Content Warning: racist and sexist slurs
The last time I was on /pol/ (a popular alt-right forum on 4chan), I was labeled a “gash” that needed to be “strung up.” I wasn’t surprised. Rather, I viewed it as a natural byproduct of identifying myself as a woman on 4chan, preferable, at least, to the ever popular, “tits or GTFO.” The rules of engagement on sites like 4chan, or similar right-wing message boards, are to deliver your arguments in the most biting way possible and to prove, at the same time, that you’re unbothered by insults like “gash” or requests to see your tits.
Rhetorical strategies in “Leftbook” Facebook groups are different, to say the least. Merit is based not on how horrible you can be to another person, but on how moral your ideals are compared to theirs and how you can out-moral them, so to speak. This yields better results, in terms of the outcome of the discussion, than alt-right shitposting. But it also creates an environment in which those who dissent, even if they’re moderate, are weeded out and where ideas are constantly regurgitated so that any discussion of political and social ideals becomes so detached from the broader culture that its language and values are intelligible only to insiders.
This environment is not dissimilar to Wesleyan’s cultural climate.
And while I won’t tire anyone by arguing that left-wing “echo chambers” are innately negative (because they aren’t), I will call into question whether or not they serve the purpose that they claim, i.e. the purpose of activism.
Most would identify Wesleyan as an activist campus, thanks to the heavy presence of social justice groups, the many social justice-oriented degree programs, and the general culture of the campus which suggests a heightened sense of social awareness. However, the word “activism” implies both an intent and an audience. And while the intent may be obvious, the audience is not. After all, Wesleyan students are speaking mostly to other Wesleyan students, who are typically going to be in agreement. Saying something social justice-oriented is more likely to yield a chorus of snaps than a dissenting opinion.
In this way, activism on campus, while it serves the valid and important function of ironing out the more pedantic aspects of leftism, is often self-serving because it allows its participants to feel as though they’re performing a moral action without actually advancing the cause.
This kind of activism also tricks participants in two ways. Firstly, it implies that the rules of engagement that hold true in their closed environment are the rules that apply to the broader culture. Secondly, it suggests that the strategies effective in this environment will be effective outside of it, which is markedly untrue.
Take a quick look at how leftists are portrayed outside of their own circles, and it is easy to see how activism hurts itself by not interacting with the broader culture. SJW cringe compilations, words like “snowflake,” or the NPC meme function as primary examples. These elements of leftist culture that the broader public are already unfamiliar with, combined with mass media straw-manning, make them seem even more alien and extravagant.
More specifically, take the term “snowflake,” which came into popular usage after a video taken at Yale University in 2015 was released. The video features a student demanding a professor to take responsibility for “[creating] a place of comfort and home.” Without context, the student’s behavior seems outlandish and inappropriate. Even with context, people who are unfamiliar with university culture and don’t agree that culturally appropriative Halloween costumes are racist would, and did, view the student’s behavior as ridiculous. The resulting mentality? That liberal college students think they’re special, that the world revolves around them, and that they’re “snowflakes.”
While this student’s actions were justified, given that the professor they were yelling at was advocating for students’ rights to wear blackface, the video, in the long term, did more harm than good in shaping public opinion about leftist ideology. I am not, by any means, saying the student should have taken a different course of action, or that students should stop having activist discussions on their own campuses. Rather, I’m suggesting that they should extend their reach to the outside culture and begin to focus on an audience outside of themselves.
One of the simplest (but not the easiest) ways to do this is to get out of leftist groups online and to lurk in other sects of online culture, from centrist spaces to the alt-right, in order to learn the rhetorical strategies and the rules of engagement. And while I would never suggest going on places like 4chan to have a productive debate, or even suggest commenting there at all, I would suggest going there to analyze and understand the rules and ideologies that are cultivated in alt-right echo chambers. It’s only after understanding these strategies that one can notice how they’re employed in more neutral spaces in order to win people over to their side.
Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained a technique often employed to appeal “rationally” to centrists in an interview in 1981:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘n—’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
It’s in more centrist groups, where these strategies are used by the opposition, that the actual work of combatting them can be done, once one understands the rules of engagement of that particular community. The natural response on Wesleyan’s campus to arguments like “forced busing and states rights and all that stuff” would be to call it racist, and rightfully so. But using that terminology outside of a liberal affirmation group will lead to your nomination as a “triggered leftist.” As a result, you have to be able to peel back the layers of the argument in order to reveal its racist underbelly in order to get a “rational” centrist to agree with you and not fall for the trick.
Now, all of this is not to say that infiltrating groups online is the only kind of activism, but that it’s important to operate outside of liberal groups in order to advocate effectively for any cause. The reality is, online spaces are where a majority of this discourse takes place.
It is also not to say that every individual has an obligation to expose themselves to this kind of vitriol in the name of social justice, especially when getting exposed to unbridled racism and misogyny can be deeply upsetting. No matter how thick your skin is, it’s not enjoyable to be called a “gash” on 4chan or even a “triggered snowflake” in a Facebook group.
It is worth it, however, if you’re willing to step outside your bubble and find an audience for your activism.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.