Tuesday, January 31, 2017

There Can Be Only One

Social media can be, for lack of a better term, faddish. Something new enters the general consciousness, and the next thing you know, it's come to dominate some or another corner of the online world. One such recent fad is virtue-signalling via claiming that one has no problem punching Nazis. I'm not sure how it all started, but it seems to stem from a gif that's been making the rounds of someone running up and sucker-punching Richard Spencer while he was being interviewed. (Richard Spencer, for those who don't know, being a White separatist. He wants White people to be able to create racial homogeneous enclaves and keep others out.)

As this particular wildfire burned through the Left side of my social media stream, a predictable debate began to take shape, namely: Is it justified to assault someone simply on the basis of their belief system. And before, well, nearly any time had passed the debate turned acrimonious, with terms like "Nazi Apologist" and "Fascist" being thrown around, and people retreating into echo-chambers of like-minded souls and demanding that all who entered tell them how correct they were. Some people narrated the historical crimes of the National Socialist German Workers' Party from the 1920s through the Second World War to justify punching people they understood to be Nazis as a form of preemptive self-defense. Others cited their commitments to freedom of thought and freedom of expression as reasons why they wouldn't be the ones to attack first. There were rebuttals to that in the idea that Liberal Democracies sowed the seeds of their own destruction by being too accepting of self-evidently harmful ideologies; an interesting appropriation of the Conservative line of thinking that says that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact."

But one of the most interesting things about it was how quickly the two sides began to call out perversity in those who declined to support them. Before the "reactive" faction had even begun to form, the "proactive" faction had begun to label as somehow sympathetic to racism and antisemitism those who refused to back the principle that assaults on Nazis were ethically (if not legally) permissible. Accordingly, as the reactive faction had begun to cluster into groups, the accusations of authoritarianism and totalitarianism began.

Unsurprisingly, given that the subject under consideration is a reaction to one of the most well-developed understandings of evil in modern times, the debate took on a moral character even before it started, and once that moral tone was set, neither side was willing to grant the other the mantle of principled opposition. Once the sides determined that their chosen principle was self-evidently correct, there could be no opposing principle. You could either accept or reject the primacy of principle, but there was no choosing a valid, but competing, maxim by which to live. You were either for the side of right and justice, or you were against it. With predictable consequences.

Of course, the whole of the debate is not like this. There are people who can discuss this with those who disagree with them without feeling the pang of an intentional rejection of their worldview and their ethics. But I find it interesting the posts that garner the most plusses, and the most reshares simply captioned, "this." They are always the ones that go the farthest, the ones that most vehemently declare that their viewpoint is self-evident to the point that only the unintelligent, credulous or immoral fail (or decline) to see it. And I think that they are popular because they take way the element of choice.

In any situation like this, choice can be empowering, or it can be terrifying. And I think that as the moral stakes are raised, the fear of making the wrong choice becomes greater and greater. And this may be why the strident, morally decisive posts are attractive to so many people. They don't make the choice for the reader. They confirm the reader's suspicion that there is no valid choice, other than: "Will you stand up for the Right things?" It's a worldview that offers a confidence in oneself that many everyday situations don't. And the price that it exacts is little more than some level of contempt for others. But even then, it makes that seem eminently worth paying, because it casts them as not only worthy of contempt, but willfully so.

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