Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Young Racists and the Internet

Interesting long essay by Dylan Matthews on the "alt right," covering everything from the Pat Buchanan campaign to internet monarchists. I don't take most of  this very seriously; most of what Matthews describes seems to me like angry young men mouthing off. One thing that interested me was something that I have written about before as it relates to my 19- and 23-year-old sons. This is the use of racism and sexism as ways of rebelling against the "religion" of liberal niceness within which most middle class Americans are raised.

This is professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and co-author Allum Bokhari:
Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish "Shlomo Shekelburg" to "Remove Kebab," an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents … Young people perhaps aren’t primarily attracted to the alt-right because they’re instinctively drawn to its ideology: they’re drawn to it because it seems fresh, daring and funny, while the doctrines of their parents and grandparents seem unexciting, overly-controlling and overly-serious.
And the internet monarchist who calls himself Mencius Moldbug:
If you spend 75 years building a pseudo-religion around anything – an ethnic group, a plaster saint, sexual chastity or the Flying Spaghetti Monster – don’t be surprised when clever 19-year-olds discover that insulting it is now the funniest f***ing thing in the world. Because it is.
This is also my impression; when the main piety impressed on young people is tolerance, many young rebels will flout their impiety through stereotyping. Racist and sexist jokes have become the new blasphemy.

On the other hand this sort of thing can have real world effects. Consider Gamergate, which erupted when some women who work in the video gaming industry complained online about sexism in the gaming world. This produced an outpouring of abuse from young male gamers who were basically just mad that feminists had invaded their playground. The controversy was not really resolved, but the angry male gamers never backed down and that feels like a victory to some of them. Yiannopoulos:
GamerGate is remarkable — and attracts the interest of people like me — because it represents perhaps the first time in the last decade or more that a significant incursion has been made in the culture wars against guilt-mongerers, nannies, authoritarians and far-Left agitators.
So the anger of these "racists" and "sexists" is not really directed toward blacks and women, but toward scolds who don't find their ranting funny. But where does telling racist jokes blend over into racism? If the anti-feminism of gamer culture makes it hard for female designers to do their jobs, "boys will be boys" may not be much of a comfort to them. As for the racism of American police, we all know where that leads.

There is, I believe, nothing more important in our society than tolerance; a diverse nation cannot be fair to its people without a very large dose of it. And yet purity is an impossible demand, in tolerance as in anything else. The harder we try to teach tolerance, the harder certain contrarians will push back, and the more delight young rebels will take in mocking its pieties.

There is no simple, absolute solution to this conundrum any more than there is to most deep problems. Freedom means nothing if it does not include the freedom to give offense; and yet no society will be worth living in if all we do is go around offending each other. We all have to strive for balance, in our own actions and in our reactions to provocateurs. We must work hard to draw lines between what we can wave off, which to me is the vast mass of all this online nonsense, and what we need call out and oppose. We need more equanimity, less in-the-moment anger or excitement, more real tolerance of different kinds of people and less outrage at anyone who disagrees with us. In the words of my favorite Old English poem,
Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.

That passed, and so will this.


G. Verloren said...

...to "Remove Kebab," an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.

Oh wow, no, that's completely wrong. Talk about your failures to understand the nature of the joke!

So there were three Bosnian soldiers in the early 90s who made a musical video tribute to Radovan Karadžić, notorious war criminal. About a decade later the video got dredged up and put online.

The larger context of the soldiers patriotically supporting their monstrous dictator was very quickly lost online, however - the video is not in English, and so the language barrier robbed the video's contents of most of their intended meaning. What was left was therefor largely comical - in particular, a segment with three grim faced, dour commandos playing an upbeat Balkan dance tune on an accordian, trumpet, and vintage electronic keyboard.

The video was quickly pared down from a 4 minute long tribute, down to a mere 18 second soundbite consisting of just the most essential audio-visual absurdity. The lack of context or explanation further reinforced the comedic value of this very brief clip, and the short length allowed for it to be shared readily, eliciting laughter purely from the absurdity of the audio visual disparity.

To confuse this with making a joke -about- the Bosnian genocide is kind of astonishing. That's like watching The Producers and assuming that the humor is about the realities of the Holocaust, rather than about the absurdity of depicting Hitler as played by a beatnik hippy strung out on LSD.

And to compare the humor behind "Remove Kebab" to the actual violence and abuse of the "Gamergate" fiasco is to confuse two entirely different behaviors, neither of which is comparable to "rebelious kids trying to shock their parents".

pootrsox said...

There is a long-form article in this week's Time about the alt.right folks, and it's not youngsters rebelling against us old folks. I recommend reading it. These are serious, we're gonna take over America folks- and they see Trump as their open sesame.

John said...

As I said, Matthews covers all kinds of stuff. I just find the "serious" alt-righters laughable. They know zero about actual non-democratic governments. For example, they seem to think that appointing a strong man would put an end to politics and the corruption that goes with it, when experience shows that dictatorships are often more, not less, beholden to the interest groups that keep them in power. Consider the regime in Egypt, which stayed in power for decades by bribing army officers and other officials by letting them do corrupt business.

G., you and I may think that Gamergate was something other than a foolish prank. But my sons would tell you that of course it was a joke, the main point of which was to mock feminists and grown-ups who don't know when they're just being trolled. This is exactly what fascinates and concerns me about this issue, the way hurtful things can be said, and offensive political points advanced, in a way that commits no one because many of the participants regard the whole thing as a farce. Matthews thinks Mencius Moldbug is really an authoritarian; my sons think he is a comedian. Trump fits into this in interesting ways, because while some alt right guys may really think he would be a good leader, most of the people on 4chan just find him amusing, especially the way he upsets their parents so much. (The median 4chan poster is 15.) Trump is one of the points at which the joke slides into reality in a very clear way. My sons -- sorry to keep citing them, but they are the only young men I know really well -- thought he was a great joke until he started winning primaries, at which point they let it be known that they oppose him.

Millions of young men think mocking women who complain about sexism is absolutely the funniest thing ever. When you say, "that isn't funny, that really hurts people" they laugh even harder. I believe that trying to engage them online just makes everything worse.

G. Verloren said...

No offense to you or to them, but I would posit that your sons are simply misinformed and ignorant of the whole situation.

They're victims in the game of "telephone", stationed toward the end of the line, receiving only the distortions handed to them by those closest to them. They hear about and experience Gamergate only through the lens of their closest peers, who themselves possess a fundamentally flawed understanding of the situation for similar reasons.

When you are only tangentially aware of a complicated issue, and you get all your information third hand and prepackaged with certain opinions and assumptions, it's hard to have an accurate understanding of what is going on. To many young people on the internet, much of their "news" about events like this comes to them filtered through channels such as Facebook, miscellaneous web forums of all kinds, and even through text and voice chat in video games. They're given a summary of a summary of an editorial of an oblique reference - and the distortion inherent to such a convoluted line of miscommunication renders the situation absurd.

In some ways it is actually somewhat akin to the "Remove Kebab" phenomenon. Young people encounter these twisted stories about events which sound to them like absurd, senseless drama due to their having been robbed of proper information and context. And so their reaction is to mock that perceived absurdity. From their misinformed point of view, it sounds like everyone involved is being ridiculous, and therefor deserving of mockery, and thus it all seems like a big joke.

I've met people who innocently assumed the "Remove Kebab" video was a cleverly made fake - that it was so absurd in appearance and presentation that it must be the work of some bored students who got their hands on some surplus military fatigues and made a quick nonsensical video clip and ran it through some video editing filters to make it look like a '90s VHS recording, as a kind of almost Dadaist jokery and randomness.

And who can blame them? In addition to the lack of a larger context for the goofy looking clip, the actual reality of the original video that spawned it is, from external points of view, almost completely insane. Even for those familiar with it through study, the kind of extreme nationalistic fervor that inspires hardened soldiers to play jaunty folk tunes in celebration of their horrifically murderous leaders can be rather hard to wrap one's head around. If you've never been in a comparable situation, it can be hard to conceptualize that kind of behavior and motivation - to an outside observer, it is in many ways almost fundamentally absurd.

And faced with the absurd, we humans have an instinctive reflex to try to devise a quick and simple explanation for it. We're strongly tempted to just think, "It must just be a joke, no one would ever seriously do this for real." And until we're faced with evidence that our quick rationalization doesn't hold up, and given a real reason to question it, we tend not to think too hard about it, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

David said...

G., I think it's a little high-handed to simply dismiss the understanding of an event given by a participant in the event. If participants and/or witnesses to the event think it was a joke, then that is significant, and not simply of their misunderstanding. That doesn't mean the event was a joke tout simple, and it certainly doesn't meant the butts of the joke appreciated the humor, or didn't find it in fact extremely painful, humiliating, unjust, and hateful, or that the victims are wrong in their perceptions. But it's an important datum, and not just about how mistaken or deceived the persons whose perceptions you disagree with are.