Confession time: I’m really kind of a jerk.
This might surprise many of my newer friends and acquaintances—at least, I hope it does—but the truth is, there’s an awful lot of rage, arrogance, and pettiness in me. I’m quick to anger and oversensitive to signs of disrespect. I hold grudges far longer than even the most nakedly Darwinian notions of rationality would counsel. And while I am far from lacking in empathy (I put spiders outside, fer godsakes), I am still more reliably motivated by competitiveness than by most of the nobler emotions. Worst of all, there is a small, dark knot of my person that remains proud of these facts.
You see, I’m the product of what sociologists call a “culture of honor,” as are many of the rural and suburban white Americans the shellshocked Left has of late been desperately trying to understand. Such a culture pervades the American South, along with parts of the Midwest and much of the non-coastal West. In the case of the South, it appears to have been an import from the Irish, northern English, and Scottish pastoralists who comprised the majority of the region’s early settlers. The story goes that pastoralists, unlike agriculturalists, are uniquely vulnerable in that their livelihoods can be easily rustled away by thieves. To protect their herds—and by extension themselves and their families—it was necessary to cultivate a reputation for formidability, self-sufficiency, and ruthlessness in the pursuit of retribution for even the most trivial insults or slights (the phenomenon is not a uniquely American or European one; we reliably see honor cultures in other parts of the world with a history of pastoralism: e.g., in large swaths of the Middle East). These honor norms will flourish especially in areas in which the law has little power to prevent or punish theft and aggression, which is taken to explain their preponderance in the (formerly Wild) West as well.
Nowadays, of course, most of these folk (this author included) are not pastoralists and do not live in a state of lawlessness. Nonetheless, these particular norms of honor persist, and it’s not too difficult to understand why. If I’m to cultivate any sort of distinctive reputation for formidability, such that I stand out from my fellows as a uniquely unwise target of exploitation (whatever form that might take), I will need people with whom I can contrast myself, people I can call out as wimps and patsies. Anyone who breaks from the established norms, who decides he no longer has any need to cultivate a reputation for formidability, thus becomes a prime target, not just of thieves and aggressors, but of those seeking to deter them. Thus will the victim then come to need wimps and patsies of his own, and the pattern will reiterate. Bully or be bullied; this is no country for doves.
Taming, not Slaying, the Dragon
In The Honor Code, Ghanian-British philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah contends that moral progress (even, and perhaps a fortiori, revolutionary moral progress) has often required working with or through, rather than against, the incentives of honor. In the course of the book he examines in detail three such moral revolutions—the death of the duel in Victorian England, the end of footbinding in 19thcentury China, and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade—arguing that each was facilitated by important changes in animating conceptions of honor.
Now, Appiah is using “honor” in a rather broader sense than are the social scientists who study “honor cultures.” The term “honor culture” might suggest that these regions of America are uniquely preoccupied with honor and that honor is synonymous with the particular sort of reputation sought by the people (and men in particular) who live there. I’m doubtful of both propositions. Appiah’s historical investigations rather strongly indicate that the content of honor can be quite variable, both between populations and within single populations over time. His conception of honor, in its masculine form (which is, let us be frank, the one that ought most concern us), actually looks very much like what psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson have termed “precarious manhood.” Manhood, they argue, is widely seen as socially tenuous and in need of constant proof in a way that womanhood is not. This appears to be a general, “structural” feature of manhood, largely independent of its content. That is to say, while cultures vary as to what is taken to be sufficiently constitutive of a performance of manhood, there appears to be a much broader consensus that successful performance is essential, that manhood is a costly and revocable achievement, that it is, in the authors’ words, “hard won and easily lost.”
My own experiences comport with this bipartite conception of honor. What successes I’ve had in reorienting myself toward a more socially progressive worldview have come not primarily by resisting my honor-seeking impulses, but by refining them such that they could be marshaled to better moral use.
I am now convinced that a transformation of Southern/Western American honor norms along the lines of Appiah’s examples is both possible and politically necessary. The possibility, I hope, is no longer in doubt, but why the necessity? The mechanism, described above, which enabled a culture of honor to persist in the South beyond the material conditions that required it also allows that culture to spread to those whose ancestors never shared such conditions. Social psychologist Richard Nisbett concluded one of his pioneering papers on honor culture and Southern violence with the following worry:
There is another sense in which the culture of honor might turn out to be self-sustaining or even capable of expanding into mainstream culture. The culture is a variant of warrior culture the world over, and its independent invention countless times (Gilmore, 1990), combined with the regularities in its themes having to do with glorification of masculine attributes, suggests that it may be a particularly alluring stance that may be capable of becoming functionally autonomous. Many observers (e.g., Naipaul, 1989; Shattuck, 1989) have noted that contemporary Southern backcountry culture, including music, dress, and social stance, is spreading beyond its original geographical confines and becoming a part of the fabric of rural, and even urban, working-class America. Perhaps for the young males who adopt it, this culture provides a romantic veneer to everyday existence. If so, it is distinctly possible that the violence characteristic of this culture is also spreading beyond its confines. An understanding of the culture and its darker side would thus remain important for the foreseeable future. (1993, p. 449)
And economist Pauline Grosjean, in a county-by-county investigation of the relationship between Scots-Irish ancestry (as determined by 18th and 19th century US census data) and prevalence of violence, found that:
Dutch, French or German settlers in counties with high proportions of Scots or Scots-Irish are associated with more violence than those in counties with lower proportions of Scots or Scots-Irish. This provides evidence for horizontal transmission of cultural norms from the Scots and Scots-Irish to other settlers and illustrates how, through imitation by other settlers, the culture of violence could have become the prevailing cultural norm in the South. (2011, p. 25)
It’s worth adding that despite growing up in the Midwest, I did not have these norms drilled into me in the home as some of my friends did. I picked them up just as easily, just as effortlessly, in the school halls and playgrounds. One learns quickly in such environments to give no quarter to disrespecters, and one learns this just as about as readily whether one is a target of disrespect oneself or merely a bystander. Once this sort of hypervigilance of potential honor threats becomes routine, it is no easy thing to get shut of.
Presently, these traditional honor norms are undergoing something of a global renaissance. They are ubiquitous in the online enclaves out of which Men’s Rights Activism, Neo-reaction, Pick-Up Artistry, contemporary White Nationalism, Redpiller ideology, and other threads of the so-called Alt-Right have developed, and they are likely to flourish and grow in influence—not just on usual suspects like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, but on platforms like YouTube and any others that produce the sort of cyberspace equivalents of the largely unregulated conditions of the former South. These norms power the relatively harmless troll, the aggrieved school shooter, and the radical Islamist alike. Historically, they have stirred men around the world to take up arms for and against fascism, for and against communism, for and against global jihad. There is, I suspect, no atrocity so nakedly evil that the promise of honor could not get great numbers of men fighting each other for the mere chance to commit it. We have seen what horror can flower when even a single nation’s character comes to be polluted by these norms, and we are now seeing them rise like bile in governments all around the world. Anyone who thinks the upshot of this Global Populist Spring can be anything more peaceful than a shifting international patchwork of cold wars and open blood feuds needs a lesson or two in history—or hell, anthropology.
It is imperative that we stem this tide, and doing so is going to require the centering and marketing of a conception of honor capable of competing for hearts and minds with these toxic traditional norms. Such competition has played a big role in both my own struggle against these norms and toward a more progressive worldview and in the successes I’ve had in swinging others to the cause, and I want to share what I’ve learned from these experiences.
Now what I’m urging here looks broadly like a strategy of engagement with the enemy (though not exclusively discursive engagement), and I realize that, in the present political climate, at the present political moment, that is a controversial proposition. Let me then be very clear about the nature of what I’m proposing.
First, I am NOT requesting anything like a large-scale reorientation of progressive effort. It’s fair to say, I think, that we are now in a full-blown culture war, and such a war, like any traditional war, has a number of fronts and calls accordingly for tactical diversity. I would not demand of those living daily with the brutal realities of oppression that they set aside their struggles for breath and voice in order to court as potential allies the most unreflective and clueless beneficiaries of precisely that oppression (though, of course, anyone who judges what I’m proposing as worth their time and effort is more than welcome to join this particular fight). But allies who enjoy comparative privilege are rather differently positioned, and this task is something I’d encourage them to consider taking up. Those who have personal experience with honor cultures will have a particular strategic advantage in that they (1) know intuitively what makes the honor cultured tick and (2) will have greater prima facie credibility in the eyes of those they’re seeking to persuade. Let me reiterate, though: This is a call for volunteers, not a draft.
Second, the strategy does not necessarily require direct engagement. The larger aim here is not simply to disabuse but to immunize. It’s a safe bet our Western world will continue producing a steady stream of disaffected, prospectless, frustrated young men (many would lay this fact solely at the feet of capitalism, but I suspect that is only one contributing factor). These young men are prime fodder forAlt-Right radicalization, so our long game must include the fostering of a general and pervasive social atmosphere in which the traditional honor norms to which Alt-Right ideologies appeal have come to be seen as passé, weak, puerile, inferior—in short, dishonorable. We need to effect a pretty major cultural shift here. Of course, this goal can be served by direct persuasion of the traditionally honor cultured, but it may also be served in myriad other small ways, as we will shortly see.
Rules of Direct Engagement
If Appiah is right, then what I’ve been calling an honor culture is really just one of many actual and possible “honor worlds” (pp. 19-20). We must, however, appreciate that this world has a particularly powerful hold on its inhabitants. To the extent that the Left has acknowledged this, it has tended to focus primarily on that world’s positive incentives: the greater control over women, the felt superiority over racial and sexual minorities, or the sense of complete self-sufficiency and all attendant feelings of pride and entitlement. But the negative incentives are considerable as well, and may in fact be even more powerful. Remember, anyone who fails to uphold these particular honor norms exposes himself to swift and merciless denigration by those seeking to advertise their own honor credentials.
You will thus need some powerful incentives of your own if you’re to pull any appreciable number of these individuals out of their psychosocial gravity wells. Success here is going to take quite a bit of concerted script-flipping, for the world for which you will by default be seen to stand is a world in which honor for these folks (qua white cis-het men) is simply impossible. It is a world in which masculinity, as they understand it, is summarily and systematically villainized. The task of those engaging directly with the honor cultured will be to show these men not simply that honor is possible on the “other side,” but that it is an altogether superior form of honor than the one by which they are presently trapped.
There are three principal and, I suspect, jointly necessary ways of persuading your prospective interlocutors of the inferiority of their honor norms: (1) by showing that these norms enshrine only a cheap and facile sort of “honor;” (2) by undergirding your rival conception of honor with a more plausible authenticating narrative; and (3) by showing greater dominance in your deportment toward them. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
(1). Alt-Rightists style themselves brave defenders of uncomfortable truths—about racial differences, about the mutual desirability of traditional gender roles, about the utility of non-democratic forms of governance, and, perhaps most fundamentally, about the rigidity of “human nature.” Their perspective looks at a glance highly reductionistic, and it may therefore be tempting to argue a strong antireductionist line against them. This would be a mistake. I can tell you nothing has been for me a more powerful inoculant against Alt-Right ideas—ideas which should be very appealing to me given not just my race and gender identity, but my cultural and academic backgrounds—than my philosophical commitments to methodological reductionism and ontological minimalism.
If the Alt-Right worldview can be called reductionistic, we must recognize that it is only selectively so. It bottoms out at a sort of pseudo-Darwinian pop psychology, where an uncritical and antiquated essentialism suddenly takes over. This is a significant vulnerability, both because this essentialism is easy to criticize on the facts and because it dramatically undermines its proponents’ pretensions to intellectual courage. A consistent reductionist would laugh at any attempt to found a moral/political ideology on anything as ontologically flimsy as “races” and “genders” (hell, even species turn out, on close scrutiny, to be remarkably poor candidates for natural kindhood, except perhaps in the deflationary Boydian sense). These constructs capture no magical biological “essences” and embed no robust natural laws, as natural kinds are often required to do.
Now, the Alt-Rightist expects criticism to focus on the object level of his views, not on the deeper philosophical assumptions that undergird them, and he expects these attacks to come from levels of inquiry “above” the biological level at which he’s staked his realism—i.e., from the social sciences and humanities. He therefore expects to be able to position himself as the voice of sober, scientific rationality. We must avoid playing into these expectations and thereby playing into this script. While his back may be heavily armored, his flanks and underbelly are exposed and very, very squishy. His “red pill” reveals itself on examination to be just a painted-over blue pill, and we should hammer him hard on this point.
Biological essentialism is one important Alt-Right presupposition. Another, not unrelated, is the view that “human nature” is tightly genetically constrained. From this follow the now familiar claims that all Leftist “social engineering” is doomed to failure and that humanity can only really flourish when it is allowed to live in insular, hierarchical, patriarchal “extended families” as nature “intended.” Your most effective allies against this line will come from within rather than above the biological sciences. Think neuroplasticity, gene expression regulation, and niche construction. There is even room for pushback within the parochial confines of evolutionary psychology, a discipline to which Alt-Rightists often appeal for support, for even though many evolutionary psychologists take our social cognition to be fairly rigidly algorithmic, they will be the first to note that no behavior is a product of cognitive algorithms alone but is always a transformation of some set of environmental inputs. As these inputs are varied, one can expect behavioral outputs to vary as well. The Alt-Rightist will find attacks from these quarters not only surprising but difficult to rebut given the allegiance he has professed to cold, hard biological fact.
Again, the goal here, beyond offering sound scientific reasons to reject the Alt-Rightist’s presuppositions, is to strip his view of its signaling value. His stances, upon a closer study of the relevant science and philosophy, are not sober but naïve. Real hard truths seldom make the world of our everyday experience tidier. They gray things up. They expose our molar-level categories as fuzzy and contingent and reliably add exceptions or emendations to the theories that quantify over them (if they do not simply boot those theories out whole cloth). For these, and for many other reasons besides, they tend to resist straightforward political implication. A world of transcendental biological categories and immutable biopsychological natures is a far easier world to grapple with than the world current biological science actually reveals to us—a world of diaphanous boundaries, deep homology, and complex, dynamic gene-environment interactions. And this cognitive ease makes allegiance to such a world a signal of intellectual cowardice rather than bravery.
As you smack your interlocutor around with these points, be vigilant of any attempt he makes to shift his worldview onto different foundations. More likely than not, these will have more transparently ideological premises, and you should call him out on them. Let him know that you can see the mask has slipped, that the pretense of dispassionate scientific rationality is falling away. Hit him with the charge he’s likely leveled at the Left many a time: that he’s let his politics dictate his understanding of science rather than the other way around.
(2). If honor is to ultimately be anything real—if our judgments as to one’s honor or lack of it are to ever be true, or even truth-apt—then honor must have a legitimate moral foundation. Traditional honor norms lack this foundation; they are egoistic, or at best tribalistic, and even in hypothetical circumstances in which they align with the promotion of the moral good, they do so only incidentally. Unfortunately, a “fully moralized honor,” to borrow Appiah’s term (p. 181), may not be recognizable to the traditionally honor cultured as any sort of honor worth pursuing (unless, of course, they’re reading “morality” here in a narrowly Christian way). We may, therefore, need an intermediate conception of honor with which to hook them, a conception in which strength, self-sufficiency, and other egoistic preoccupations still prominently figure.
You will need to be flexible here and, to the best of your knowledge and ability, meet your honor-bound interlocutor where he is. If he is a conservative Christian, play to his religious sensibilities in promoting a more generous, self-sacrificing, other-oriented notion of honor (but, please, please, don’t just tell him Jesus was a liberal. I guarantee you he’s heard—and rejected—that one before.). If he is younger and more secular, particularly if he’s a Redpiller or PUA aspirant, you might appeal to the Handicap Principle to argue that altruistic behaviors, because of their high costs, are truer signals of one’s quality as a man than the childish and desperately Machiavellian selfishness to which his current honor norms appeal. These intermediate notions of honor are, of course, still inferior to a fully moralized honor, but they are a step closer and are amendable. What connects them to both traditional honor norms and moralized honor are the “structural features” noted by Vandello and Bosson. Whatever else honor is, it is “hard won and easily lost.” Its exclusivity, and thus its appeal, depends upon the costliness of consistently meeting its demands, and the path from traditional to fully moralized honor is a path marked by increasingly costly demands. It’s hard to care about others to the extent and with the impartiality that morality requires. It is especially hard to do so in the face of powerful structural and cultural incentives not to. It’s hard to insist on fair treatment for all when one presently benefits from unfair treatment. But this difficulty can, paradoxically, be our greatest ally, for this difficulty is precisely what can make meeting these demands desirable to those desperate for honor.
(3). It is also important—perhaps even moreso—that you evince the superior honor you’re promoting. Do not be flatly dismissive of your interlocutor, but maintain always a dominant demeanor. Steelman his arguments and then brutalize them with aplomb. Do not allow him the comforting thought that he only failed to persuade you of his position because you refused to understand him. Make him feel like the coward and intellectual poseur he thinks all “libtards” are. Show that you too know the importance of strength and courage, and make it clear that those concerns were instrumental in your rejection of his ideology. Condescend strategically, and reconcile only from a position of strength. Reach down, never up.
You may think this all pointless theater, a distraction from the substance of your arguments, but it will speak to the honor cultured even when those arguments will not. A prima facie paradoxical feature of many of those obsessed with cultivating images of dominance for themselves is that they are drawn adoringly to figures who are actually more dominant than them, as if the power of the latter were a thing that might rub off or accrue to sycophants by mere association. Even if your interlocutor is not such an individual, if you’re arguing for the superiority of a more progressive notion of honor but are diffident and submissive in your engagement, I guarantee you, you will not persuade him.
Don’t expect a lot of conspicuous conversion here. Think of yourself not as a reaper of proselytes but as a sower of doubt. One of the many important things you’re offering your Alt-Right interlocutor is a novel lens through which to view his and his compatriots’ views and behavior. If you’ve made your case well, following the three guidelines above, your interlocutor ought to find it increasingly difficult to see himself and his fellow partisans in the rosy, valorizing glow by which he was initially seduced into the Alt-Right world.
Rules of Indirect Engagement
There are ways beyond direct engagement to turn the incentives of honor against the Alt-Right and those similarly disposed. The overarching goal here is to create a pervasive cultural environment in which the traditional conception of masculine honor can no longer be looked at as anything other than a cheap knock-off, a phony. How we talk about this notion of honor (and its rivals) among ourselves and when communicating to a broader public can play a hugely important role in fostering such an environment.
Odd as it may strike you, the vanguard on this particular front may be Lefty memesmiths like Beef Coyote (formerly Lettuce Dog). What makes memes such potentially powerful tools of persuasion? In short, the fact that no one wants to become one or be typified by one. Consider the archetypal fedora-tipping “nice guy,” a person-type which now enjoys the unique distinction of being an object of derision by both feminists and antifeminists. Anyone with even the most cursory acquaintance with online meme culture and merest modicum of self-awareness now knows this is not a guy to emulate. For such people, then, a whole suite of behaviors associated with this person-type are now, under threat of intense shame, effectively foreclosed.
Consider now this shotgun blast, courtesy of Memes 4 Less, which aims to get the jump on a number of dimestore trollish tropes. A good sociopolitical meme works by leveraging an important but underrecognized form of soft coercion. It says to its target: “We know what you’re all about. We’ve seen your arguments/tactics a thousand times and we are summarily unimpressed. You and your ilk have become a sad cliché.” In communicating this, the meme effectively denies its target the opportunity to surprise, shock, and generally ruffle feathers, thereby depriving him of any of the felt dominance such opportunities afford. Make no mistake: Trolling is never just about the lulz; it’s about the sense of power that comes from getting people to respond in an anticipated way. The troll knows this, if only intuitively, and consequently knows that playing into an expected type is an act of subordination and an invitation to public ridicule. By leveraging this knowledge, the savvy countermemer gets the would-be troll dancing to her tune rather than the other way around. This may all seem terribly trifling, but to those young channers, gamers, doxxers, and keyboard Rasputins being groomed to bear the standard of the Alt-Right into futurity, such displays send powerful signals.
I dwell on this because the same basic psychological dynamics can be harnessed to pressure larger and more important cultural changes. The practice of contemporary feminists of naming and calling out “microaggressions” and other problematic behaviors—“mansplaining,” “gaslighting,” “sealioning,” etc.—constitutes memecraft in a broader sense of the term. This practice is useful for a number of reasons, but to the extent that deterrence figures prominently among them, I would encourage greater care in the choice of names. Some of these names, to be sure, are pretty great; “fragile masculinity,” for example, pulls no punches in calling the manliness of antifeminist norms into question (though it does not, of course, single out any particular behavior). Others are apt to at best produce conflicting motivations. Consider “mansplaining.” Here, the problematic behavior is being bundled not with some deficient version of manhood (not explicitly, at any rate), but with manhood simpliciter. The target of the meme is being told at once that this behavior is bad and that this behavior is what men do, and, unfortunately, a large number of men—particularly young and honor cultured men—simply care more about being seen as men than about being seen as good (is this not the source of so much of the world’s present trouble?). If you force this sort of choice upon them, most will probably embrace the mansplaining charge. This meme leverages knowledge effectively—it says “we’ve seen this behavior a thousand times before”—but it doesn’t leverage the right kind of shame.
Of course, the most viral examples of mansplaining involve non-expert men attempting to explain some topic to a woman who is an expert on that topic. “Cringesplaining” nicely captures the painful cluelessness evinced by this behavior and does so using a word that has broadly negative valence among Alt-Righters, but at the cost of any explicit indication that this is something primarily perpetrated by men. Perhaps this is an acceptable trade-off; “sealioning” and “gaslighting” are not explicitly gendered either (though it was a man who provided the archetypal instance of the latter), but it’s broadly understood that these are things men tend to do to women. “Dudesplaining” more explicitly captures the gendered nature of these behaviors, with “dude” arguably picking out a slightly more specific category than “man,” but it is less negatively valenced than “cringesplaining.” Ultimately, the decision will need to take account of more than just the deterrence function of these memes, and it won’t—and shouldn’t—be mine to make. I only want to spotlight some relevant, and perhaps underappreciated, considerations—considerations that ought to be particularly important to those who’ve heeded this broad call to break the spell of honor by which the Alt- and Far Right swell and maintain their ranks.
Whether you traffic in either of the of the above two sorts of memes or not, you should aim in any public communications you author (editorials, blog posts, Facebook comments, protest signs, debates in meatspace) that concern themselves with the Alt-Right to leverage the same corrosive knowledge discussed in this and the previous section. The more widespread the awareness of the ultimate cheapness of the “honor” afforded by allegiance to Alt-Right ideologies is perceived to be, the faster these ideologies will lose their edgy appeal.
What follows are some more specific recommendations. While some of these apply most obviously to those pursuing a direct engagement strategy, many of them have broad relevance.
(1). For the love of everything true, good, and beautiful, stop calling them “assholes.”
I mean, hopefully you’ve got more in your quiver than mere ad hominems, but even if your jab is just a spicy little garnish to some independently powerful argument, please, please pick a different term. While a few of the older and more cloistered Right-wingers might still be genuinely stung by this insult, I promise you, very little pleases the younger Alt-Right set more than being called an asshole by a Leftist. This is for them, the equivalent of the bullied calling the bully a “meanie;” it is a confirmation of precisely the sort of dominance with which they seek to paint themselves. Need I remind you that “assholes” are, according the PUAs and Redpillers, precisely the sorts of dudes all women are biologically compelled to desire, even if only secretly? When you call them this, you are rewardingthem for shitty behavior. You are Making Assholery Great Again.
If you want to know what epithets cut deepest for these people, simply look at the ones they use themselves. Unsurprisingly, given the central preoccupations of the honor cultured, most of these are intended to impugn the target’s masculinity. It should now be easy for you to score these sorts of points yourself given the superior honor narrative you’re pushing against their myopic man-baby posturing.
(2). Call out signaling behavior mercilessly.
We’ve all encountered That Guy: the dude who butts into any political (or apolitical!) conversation to shotgun-bloviate about “libtards,” “cucks,” and sundry “snowflakes” with their “political correctness” and “safe spaces” and blah, blah, blah. This dude isn’t interested in making a substantive political point; he has but two real aims: (1) to appropriate the discussion as a venue for self-promotion (for to claim or insinuate that someone, even if no one in particular, is weak or unmanly is at the same time to suggest that the accuser is not these things); and (2) to catch a fleeting dominance high from all the people he successfully “triggers”—including, of course, the people who call him an asshole.
Often, this behavior goes largely ignored. A few of the thinner skinned may be dragged into distracting flame wars. The proper response to this performance is to quickly expose it for what it is: a performance. The “success” of this sort of peacocking depends upon the audience believing that the apparent disgust for the targets of these insults flows naturally and effortlessly from the insulter’s contrary character. To reveal this sort of behavior for the calculated histrionics it truly is to rob it of its potential to impress—indeed, it’s apt to make the performer look like a desperate poseur—and thus to disincentivize it.
The dynamic by which this disincentivization is realized is one of which many on the Left (particularly the postmodern Left) have been aware for quite some time: To have a solid grasp of another’s psychological reasons for asserting, arguing, or otherwise behaving is in a very important sense to have power over that individual. It is, effectively, to strip him of free will and agency, to render him predictable, to puerilize or animalize him. The honor cultured Right know this—indeed, they are perhaps even more finely attuned to signals of interpersonal dominance than the postmodern Left—and few things will seem to them more unbearable than having a Lefty assert power over them.
As discussed earlier, the deterrent effect of calling out this posturing behavior can be amplified by giving it a buzzword-y, appropriately condescending name—by meming it, in other words. “Virtue signaling” has been in currency for several years now as a means of disparaging and deterring folks on the Left (usually) who seem more concerned with advertising their moral outrage than working substantively toward change. We may think of the behavior described in the paragraphs above as a particularly Alt-Right sort of virtue signaling, put I recommend we reserve for it the phrase “edge signaling.” “Edgy” and its cognates already have broad, nonpartisan recognition as terms of derision, connoting the sort of facile misanthropy of a naïve and bratty teenager. They are terms, in other words, associated with a lack of dominance, a lack of manliness. To reduce this behavior to a simple hashtag-ready phrase has the additional effect of suggesting to the behaver (rightly, in this instance) that it is something exceedingly common, that all the other Right-wingers are doing the same thing (recall that the honor cultured desires to cultivate a distinctive reputation for formidability), and that the Left broadly has their number here and isn’t buying what they’re hawking.
(3). Understand that censored views are sexier.
The contemporary honor cultured Rightist is engaged in a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he genuinely feels put upon and victimized by Leftists (to note that he’s wrong on this count is not to erase the reality of those feelings); on the other, he must maintain a front of unshakable dominance. In attempt to appease these two masters he’s constructed for himself a David vs. Goliath narrative which sees him as a scrappy hero bravely speaking Truth to illegitimate Power—a power grounded only in numbers or institutional hegemony.
Now, imagine that he presents an argument to a Leftist interlocutor who dismisses him as a racist or misogynist or Islamaphobe without either commenting upon his argument or offering a pointed counterargument. Consider how this encounter is likely to interact with his background hero narrative. Remarkably, it will manage to feed both the impression that he is the victor in this particular exchange and that he is a victim in the broader war. This is the ideal outcome from his perspective, and so it will reinforce precisely the views that provoked such a response.
I need to be careful here, for this issue touches upon a much more general debate re: the proper treatment of these sorts of views under the public eye. There is widespread worry within certain Leftist communities that engaging discursively (even if critically and forcefully) with some of these views will serve to normalize and thus legitimize them, to harmful effect. Research evidencing just such an effect vis-à-vis climate change denial suggests such worries are not unreasonable.
But it should be appreciated that this “shutting down” strategy has legitimizing effects as well, and these effects are unlikely to be confined to those already convinced of the censored view. Imagine a naïf with respect to some political issue who’s trying to figure out what to believe about it. He sees that one camp appears to be offering arguments (some of these even sound very scientific and are said to be backed up by a bunch of statistics he can’t really parse but which sure seem like they were produced by smart people) while the other appears primarily taken up with shouting down this first camp and calling its members names. What’s more, the first camp has this really appealing beleaguered hero narrative on which political/cultural victory would stand as a tremendous testament to the quality of our young naïf’s character while defeat would testify only to how unfairly the deck was stacked against him. The potential reward is high and the substantive risks low, the potential costs trivial. The other camp may have similar narratives, but if our naïf is a white man, then he’s apt to feel he can’t really participate in them. Toward which camp do you suppose he will feel the strongest emotional pull?
Yes, most of the debates the Alt-Rightist wants to have were settled long ago to the satisfaction of any neutral mind, and yes, it’s perverse to place the burdens of educating members of the oppressing class on the shoulders of the oppressed. The point here is merely a prudential, tactical one. The fact is, we are no longer dealing with a political minority small enough, and sufficiently disorganized, to be cowed by the mere threat of public name-calling. The Overton Window moves not by the Left hand alone. To refuse to engage at this juncture is apt to make us look weak and cowardly, and, eo ipso, to boost the signaling value of our rivals’ views.
Again, none of this is to deny any of the legitimizing effects of discursive engagement; I only want to suggest that the prevailing strategy of “shutting down,” “deplatforming,” and the like may entail equivalent, or even greater, costs along these lines. We might well be in a lesser-of-two-evils scenario. It’s beyond the scope of this piece (and my present knowledge!) to attempt to settle this larger issue. As said before, my advice here is primarily for those who’ve already decided—at least for themselves—that persuading the opposition is a task worth undertaking. To those thus positioned, then, I implore you: Don’t feed the David narrative.
(4). Get romantic.
Nancy Lebovitz, in a comment on an old post over at Slate Star Codex, made the following poignant observation:
One of the hard things is somehow making the advantages of living in peace as vivid as the pleasures of hurting people.
This task must become a bigger part of our counterstrategy. Fascism endures despite the brutal lessons of history because it is, at its core, a romantic ideology. We have the better arguments, yes, but they have the glittering mythos, the thick web of meaning, the heady redolence of ancient “wisdom,” the eternally alluring promise of purpose through mortal struggle. If we do not successfully counter the enemy on these fronts, we will probably never contain this cancer.
The progressive platform lags behind here for two main reasons: (1) It has focused much more time and effort on critiquing current social structures and cultural attitudes than on highlighting an alternative positive social vision; and (2) what vision it has offered is principally characterized by equality, laxity, and leisure. The progressive world is one in which everyone enjoys equal access to all the freedoms—legal, political, economic, and cultural—necessary for self-realization. Now, such a world has much to recommend it—it would certainly be a vast improvement upon our current sociopolitical reality—but devotion to such a world, thus articulated, has poor signaling value for the honor cultured. Nearly everyone probably wants an easier, freer life, but not everyone wants to be seen wanting this. To signal allegiance to a world characterized by struggle, competition, and hierarchy is to signal confidence that one would come out on top in such a world.
This is another impulse we can turn against the Alt-Right. Proponents claim to revel in competition, but most of their social policies are aimed at artificially restricting the pool of eligible competitors. They would see women confined to the home, gay and trans- people to the closet (or worse), and racial and ethnic minorities to distant parts of the world. This is a profoundly dishonorable strategy, a beta’s gambit, and we ought to use these terms without irony or abashment. We must see—and see very publicly—these policy proposals as covert signals of diffidence in one’s ability to successfully compete—vocationally, avocationally, socially, and, yes, sexually—in more open and inclusive communities. Think not proud bulls on a lekking ground but scared boys in a treehouse with a “NO ___ ALLOWED!” sign posted at the ladder.
Translating these signals in this manner will go a good way toward bleeding the Alt-Right worldview of its romantic appeal. We also, however, need to sex up our alternative picture, and we shouldn’t shy away from appropriating the language of honor to this end. Now, many in the more progressive sectors of the Left are apt to take issue with this proposal. One may worry that inveigling these folk toward more progressive views using the promise of honor feeds into a white male savior narrative, which would be problematic for a number of reasons. For one, such a narrative elevates in importance white men’s egoistic feelings above the oppression of others. For another, it might encourage among the honor cultured a condescending paternalism toward members of oppressed groups. Indeed, there seems something rather perverse about enticing folks toward a political worldview that has equality as its ultimate goal using the promise of a resource that, almost by definition, can only ever be distributed unequally. One may also worry that this approach will beget moral complacency later down the line; if folks are only in this for personal honor, then once they’ve drunk their fill of it they might simply abandon the good fight. This gets at why it makes sense—even consequentialist sense—to desire that people do good things for the right reasons: Wherever our incentives are only coincidentally aligned with the good, this alignment may always be reversed by future circumstances.
Those of a more centrist persuasion, on the other hand, are apt to think that successfully expanding the tent of the Left will require some effort at meeting those presently outside the tent where they are, at working through rather than against some of the concerns and considerations that hold sway over them. Honor enticements may be a poor substitute for the genuine empathy with which we’d like people to embrace Leftist causes, but it is a great substitute for reactionary umbrage, which is at present the leading alternative. The ideal world, of course, is one in which a fair and unbiased regard for the welfare and autonomy of all other sentient creatures is simply the moral default, deserving of neither shame nor praise. But, the centrists will argue, we are still very far from such a world, and to the extent that this ideal informs the explicit expectations of the Left, it will provide those presently outside the tent with some pretty powerful psychological incentives to remain that way. At the risk of cheekiness and oversimplification, we can get a sense of this from the following payoff table:
|Join Left||Join Right|
|Response from Left||“Have you checked your privilege lately?”||“Bigot!”|
|Response from Right||“Cuck!”||“Welcome to reality, brother.”|
Joining either camp is, of course, going to earn one scorn from its rival (in plausibly equivalent amounts), but the Right rewards allegiance with comparatively more social esteem than the Left has tended to. For those already Right-aligned, switching sides will seem to entail a net sacrifice of honor. Little wonder, then, that so few of them do it, even when they would materially benefit from Leftist policies.
Here again, my aim is not to resolve these disputes to anyone’s satisfaction. I do, however, want to offer a few considerations that I think ought to mitigate some worries on the part of progressives.
a. Negative honor incentives (in the form of shaming) have been essential parts of the progressive toolbox for years.
Indeed, Appiah sees a crucial role for shame in each of the moral revolutions canvassed in The Honor Code. However, in each of these examples, the effective leveraging of this shame required appeals to a larger community with some broadly recognized moral authority. On the case of footbinding, for example, Appiah writes:
In China at the turn of the last century, the honor of women of the Chinese cultural elite required them to bind their feet. Yet changes in the perception of the nation’s honor among the literati led to the mobilization of one kind of honor—national honor—against the old system of aristocratic honor whose codes demanded footbinding. Intellectuals who wanted their country to find its place in the modern world reshaped the culture of honor so that in a generation, bound feet came to be a source not of honor, but of embarrassment, even of shame. (p. 170)
Now, there are very good reasons to think that in the present case, at the present time, such an appeal to the broader international community is unlikely to carry the same heft. We all, I trust, have a pretty good idea of what the honor cultured Right thinks of the opinions of other countries (most other countries, at any rate). America simply does not try to “find its place” among the rest of the world; it aims to lead it by example.
So I don’t think negative incentives alone will cut it here. We need the carrots of honor and not just the sticks.
b. Honor really isn’t the sort of thing about which one is apt to get complacent.
The aim of the honor cultured is to stand out among his fellows, to be particularly honored. If an individual of such a background is successfully persuaded of a narrative in which honor is bound up in commitment to progressive values, he will enjoy some brief basking time in this highly particular honor, for his peer group will still consist largely of those who’ve failed to embrace those values. Over time, though, as the composition of his peer group shifts toward those who also uphold progressive values, he’ll likely come to perceive that he no longer stands out as particularly honorable. He will thus feel increasing soft pressure to do more, to commit himself more fully, more visibly, more substantively to progressive causes. This shift can, I think, be accomplished without any need on the part of anyone to stress explicitly that a minimal commitment to basic human decency is nothing praiseworthy. If all his Leftist peers are being accorded the same honor he is, it will be to him just as if no one were being accorded honor. Those further steps toward being a better ally will then stand for him as opportunities to set himself apart (hopefully, of course, this shift in peer group composition will also have stoked his empathy, such that these further steps will also be seen as…you know…morally right things to do).
c. The notions of honor with which we initially hook the honor cultured can be subsequently amended.
As noted previously, the most defensible conception of honor is a conception that is “fully moralized.” If honor is exclusively disbursed according to moral desert, then an unequal distribution is to be expected and presents no problems beyond the unequal distribution of good character it reflects. Again, though we may have to rely initially on conceptions of honor more familiar to the traditionally honor cultured—i.e., conceptions bound up with notions of strength and masculinity—the structural features these conceptions share with a fully moralized honor permit a sort of gradual, ship-of-Theseus-style refinement toward our true goal.
d. Though the business of pursuing honor is a comparative and competitive affair, we can influence whom the relevant competitors are taken to be.
We’ve all, I trust, at some point encountered a complaint like the following:
I grew up poor. My mom drank and my dad gambled and beat the crap out of us. When they died, I was left with nothing. I worked two jobs, 70 hours a week, year after year; never asked for a handout. I busted my ass to get where I am today, and while I may not be rich, what I do have is well and truly mine. Now, why the hell should I have to give any of that up in order to help people too lazy to help themselves? I never asked them for shit.
A common progressive response has been to attempt to point out the ways in which this individual’s maleness, whiteness, straightness, cis-ness, etc. have made it easier for him to attain his present position than it would’ve been for those who don’t share all of these properties. To the extent that this response effectively taps into the individual’s empathy, it may succeed, but here again the incentive deck is stacked against it, for the demand now seems to be that he give up not just some of the fruits of his labor but, even more painfully, the honor of having earned these things all on his own.
However, of course, it is very likely true that his privileges helped him in myriad, unrecognized ways, and this fact renders perversely inappropriate the contrast he seeks to draw between himself and those he sees as “people too lazy to help themselves.” The task here is to respect this fact without putting him in a position in which he must choose between doing the right thing and preserving his honor. So, let us ask of him whether the greater man is the one who has worked hard and now jealously guards the fruits of his labor or the one who has worked just as hard so that all may eat better? Is it not a testament to the superior strength of the latter man that he can afford (in a social-psychological sense) to be so generous, that magnanimity does not diminish him? In short, let us redraw the focal contrast as one between his past self (and those similarly disposed) and his potential future self. This is a competition he can win and a victory he can enjoy without any nagging worries about having been unfairly advantaged over his rival.
(5). Embrace moral language.
The Left is nowadays frequently accused of “moralizing,” but the Right—and particularly the Christian Right—has historically been far more perspicuous about its claims to moral authority. If ever there was a ripe time for this to change, it is now. It isn’t that the Left eschews moral language altogether, but it tends to avoid language that activates foundational moral concepts. It is more likely to say of a criticized act that it is “bigoted” or “hateful” than that it is wrong. While “bigoted” may be more descriptively apt, its use leaves the Alt-Right knave (of which there are many) the conceptual freedom to ask: “What’s so bad about bigotry?” (indeed, many contemporary White Nationalists characterize their racism as simply a natural and logical extension of the partiality with which we regard our close family members).
The most primitive concept in the progressive Left’s moral repertoire is probably “justice,” but it is rhetorically inadequate for at least two reasons: (1) Older conservatives are likely to associate the term with mere upholding of the law; and (2) Younger conservatives see it only as code for “equality of outcome.” We must be willing to go deeper here, to articulate and defend a foundational moral framework that explains why justice is so damned important, and to expose the vacuity, hypocrisy, and ad hoc-ness of our rivals’ alternative frameworks. We must tell them, in no uncertain terms, that their views and acts are flatly “immoral.” Remember, these folk are drawn to dominance, and moral authority is one of oldest and most widely recognized sources of social dominance.
Now, the younger, Nietzschephile Alt-Rightists may fall back to a defense of moral anti-realism or to a claim that morality is exhausted by the “Law of the Jungle.” Their Christian fellow travelers, however, will not be able to follow them, and so a second perk of embracing moral language is the opportunity to use it as a wedge to widen a significant division within the Alt-Right community. We must make sure conservative Christians understand in sharp detail the character of those with whom they’ve chosen to ally themselves. They must be made to recognize that their pact is a Faustian one.
(If you’re wondering how the sort of moral realism I seem to take for granted above squares with my earlier professed commitment to ontological minimalism, well…that’s another long post. I will only say for now that I share a number of foundational assumptions with Peter Railton’s moral reductionism, and would recommend this paper to anyone looking for a naturalistic account of the good that’s immune to many common anti-realist objections).
(6). Call out any rearguard pivots toward relativism (and avoid such pivots yourself).
I’ve been an avid arguer both online and off- for the greater part of 15 years. I daresay I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Two important things I’ve learned during that time: (1) Right-wingers and even religious fundamentalists will retreat into relativism just as quickly as Leftists when they’re on the ropes; and (2) This fact, when pointed out to them, is a powerful and potentially transformative source of cognitive dissonance.
The popular script, of course, sees relativism as a property of the radical Left—of the Literary Criticism major, the student of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, et al.—and the Right have for years viewed it as a position of weakness, the last refuge of those unable to face hard facts. There is historical truth to this association, and I hope the majority of us on the Left are now ready to admit that the embrace of relativism has proven to be our own Faustian bargain. One cannot rear a just society on such flimsy moral and epistemological foundations. The bargain may have seemed worth it when relativism was primarily a tool of the oppressed wielded to challenge the legitimacy of their oppressors’ claims to power. But it can just as readily be used, as we’re now seeing, by the oppressors to challenge the legitimacy of the oppressed’s dissent.
In truth, taking a relativist line is a tempting maneuver for anyone in a subordinate position—including being on the losing side of a debate. The function of the maneuver, as suggested above, is to call into question one’s opponent’s claims to power and to thus undermine his dominant status. There is perhaps no greater evidence for the claim that knowledge is power than the desperation with which those who lack certain knowledge attempt to deny its very possibility to everyone else.
In this sense, then, the Right’s characterization of relativism as a position of weakness carries truth, and Rightist interlocutors ought to be reminded of this whenever they defensively adopt a relativistic tack themselves. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Newt Gingrich’s “that’s your view” (re: the national decline of violent crime) constitute two recent and relatively high-profile examples of this pivot, but the stench of relativism pervades much of the contemporary political battlefield. One can smell it in the mantra that the science of anthropogenic climate change simply isn’t settled yet, in the perennial efforts of creationists to force public schools to “teach the controversy,” in the reflexive cries of “FAKE NEWS!” vomited at any act of reporting that contradicts the Alt-Right party line, and in the ubiquitous charge of “politicization” leveled at every branch of science or history that seems to comport more readily with a liberal worldview. And, of course, it permeates smaller one-on-one exchanges in the form of tu quoque arguments (“liberals do this too!”) and accusations of bias (as if bias alone were sufficient to excuse one from assessing an argument on its merits). Your interlocutor’s aim here, even if he appears to be just trolling, is to level the moral and epistemic hierarchies that have placed you above him, and you should make sure he knows that you know this.
But don’t merely treat these opportunities as “gotcha!” moments. Play the teacher and expose in patient detail the relativistic foundations of his views and actions. This will allow you to (1) maintain a position of authority; (2) present as a somewhat softer, less intimidating (and therefore easier to submit to) authority; and (3) ratchet up the cognitive dissonance without commensurately ratcheting up defensive dismissiveness. If he throws the relativism charge back at liberals, simply remind him that you are his current interlocutor and that you, though liberal, are no relativist.
(7). Focus criticism on the interlocutor’s beliefs and behavior, not his person.
It’s important to leave some conceptual distance in your criticisms between the thought and the thinker, the behavior and the behaver. The Alt-Rightist must come to see his political and cultural trappings as merely contingent features of his identity, things he can outgrow and cast off.
If you find yourself on the winning side of some clash with an Alt-Rightist (as you should if you’re following the above advice), be wary of succumbing to a dominance high yourself. These issues and confrontations are personal for many of us, and it can become tempting to keep twisting the knife, to prize your opponent’s humiliation over his education. In certain circumstances, of course—e.g., if he’s particularly toxic and refractory—then humiliation may be the best practicable outcome, but keep in mind the larger goal of helping young men recognize and repudiate the phony honor incentives the Alt-Right dangles in front of them. If your criticisms focus too narrowly on his person, then this repudiation won’t really be possible and, however compelling your arguments, you’re likely to only send him fleeing back into Alt-Right echo chambers. Cowardly behavior can be abandoned or avoided, but a cowardly person is marked as such for life. Give him both pressure and space to become more than his current ideologies and biases.
I offer all the above advice not as one who has transcended the honor anxieties of his background culture, but merely as one who has managed to reconfigure them so that they compel his attitudes and behaviors along more morally defensible trajectories. I’m not cured, but I’m managing the illness. Learning to ride the dragon in lieu of being devoured by it. I admit that, in darker moments, there are aspects of the Alt-Right worldview that still tempt me. But this temptation is precisely what tells me this ideology cannot truly offer any honor worth wanting. We’re not tempted to bust our asses at the gym but to stay home and eat cake; not tempted to study hard for a test but to get the answers from a friend who has already taken it; not tempted to use our privileges and successes to lift others up but to wallow in self-congratulation. Only the easy things tempt.
The Alt-Right offers its allegiants a conspicuous but ultimately facile “heroism.” What could be more appealing to young, unestablished, honor cultured men? But this facility is the movement’s greatest rhetorical vulnerability. What we must offer them instead is the promise of an honor that is accessible but sufficiently demanding, sufficiently filtering to be valuable. We must offer them not the respite of an egalitarian utopia, but meaningful, winnable struggle against their baser motivations and the agents and institutions who would cynically exploit those motivations for their own narrow, exclusionary—and therefore cowardly—ends.