Highlights From The Comments On Culture Wars
Some of the best comments were on the history of 4Chan. Mr. Doolittle writes:
The rise of 4chan is actually an interesting story of its own. A large chunk of the early user base came from another site called somethingawful.com. As you may expect from the name, somethingawful was a place where a mixture of ironic and maybe-not-ironic terrible things could be said for comedy sake. If you're immature and like edgy humor, it was a great place to be. (The site probably exists still, but as a shadow of its former edgy hilarity, as internet culture caught up with its redeemable qualities and it became a cesspool).
Up until 2008, there was a strong mix of both left and right posters, and the site didn't have much of an ideological slant. It was happy to make fun of the failings of both left and right culture. The Obama/McCain election ended up breaking that down, because a significant number of posters bet that they would accept permanent banning from the site if their candidate lost. Since Obama won, a big chunk of the conservative/right posters were banned. Many/most ended up on 4chan and set the seed for more right-leaning ironic humor, which is what the site became known for.
I had never heard this story before and it sounds just ridiculous enough to potentially be true.
And Fabian writes:
new/ (the /pol/ predecessor) and /pol/ have always been far right. What really changed is /pol/ becoming by far the most active board on 4chan ( that and /b/ losing relevance and not having stuff like Project Chanology anymore). I don't feel like non-political boards like /sp/ have changed much in tone in the last +10 years.
Several people chided me for ignoring the role of transgender issues in the culture wars. For example, Stephen F:
A couple people mentioned this above, but in what sounded to me like a very take-sides sort of way, so let me say as neutrally as possible: it would be interesting to add the rise of intense debates over trans issues to this analysis. (While Scott said "gender" issues, he didn't mean trans issues, but sexism issues; trans issues are a different set, as far as culture-wars goes.) My no-N-grams-to-back-it-up sense is that World War T has been heating up for several years with no signs of a slowdown. But it'd be interesting to see some real numbers on this if anyone has the chops. And then to figure out how this integrates, or doesn't, into the above analysis.
I agree this was an omission. Worse, I think I swept it aside because it didn’t fit my thesis; it doesn’t really have a clear upswing-downswing cycle. Here’s the Google Trends graph for transgender (as usual, with 10-month rolling average):
Many commenters felt like trans discourse was “taking over”, would be the “next big thing”, or was otherwise spiraling out of control. The graph shows that we’re still below 2015 levels of trans discourse, although catching up fast. Graphs for related terms like “transphobia” and “terf” were more clearly growing, although I don’t know how much to trust those - I could be thinking of them precisely because they’re the terms that are more used now. Otherwise I’m not really sure what to make of this.
Three-Edged Sword writes:
Feminist groups online have generally pivoted to focus on trans issues. I think this is the missing part of the analysis. I was a reader of the feminist website The Toast until it was shut down. The commentariat migrated to a group Slack. The Slack focused on all women's issues at first, but, as time went on, it became more and more focused on trans issues. Eventually, it got to the point where members were forbidden from using terms as trivial as "lady parts" to refer to their own body parts, to saying more weighty things such as "cis women are oppressed differently from trans women, and their experiences are not always equivalent." A lot of women fled the group. It eventually tore itself to pieces over moderation disputes. I have not found any feminist spaces in the last few years that do not center trans issues. Groups that do focus on cis women's issues are often banned from their platforms. I think this is why you see the decline in the use of feminism terms.
This sounds a little like the TERF-branded analysis that trans people took over women’s spaces, but I think you could also take it in a different direction, the same point I was trying to make with the section on “white feminism”. Women are not particularly oppressed when compared to groups that are more oppressed than them. This makes it kind of hard to sustain a feminist movement; you’re selecting for people who have accepted the social justice paradigm where issues should be about how oppressed relevant groups are, but you also want to focus your energies on a less-than-maximally-oppressed group. This makes it easy for other people to chide and hijack you, and it sounds like feminism keeps getting chided and hijacked.
Another very common complaint was that I missed an obvious reason why socialism didn’t take off the same way other cultural trends had: entrenched interests were naturally against it. For example, Philosophy Bear:
Socialism wasn't allowed to beat wokeness, like feminism beat atheism and anti-racism beat feminism, because unlike the latter conflicts, the powers that be actually had a stake, and they used their control over things like legacy publications, news media etc. to pump up wokeness as a shield against socialism.
Forgive me if I now sound bitter. I shouldn't, of course, be bitter, since it's exactly what I would expect to happen based on my broadly Marxist outlook. Why get angry at the object falling under the power of gravity, as it always had to?
Lots of commenters made this same point, and I agree it’s pretty plausible. But I’m not yet 100% convinced, for a few reasons.
First, how does the wokeness vs. socialism calculus in self-interested people really come out? White male executives might reasonably worry that if their companies became super-woke, they could get cancelled, or miss out on promotions that go to minorities instead. On the other hand, it’s very easy for the same white male executive to say “Oh, yeah, there should be Medicare for all and higher taxes on the rich”, knowing that all this will get abstracted over the whole country, and his own pronouncement will earn him signaling points but not really affect the chance of those things happening too much. A lot of socialists accept as an axiom that people can coordinate class-warfare, but I’m still on the fence about this.
Second, while I agree that Doritos isn’t going to invent special flavors to celebrate May Day, most of the portrayals I’ve seen of socialism in media and academia have been broadly positive. They haven’t been quite as fawning to socialists as to woke people, but overall the effect still seems pro- rather than anti-; articles like this one seem more the rule than the exception. Even when the mainstream says something mildly negative about socialism, like here, nobody would confuse it for something they’re actually against, like the border wall or something. If this is the best that the powers-that-be can do in terms of class warfare to defend their position, it’s pretty pathetic.
Matthew has a simpler theory:
The video of George Floyd being murdered by a cop. That was international news. It was unambiguous. Now the death of one person from police violence in the abstract is not a worse problem than the deaths of hundreds from inadequate access to healthcare, for example, but socialist causes didn't have a viral video.
I’d treated it as kind of mysterious that the George Floyd protests erupted when they did, as intensely as they did; anti-racism talk was trending down, police had been killing black people in approximately equally bad ways since forever, it seemed weird that this was the spark that ignited a conflagration. I think I figured maybe it was just that everyone was on edge because of the pandemic. But several commenters pointed out that no, the George Floyd video was a new low in terms of obvious, enraging, terrifying police brutality.
I … have to admit that I didn’t watch the video. I heard the summary, I don’t have much of a stomach for horrible things, I figured I didn’t have to watch this poor man die. But apparently the video is really emotionally jarring, and just hearing that sometimes cops are cruel or black people die in unfair ways is a lot less jarring than watching it happen at great length. So maybe it was just a really moving video.
But John S isn’t sure:
Rodney King was just beaten up on camera, not killed. And he was beaten up at a time when #BLM wasn't a thing, when the internet was barely a thing. But *sixty-three people died* in the resulting riots. I don't think all the violence in all the #BLM protests/riots/whatever adds up to even half that. Then Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed, and there was some protesting and rioting but nothing like Rodney King, then we got a dozen or two more incidents that were all over the map in terms of both video quality and egregiousness of injustice and we got levels of protest/rioting that were all over the map but uncorrelated with the cause, then we got George Floyd and for some reason we got more rioting that we'd seen since Rodney King (but not even close to that).
This defies any simple explanation of the form, "but this injustice was really bad so the riots were really bad" or "this video was really graphic so the riots were really bad". It really does look to be as inscrutably quasi-random as "internet fashion, go figure". If there's some hidden order to it and someone can figure it out and explain it in a manner that has real predictive utility, that would be helpful. Just-so stories to explain the last cycle, not so helpful.
Lots of people had thought about where the “creepiness” and “how do you ask women out?” discourse had gone. Here’s Carson:
I have never asked out a woman I didn't know without very strong prior context. The reason is exactly because I internalized all of this "creepiness" messaging, heard all the stories from my female friends about guys hitting on them when it was unwanted and it making them feel uncomfortable, and never wanted to do that. Prior to 2016 I had only ever gotten into relationships with people I had known for more than a year, and probably had spent hours talking to.
After 2016 (when my gf of 4 years and I broke up), I exclusively went on dates using dating apps. I have never asked out a coworker, a girl at a bar, or a girl at the gym, and I don't know a single couple in my peer group who met that way either. For some reason, portrayal of dating in the media has yet to catch up. Dating apps are a godsend, because you don't have to worry about whether or not a girl who also swiped right on you is maybe interested in going on a date, or at least getting to know you with that context in mind. They are, and it's in the subcontext.
Dating apps have their own slew of problems, but at least as far as I can see in my social bubble, asking out randos in bars or clubs, or other public spaces is deader than dead. Long live Tinder.
When I was dating more, I had some success using OKCupid, where most people would write long essays about who they were and what kind of relationship they wanted. Tinder was always more of a mystery; usually just a photo plus a one-sentence cryptic description like “25, Aquarius, hit me up! <3” I sometimes considered lowering my standards enough to “swipe right” on one of these people, but was never actually able to sacrifice that amount of dignity. Then OKCupid became a much worse Tinder clone and my useful options collapsed to zero (don’t worry, I’ve since found someone great through my community). While in theory dating apps are a great solution to this problem, in practice they’re surprisingly terrible.
Check the thread under Carson for more discussion on this theme.
I think the main reason young people didn't go right wing, as you were predicting in 2014, was internet censorship. Before 2016, the internet was basically a free market of ideas. I once put together data on prominent twitter bans, not very scientific but I'm sure the story is correct. I couldn't find anything before 2015, and then there was an avalanche of bannings after Trump's election.
People like Stefan Molyneux and Alex Jones used to be huge on YouTube. Now they're both gone, as is Milo himself. Often, the most extreme figures serve as a kind of vanguard and give energy to a movement. If the far right gets its most extreme elements purged every once in a while, the natural process from which you go "edgy -> slightly less edgy -> mainstream -> lame" gets interrupted. If you look at the most shared posts on Facebook today, data that's collected on a daily basis, it's dominated by Ben Shapiro, who is pretty much the edgiest right wing person allowed a Facebook account. And Ben Shapiro can never be cool.
While this makes a bit of sense, I’m sort of skeptical. Steve Sailer, Richard Spencer, and John Derbyshire are still on Twitter. Spencer has over 70K followers. I can’t deny that many far-right people have been banned. But it seems more like Twitter enforces the rules somewhat harder on the right than the left for PR reasons, without having a concerted campaign to ban the right in any kind of useful/consistent way.
Also, even if they did ban everyone to the right of Ben Shapiro, why wasn’t there a mass movement in favor of Ben Shapiro and others like him? I feel like far-right people can still find lots of far-right celebrities to follow, and Jones and Molyneux weren’t even central examples of far-rightists. Surely there are still enough unbanned rightists to satisfy almost anybody; this makes it hard for me to believe this had too big an effect.
Chris S writes:
I think this vastly undervalues the demise of Gawker after being taken out by Peter Thiel in 2016. Gawker was not just one site, but many sites cross referencing each other in a hipster cacophony of pseudo-anti-capitalist ilk that only Ivy league educations can provide. The main beneficiary for all of the years leading up to 2016 was Jezebel, the feminist(ish) newsblog, that is one of the few remaining veterans of the Nic Denton side of the war. They were amplified by all the other Gawker sites fighting the man (I guess) and mentioning each other's stories, all in the heart of the NYC in a news world that was still reeling from the fact that online blogs were actually competing and putting out new content (gasp) hourly, not just daily. They clearly didn't care about fact checking that much, and had no qualms about being two-faced; so scruples were right out the window. And for all of the preceding years this article mentions, not coincidentally around the same time as Gawker's supremacy, gender as a topic, indeed, did rule the roost.
But Gawker was soundly defeated in March of 2016, and the writing was on the wall months and months before that. So the entire organization was already crumbling with the reporting jumping ship long before the final verdict of 100 kagillion in damages (might as well have been) actually came down. Jezebel was in disarray; defanged, declawed, and completely neutered. There was much less cross-referencing, much less money to go after even basic stories, a new implementation of selling face creams or some other product after every 2 articles for some reason, and less competent reporters to do write ups.
But more than all of that, the defeat of Gawker was the end of a kind of boldness. Denton had a massive fund to pay the legal bills and the first amendment to help him out. His basic strategy was to run up your legal bills while running out the clock. It's no wonder it took another billionaire to defeat him. The giant, slain, nobody is willing to go out on a limb like that anymore, not that that's a bad thing. It's much like being amazed at the crazy stuff your alcoholic friend gets up to and what a life of the party he is until he inevitably dies in the car crash.
The media landscape still hasn't recovered. Go look at Jezebel now. It's just sad. You want to pinch one of the writers' cheeks and say, "Aw, yes you are. You're a good little journalist, aren't you? You're not just a child blogger with a total at 18 semester hours in women's studies." And people figured out that Marcotte's anger is a schtick, cause a huge amount of your posts should be joyous and celebrations. And on and on. There's just no infrastructure today to amplify those voices like their was for those brief Gawker years. And I think that can't be overstated when considering why gender, at such a monumental time of a possible female presidency, failed to materialize as a genuine factor and gave way to race as the ascendant obsession.
This is really interesting (and speaks to the thesis of the piece in a more direct way than a lot of the other comments). Still, I’m skeptical here for the same reason I was skeptical of Richard’s theory above - I don’t know if cutting off a single hydra head can really damage a cultural movement that much.
Some commenters got into a subthread about a claim that transgender advocates wanted to rename “Mother’s Day” to “Birthing Person’s Day”, with the predictable response that nobody really wanted to do that and it was a fake conservative talking point / hyperbole / satire / attempt to scare people. Someone else pointed out that a Congresswoman was now using “birthing person” instead of “mother” and this seemed non-fake and non-nutpicking, and someone else pointed out that using “birthing person” was different from demanding other people use it, or changing the name of an entire holiday. At this point we got this comment by trebuchet which I want to quote:
Yes, that's how this always goes. It's absurd that anyone would think they would try to do X, right up until the moment they do X, at which point it's impossible to understand why anyone would have a problem with it and why do you care so much?
One week ago, I might have said "next thing you know, Congresspeople will be saying 'birthing people' in their official communications instead of 'mothers'" and you would have told me it was ridiculous, no one would ever do such a thing, that's just crazy right-wingers being paranoid. And you would have believed what you were saying, too.
This captures a fear I have too. Yes, lots of people make fun of conservatives for freaking out over some proposal made half-jokingly by a tiny magazine with three subscribers, and acting like it’s the unified will of the entire Democratic establishment. But some non-zero fraction of the time, the ridiculous thing ends up taking over, and after it’s taken over it’s too omnipresent to protest. The window between “it has been seriously mooted” and “people are terrified of being seen not to whole-heartedly endorse it” is razor-thin, and it’s hard to blame people who aren’t confident of hitting that window, and sometimes that looks like arguing against it before the the mooting could be honestly described as “serious”.
I am deliberately not giving examples of this, sorry.
A thoughtful comment by darij:
The waves may come and go, but the ground keeps rotting. I'd worry less about the current ideological mascots of the day staying on their pedestals for too long (it seems trans is already on its way out in Europe; I suspect this will take some 5 more years in the US), and more about the perspective that new pieties will emerge every five years, with an ever-worsening political climate, an ever-lessening tolerance for dissent and ever-progressing institutional corruption.
As an academic, I'm worried about campus in particular, and things like this are making me sit on suitcases. It's not like academia is otherwise in good shape: what is the last innovation you can attribute to a university? (My previous one recently got into the news for pushing badly concealed security holes into Linux, for science of course.) No one believes in journalism any more (the opinion columns have moved to Substack, but that's the easy part); the FDA and the CDC have become laughing stocks; the CIA has decided that the C stands for Cringe (I know, a lot of you never trusted it in the first place, but quite a few people in the Russian intelligentsia were hoping for some institutional support); the kayfabe of American elections has been shattered (arguably a bipartisan success). If 10 years from now, the cool kids decide that black lives don't actually matter lol, the damage from years of authoritarian praxis won't magically disappear. The based right wing winning the conversation won't automatically fix our democratic institutions either, at least not by intention.
Culturally, the anti-elite movement does seem to be regaining steam -- that, or the progressives are losing theirs. The most intellectually satisfying thing I've seen on the internet in the last year was Niccolo Saldo's gonzo interview with Anna Khachiyan. Curtis Yarvin might have been the best writer in the last couple years. I don't take the policy ideas of either of these authors seriously and neither do they -- which is itself a political idea, perhaps one of their best. Almost every mainstream media outlet, while diligently policing the opinions of Twitter randos with 5 followers, can't help methodically destroying progressive holy cows in articles that end up among their most shared ( https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/us/smith-college-race.html , https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/05/liberals-covid-19-science-denial-lockdown/618780/ just to mention the first two that came to my mind). Hard to argue with click rates, it seems. This all doesn't compare remotely to the cultural explosion of the 60s, but is anything moving at all on the other side?
Of course, cultural renaissance does not guarantee political power in the future (otherwise, Weimar Germany would have become a liberal utopia), and it is more likely to give our existing institutions a coup de grace than to save them; but beggars can't be choosers and it's not like there's much to choose from these days...
And walruss writes:
I think you're right about half of this: the left is trying to outcompete itself on adopting the most extreme views to signal the most care for the most marginalized people. I don't entirely hate this: there are worse things to compete about than empathy. But like with all cliques it becomes more and more exclusionary until it's no longer about whatever it's about, it's just about keeping up with the Joneses. counter-signaling becomes valuable.
The part where I think you're wrong - dangerously so, is in the response. It's not that MRAs appeared to combat feminism, the whole thing culminated in Gamergate, and when feminism lost mainstream credibility, MRAs faded too.
It's that there is a group of disaffected, idle, unemployable (or at least un-advanceable), unmarriageable young men in this country. They flit from reactionary ideology to reactionary ideology, searching for a way to give their lives meaning. They mainly want to get a rise, or at least get *noticed* by mainstream culture.
So they join MRA/PUA groups - until 90% of them realize that the leadership of those groups just truly, deeply hates women and literally wants them to die. They don't want to be part of that so they go on to join Gamergate. When the doxxing and the threats start having significant consequences, 90% of them eff off. Then they move on to Milo and his shared appearances with Spencer. They think it's fun to get a rise out of the overly sanctimonious by appropriating nazi symbolism. Then Charlottesville happens and they suddenly realize that they've joined an actual white supremacist movement. They leave in droves.
They support Trump because he angers people but then people storm the Capitol and the boys back off. But every day some of them become radicalized - by Q, or by Spencer before him, or by redpill before that.
Internet culture is two groups - one looking to control all discourse, and the other looking to be heard by any means necessary. And more and more this fight isn't taking place online.
I disagree with a lot in here, but one particular objection is that this seems to suggest that these movements start off as evil people, and then some normal-but-edgy people join them not knowing what they are.
I’ve only been peripheral to some of these, but from that periphery, they’ve seemed like the reverse; starting off as normal-but-edgy people, then getting more radicalized as leftists keep beating up on them and successfully get them ostracized and hated, then choosing evil people as leaders when those leaders accuse everyone else of being “soft” and “not willing to face the hard truth that you’re losing and need to fight fire with fire”.
This happened to various small online rightist movements as farce, and then it happened to the mainstream Republican Party as tragedy.
Philosophy Bear again:
In its best forms (e.g. Elizabeth Bruenig at her best), objection to cancel culture is, above all, objection to the idea of cancelling *people*. This is the kind of opposition to cancel culture I'm most interested in. When CC does, for example, what it did to Scott A, that really accepts me- and not even on a political level, just on a fundamental human level. When I say I'm against cancel culture I'm primarily against cancelling people. I believe you are the same in this regard.
I’ve never really thought of it that way. I have a hard time feeling sorry for people who used the n-word in a tweet five years ago. I think it’s kind of silly to waste your energy trying to destroy their lives, but also kind of silly to waste your energy supporting them super-hard. Anyone’s life getting destroyed is sad, but there are many people whose lives got destroyed for other reasons beyond their control, and I don’t want to privilege the people whose lives got destroyed because they said the n-word as targets for sympathy.
My concern is more about there being a culture of fear, where people who oppose whatever the wokest 10% of the population think are scared into silence, and so we lose good things like gifted programs at schools, or the ability to prescribe blood pressure medications correctly even though that requires a race-based algorithm because people of different races respond differently, or the ability to fairly award positions without obsessing over giving the 20% of female applicants the exact same absolute number of slots as the 80% of male applicants. I think almost nobody wants these things, but everyone is afraid to speak up against them. I think this is totally orthogonal to the question of whether our culture is good at forgiveness or not.
I think this entire piece reflects a very particular series of internet social bubbles, some of which I myself was barely aware of, but there’s nothing wrong with Scott speaking from personal experience. But I had to look up several references here and I’m about the same age he is.
Yeah, was complicated to write. On the one hand, I wanted to focus on Internet culture wars in particular, and especially on a sort of vanguard of Internet culture warriors made of the most extremely online people. There are lots of people in the US who have never heard of Ibram X Kendi or Jordan Peterson, and they’re a valid and important part of the country, but this isn’t about them.
On the other hand, I also risk becoming too insular, and writing about the exact subsection of the culture wars that I personally experienced. “100% of the culture wars took place on r/TheMotte and involved long essays with lots of links to papers on the neuroscience of gender differences”.
So I tried to strike a balance, without having any real criteria for how to do so, and inevitably the balance was arbitrary and kind of wrong. Sorry.
Apropos our ages, one possible conclusion about why things changed that I think deserved more weight is that the user base in question simply *got older*. We may not have changed personally in any fundamental way, but life experiences and priorities quietly shift as you move from 20 to 30 and beyond. My more intense feminist friends aren’t any less feminist, but they’re no longer interested in spending their time flogging the same points they did a decade ago. Been there, done that. And, frankly, we’re just not getting unwanted male attention at 35+ the way we did at 22. And of course if we’re still single and looking the men we encounter are older and wiser, too. Sexism as we used to experience it maybe didn’t change or fizzle but merely sank below our own personal horizons.
No doubt younger people face their own issues when it comes to attraction and dating, but they grew up with a different internet and different rules IRL. How much of a ~40 year old’s experiences online or off still apply to them at all is speculative. Neither of us is going to engage the way people did in 2010, and I suspect for the older people whatever younger folks are dealing with is partially unintelligible, while the old issues we dealt with have largely become out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
This is a plausible but scary (to me) possibility. I complain about the mechanics of dating much less than I used to because I’ve aged out of the frantic desperation of the 20-something dating market. I figured I would be hearing from the people who are still in it, but maybe they’re making YouTube videos or TikTok whatevers and I am too old and out-of-touch to have any connection to them.
If this is true, then sorry, younger people, your life is probably terrible and I am no longer qualified to talk about it or help you. Good luck making it to your mid-thirties without going insane. If you do, then (n = 1) a lot of this gets better.