, I believe the psychological impact of having one’s narrative collapse is more or less the same and presents a moment of crisis that must be resolved by the individual facing it.14
Now, I’ve been focusing on myself here, but the point I want to make is a more general one. In particular, I believe that the psychology I’m describing here is not unique to me: I think a great deal of people operate with implicit narratives, that these narratives come with corresponding imperatives that structure and make sense of our lives, that sometimes the loss of such narratives is due to material conditions outside of the individual’s control, and that such a loss can bring about a fundamental crisis in that individual’s life. As mentioned, I also believe that, for the most part, such crises require some resolution—it’s very hard to live in the desert of the absurd even if Camus is right that such a life is possible.
But what does this have to do with radicalization on the Internet?
The Internet: A Glut of Narratives
My suggestion is that the radicalization that we’re seeing both in the angry young men who inhabit the manosphere and in the angry Boomers who have taken a sharp reactionary right turn is, broadly speaking, a result of an endemic loss of character and an accompanying collapse of narratives. Furthermore, I believe that this collapse is generally not due to any particular choices that the individuals in these demographics are making, but is rooted in the shifting material conditions that have made the kind of narratives they have been using simply untenable.
I won’t get into the specifics of the narratives that each group would have used since this is an empirical project, but I do want to say something suggestive and hand-wavey as to what their content might be. In particular, I think that both the angry young men of the Internet and the reactionary Boomers had a sense that they were, or at some point they were going to be causally efficacious with respect to the things that matter to them.
The world was supposed to look a certain way so as to allow them to do or be involved with certain things that were important to them and it just wasn’t panning out that way. All sorts of boogeymen was brought out of the woodwork to explain why this was the case: the Communists, the Socialists, the immigrants, the gays, uppity women, inner-city Blacks, the Chinese, terrorists, etc. Of course, all of this was—and continues to be—just bigoted ideology that fails to grasp at the root of the problem (i.e., the solidification of the neo-liberal capitalist consensus in the second half of the 20th century), so none of the ghosts that were conjured to explain the mismatch between expectation and reality did any explanatory work. But that’s not important since the first thing that was felt by these groups was not the need for an explanation, but that very mismatch between expectation and reality. It is this first pang that sets people off on the search for an explanation, the veracity of which is, for the most part, irrelevant—any port in a storm will do.
The important thing, I believe, was that a great deal of such people relied on a certain kind of narrative of who they were or who they were supposed to be which turned out to be untenable. It’s impossible to think of yourself as “man of the house” if, on the one hand, you still live with your parents and dropped out of community college, and equally as hard to do so on the other hand if you can’t make your mortgage payments and your disrespectful kids refuse to see you as an authority in how to live well.15
Again, I believe the explanation for why this happens is a material one, but some of their effect are not merely such. One of these effects is the crisis of a collapsed narrative in which the question of who one is—the answer to which structures one’s relation to the world—lacks an answer.
So, what does this have to do with the Internet?
As mentioned, I strongly believe that the position in which one lacks this kind of organizing structure is an untenable one. It is a vacuum that must be filled by something—anything—so that one’s life and the actions that comprise it are not simply arbitrary things done to continue breathing until the next day.16
I also believe that one of the things that the Internet provides, which has absolutely nothing to do with echo chambers or the consumption of media, is a glut of potential characters that one can come to embody—a never-ending stream of potential narratives that one can adopt, and a social context in which to develop these narratives.
I think a lot of people tend to forget that a lot of the Internet as it appeared in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was a playful place. For example, my earliest experiences were of going to role playing boards and chatting with strangers online (the SA forums and 4chan came in high school for me). Coupled with the fact that most of these places relied on an element of anonymity, the Internet provided an excellent ground for experimenting and playing with the very question of who one is. I believe that for very many people, it still serves such a function. In other words, it is a place where one can come to try and answer the question of who one is that provides much more freedom than the actual world.
I also think that it is this function that is responsible for radicalization rather than echo chambers or epistemically irresponsible ways of consuming media.
Here’s a succinct way of putting my fanciful hypothesis: certain people (and groups of people) have structured their lives around narratives and characters that have proven to be untenable. The collapse of these narratives has rendered their lives absurd. This absurdity is deeply unpleasant, and in the long term psychologically unsustainable. As such, there’s a strong incentive for individuals to find some kind of narrative—any kind of narrative—that can serve the same organizing structure that their collapsed narrative served. The Internet is almost uniquely structured to provide people with a space in which they can explore narratives and resolve their absurdity. Crucially, the kind of narratives that one encounters in online spaces are not necessarily “good ones” or ones that have to correspond to “the facts” or political realities or anything of the sort. This is because their function is not to reflect reality, but to provide a structure through which one can come to see their actions (online and in real life) as unified.
Thus, one becomes a Q-Anon follower or an incel because the very narratives that each provides (‘digital soldier’ and ‘unlovable loser’) serve the function of removing the absurdity.17
If this is correct, then I think it can explain some things that the appeal to echo chambers or the charge of irrationality simply can’t do. In the first place, it explains why so many people fail to become radicalized despite the fact that they are no more rational than their peers and despite the fact that both the radicalized and the non-radicalized have the same epistemic practices. In short, people who already have a stable narrative that has not collapsed will find little appealing in the alternative narratives that are to be found on the Internet. If I already have a way though which to make sense of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, then the fact that some shithead white supremacist can promise me an alternative way of structuring my life is not tempting in the least. Indeed, I suspect that I could read their zines of newspapers or whatever and never become radicalized. To reiterate, this is not because I’m just so damn rational or because I just know that they believe false things, but because that narrative holds no appeal for me—it serves no psychological function.
At the same time, I think it can explain why it’s so difficult to convince people who are deeply entrenched in these radical online movements by trying to convince them that the grounds on which they hold their beliefs is false. As anyone who has ever talked to any of member of such groups, pointing out that, for example, the JFK assassination is one of the most publicly documented killings of all time or that we quite literally know that the Earth isn’t flat because we’ve seen it from space (among other things), does virtually nothing. Likewise, getting these people to read scientific journals or different newspapers or whatever won’t make a difference either. This is, once again, because the best that the truth can do in such cases is to lead to another collapsed narrative, and back into absurdity. Despite what some people (and Ben Shapiro) think, a life of just facts is not a life at all! What’s needed is not a pure appeal to the truth of the matter, but if such an appeal is made a tall, it needs to be one that at the same time comes with the opportunity of adopting a new narrative.18
Finally, I think this hypothesis gives us some suggestions about who is most likely to be radicalized and when. In particular, we should expect this to happen to people (and populations) who either a) still have not found a stable narrative that organizes their lives, or b) experience a collapse of a narrative that used to serve this function but does no more. We should not expect this to happen for individuals who have a strong and clear notion of who they are and what they’re doing, including individuals who have pretty shitty or unpleasant narratives.
That being said, I do think that there’s one thing that my hypothesis can’t explain and that I need to think about more seriously: namely, my proposal doesn’t explain why the Internet seems to be so good at producing incels and Q-annoners rather than, say, furries or bird-watchers. After all, if the Internet’s function here is of providing a glut of narratives, then we shouldn’t expect to see something like a proliferation of narratives rather than a selective set that is overrepresented.
I have two things in response. The first is that I’m not exactly sure that there hasn’t been such a proliferation. For very many people, the Internet has been a good thing precisely because it has given them a sense of community and a purpose precisely when their narratives have collapsed. I know, for example, that tumblr was at a time a great haven for the LGBT+ community and that it served as a site to explore and develop how one understands oneself outside of the majority cis/het world. As such, it is possible that the Internet spaces that have produced radicals are simply the loudest and most attention grabbing (in no small part because they’re also the ones that involve violence—whatever conservatives want to say about the queer community, it is not a violent one and never has been).
The second is that it also seems possible that certain narratives are more appealing to some people because they contain elements of the collapsed narratives that they used to subscribe to or which they would have subscribed to. The “man of the house” narrative I referred to earlier, for example, contains explicitly sexist elements (as do narratives about the nuclear family, the loss of tradition, etc.) so it seems reasonable to think that someone who had subscribed to that narrative or who tried to make sense of themselves through it would be more amenable to adopting an alternative narrative that involved familiar elements than ones that did not. If, in turn, the majority of dominant narratives involve racist, sexist, or xenophobic elements, then their collapse might push people into nearby familiar territory rather than somewhere completely different.
All of this is, of course, speculative.
Okay, this has become very, very long. I’ve already gotten the note from substack that it’s too long for an email (whoops!), so I want to close out quickly by saying a few things. The first is that I don’t want anyone to come out with the impression that I’m being too sympathetic to incels or neo-Nazis or Q-Annoners or any such group. My goal here is not to engender sympathy for the poor men and women who have had their narrative collapse. It’s perhaps harsh to say, but I don’t feel bad for them. At the same time, I don’t think we should dismiss them as aberrations or as irrational people who are somehow fundamentally different (or just plain dumber) from everyone else. I don’t believe they are and I believe that the main difference between us and them is good fortune—we happen to think of ourselves in ways that still make serve a psychological function. Lastly, I think as is perhaps obvious, that the we would be much more successful in countering the kind of sexist, racist, and far-right radicalization by focusing on the material conditions that produce it and by providing alternative narratives for who people can make sense of themselves and their place in the world, rather than by wringing our hands about how echo chambers have destroyed our democracy.
I also happen to think that the current political system as dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties and which is completely in the throes of monopoly capitalism is incapable of focusing on this task. Thus, it will be up to us to do the heavy work or to accept an increasingly brutalized world.
Socialism or barbarism, baby!
“Early days” is of course, not an accurate description of that time—the internet had been a while for a long time before that. It’s perhaps best to say that this was the early days of the internet being used by normal, non-specialists—that time period when it first became possible for most kids to use the internet and to know how to use it better than their parents did.
There’s something quite odd about treating all of these claims as equally irrational or irrational in the same way. While having a patently false claim about the shape of the Earth and having a patently false claim about the moral status of women or minorities are both examples of irrationality, it doesn’t follow that both kinds of irrationality are to be explained through he same process, nor does it seem to me that we should expect them to operate through the same process.
Ironically, it seems that more frequently than not, it’s people who claim to have done extensive research that are the most radicalized. Whether what they mean by ‘research’ and what other people mean by it is the same thing is up for debate, of course.
I suppose there’s a further question of whether I’m a radical by virtue of my Marxism, but even if we say that I, too, am radicalized in some form or fashion, I can promise you that this isn’t the case because I don’t read the Wall Street Journal (indeed, some of the things that have pushed me significantly more into the Marxist sphere over the last decade have had to do with my exposure to really bad conservative takes).
I worry that too many people tend to go in this direction and that especially when it comes to politics, people fail to see substantial disagreements about ends as failures of rationality. I’ll give you just one personal example: after the overturning of Roe last week I saw a number of posts from very educated people talking about how people need to understand how the American government works before blaming the Democratic party for anything. The charge was, of course, that anyone who would take something that Republicans did with a conservative court to be a fault of the Democrats was being uninformed and irrational and that they should learn the facts and understand the workings of the machine before they blame the only good guys in the room. What these people fail to take seriously is the idea that one could very well understand how the system works and still both a) blame the party that supposedly represents them for not being able to prevent a colossal disaster, and b) take issue with the structure of a system that would produce such a disaster. This is not an instance of being irrational, it’s a moment of confrontation over what one is willing to tolerate and under what conditions.
I also refuse to use Twitter. For me, Twitter is just the comments section of the internet put broadly. I have nothing but disdain for that website and I hope lightning destroys its servers once and for all.
Here, I’m using character both in the sense that one can have a good or bad character, and in the sense that stories have different kinds of characters. In other words, to have a character involves both ascribing some kind of structure to one’s life and some evaluative dimension. The two can come apart: I might be a bastard by virtue of being a thief, but I’m still a thief, and a thief has things to do.
The point I’m making is very similar to the one that Thrasymachus makes in Book I of the Republic: “When someone makes an error in the treatment of patients, do you call him a doctor in regard to that very error? Or when someone makes an error in accounting, do you call him an accountant in regard to that very error in calculation? I think that we express ourselves in words that, taken literally do say that a doctor is in error, or an accountant, or a grammarian. But each of these, insofar as he is what we call him, never errs, so that, according to the precise accounts (and you are a stickler for precise accounts), no craftsman ever errs. Its’ when his knowledge fails him that he makes an error, and in regard to that error, he is no craftsman.”
The question of, say, what shoes a doctor should wear don’t appear as imperatives at all (within limits, of course—shoes that would prevent a doctor from doing what they must do would be forbidden, but others, fine).
We might still think that we still have the imperative not to purposefully make others sick on other, perhaps categorical grounds, but I don’t think we have to go fully Kantian here. Though, just as an aside, it is precisely this part of Kant (or rather, my particular fanciful interpretation thereof) that I find appealing in his moral system: if there is a certain way in which, psychologically speaking, we must think of ourselves (i.e. qua rational agents), and if having that character comes with certain requirements, then those requirements would have a special kind of force for us. Morality via rationality might have this kind of force. I’m still not sure that this would make moral requirements categorical since it seems that one always has the option of, well, suicide, but that’s another matter.
In any case, please, if you know any Kant, don’t take this little blurb to be what I think Kant says and I certainly don’t teach him this way when I teach Ethics.
Maintaining one’s character can, of course, also have incredibly high costs. Just ask any martyr to confirm.
This is not as bizarre of an option as it might seem given the realities of the job market and the expectation that one be able to move to remote places to pick up one-semester underpaid adjunct jobs.
I don’t want to overstate this point. Some explanations make both certain choices and certain things that aren’t chosen easier to swallow. The absurdity and suffering I have in mind here is separate from the kind of accompanying shame that might come with knowing that one has been deemed incompetent by one’s peers. That is a kind of delightful extra layer of suffering on top of the problem of losing the means of structuring one’s life. Even someone who willingly abandons a character, for example, might still struggle with the fact that so much of their life has been centered on living with the kind of narrative that it accompanies and be adrift in the absurd for some time.
The kind of financial and life advice that older folks give to younger folks is so notoriously bad that it doesn’t warrant more than a brief mention here. Their advice is bad, however, because it belongs to an entirely different time, and an entirely different political and economical environment. It is, quite simply, completely out of touch with reality.
I believe that one of the biggest problems with the current political economy is that it can’t provide this answer. On the one hand it says “be whatever you want to be” (or more insidiously, “be yourself!”), but on the other hand, materially speaking, it shows you that you can only be a very limited set of things.
This may sound strange to someone since the narrative of ‘unlovable loser’ seems as untenable as anything else. However, the point I’m making here is a Nietzschean one, broadly speaking. One doesn’t have to have a narrative that makes them out to be a hero—one can just as well work with a narrative that tells them they’re a sinner unworthy of God’s love as with a narrative that they’re God’s most perfect creation. To ram two of Nietzsche’s claims together, a person would rather have a nihilistic narrative than no narrative at all, and even if the nihilism causes suffering, what we have a problem with is not suffering as such, but unexplained suffering.
Some narratives are especially good at this. The Christian convert narrative is a great one for this purpose: “Look, the truth is that you’re a sinner and that’s why you do all these things and why so many bad things happen in life. But if you accept this truth you’ll see not just how everything else that’s bad in your life fits in with your sin, but also why everything else in the future that will happen to you will also be compatible.”