On toxic virtue and the new digital samizdat
“Few trials have been more ludicrous both as regarded the charges and the kind of evidence admitted. Convictions and impressions were solemnly listened to, real arguments accorded no weight whatsoever.
Brissot interrupted a witness by declaring that he had never uttered any such calumnies against Paris as were imputed to him.
‘But did your ever deny those calumnies?’ asked the president of the tribunal, as if that settled the question.”
— Ernest F. Henderson, Symbol and Satire in the French Revolution, 1922
There’s never been a more dangerous time to take issue with the mob. I thought we’d hit peak outrage sometime in 2019 and that it would taper off from there. I actually thought that by the time I’d put out my book, Unassailable, in January that I had missed the crescendo. But then coronavirus hit, and deplatformings were back with a vengeance and by April I thought it had gotten so bad I decided to make my book available for free in order to help heterodox voices get their messages out.
But I was remiss in not anticipating how much cancel-culture would ramp back up ahead of the 2020 election, fuelled by widespread angst over the lockdowns and then detonated by the murder of George Floyd. All hell is breaking loose and while there are much needed reforms occurring rapidly, at least amongst policing (mandatory body cam recordings banning of choke holds, a Senate bill to end no-knock warrants, pressure to end Qualified Immunity, and if we’re lucky, a final abolition of civil asset forfeiture), there is also a vast ideological overshoot which somehow reminds me of an intellectual analog of The Terrors phase of the French Revolution.
Emotions are running high, “people are pissed”, and the system itself appears to be in danger of breaking down. Unfortunately, the acceptable frames of discourse are now held to be obvious, and only moral reprobates would dare deviate from them.
Toxic virtue is what I define as an abrogation of the first principals of actual virtue, and a regression into a dumbed-down caricature of itself.
Virtue, is of course an ideal, to be cultivated by the enlightened leader and thoughtful citizen alike. Virtue is the beneficent cultivation of optimal character traits in oneself. In “The Conduct of Life”, Confucius stated
“To be able to practise five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue: Gravity, magnanimity, sincerity, earnestness and kindness”.
Toxic virtue, or “virtue-mongering” or “weaponized virtue”, is devoid of these traits. It is the assertion that merely staking claim to the higher moral ground makes one virtuous, and that one’s own belief system is universal. From that vantage point, all non-conforming viewpoints are by definition illegitimate and immoral.
Objectively speaking, all disagreements are at their core a difference in priorities. How could anybody else possibly tell you what your priorities should be?
Any parent of a teenager knows, you can try to explain to them how they may get farther in life if they reordered their priorities, but trying to do so for them, or to them is an exercise in futility. How on earth would it work at scale with strangers from on high telling everybody else how to reorder their own priorities?
Accepting this reality, one then comes to grips that solving disagreements in a civil society is a matter of coming to an understanding of what each party’s priorities are, and why they are that way. The next step is then coming to an arrangement that serves all parties priorities.
To arrive at a place where these orthogonal priorities can co-exist requires dialogue and discourse. People have to be able to say what they have to say, and if they don’t, then it’s going to come out one way or another.
Virtue-mongers don’t allow this because in their mind there is only one set of priorities and one set of ideals: theirs. Yours sucks and it’s not even a thing.
In the past couple weeks careers have been destroyed for trying to articulate inconsistencies in certain narratives or attempting to report on events in a non-conforming way.
Which is why, I am noticing lately, that more people are beginning to circulate articles and videos that echo a sentiment that resonates with them, privately instead of posting them in the public squares like Facebook or on Twitter.
After all, if all it takes is one tweet to ruin your career, but you still feel like you have something you want to say, then the remedy is to say it behind closed doors to people who, even if they don’t agree with you, aren’t going to try to wreck your life for saying it.
One such reader sent me this article, on Robespierre, which is what got me thinking of the historical parallels to The Terrors of the French Revolution. After he posted it to Hackernews, it made the front page until it was flagged as inappropriate (the same thing has happened to the last few articles I’ve posted there). It’s long but I read the entire thing this morning because as I said, I find the historical parallel between the ideological certainty of the Committee for Public Safety and the same surety of today’s “woke” movement.
“The source of Robespierre’s deepest convictions and of his certainty about them was his unquestioning commitment to an ideology he had largely derived from Rousseau, whom he regarded as “the tutor of the human race.” This ideology led him to believe that politics was an application of morality and that a good government was based on moral principles that ineluctably cause the interests of individuals to become indistinguishable from the general interest. Put another way, uncorrupted human beings intuitively recognize and act in the general interest. Any divergence between individual and general interest indicates the individual’s immorality and irrationality. If any individual fails to see that his true interests are the same as the general interest, he must be forced to act as if he did see it, for his own good.“
Another friend sent me a video this morning, and you know, I had it embedded in this post but then, and to my point, I thought better of it. Even more to my point, while the immigrant, person-of-colour didn’t express any allegiance to the “alt-right”, he called out certain never-Trumpers for being hypocrites inconsistent in their positions. Once I had it embedded here, it turned out the instagram account that shared it was some Maga/Qanon thing (which I couldn’t see in my Facebook messenger) and realized I was flirting with disaster.
And finally, for our purposes there is this open letter purported to be from a professor at UC Berkeley who sent it anonymously, fearing reprisals should they attach their name to it.
His or her fears are not unfounded…
An anonymous letter has been circulating, purportedly written by a @UCBHistory professor. We have no evidence that this letter was written by a History faculty member. We condemn this letter: it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion.
— UC Berkeley History (@UCBHistory) June 13, 2020
If the author of that letter is unmasked or outed, their career is over. Whoever they are, it took enormous courage to write it.
These are just a partial example of the whole: people are uneasy and generally disenfranchised, but they aren’t comfortable voicing their objections about it lest it impact their career and their livelihood.
We’re all so viscerally aware of the never-ending cancel-culture shit-list that most of us are afraid to speak our minds about what is going on or offer any kind of nuance or criticism or suggest alternatives. We may have something useful to add, but many of us won’t. We know that doing so could very well mean the end of a career or a business that we put our heart and soul into over years, decades, or even a lifetime.
We are all just one miscue away from being a trending hashtag. Frankly, I don’t even know if I’m going to post this and I’ve been working on it most of the weekend.
Vocal Minority vs Silent Majority
But there is a palpable uptick in people who used to post publicly in open forums like Facebook and Twitter, are now sending me links via private message, DM’s, email and closed, private groups. The trend now is to keep one’s opinions to themselves in the public sphere and to not share heterodox material on the public sections of the tech platforms any more.
They’re sharing them privately, and when I get the same piece from multiple people, I suspect that a lot of these are going viral, behind the scenes. This emergent phenomenon is the new incarnation of samizdat from the Soviet era. It’s digital samizdat, if you will.
I think this has been happening for awhile now and why the pollsters were so shocked when unthinkable outcomes such as Trump’s election victory or Brexit occurred.
People were shame-fatigued, so sick of being called racist, immoral, deplorable, misogynistic, privileged, intolerant or were accused of dog whistling every time they disputed the prevailing narrative. Fearing reprisals for not fully embracing toxic virtue-ism they simply toed the line of virtue-mongers in public, then turned around and walked into the voting booth and pulled the other lever.
The voting booth and the private communications channels are the last vestiges of individual autonomy and free expression and it is to here that the rational, moderate centrists, both left and right, have to beat a strategic retreat until The Virtue Terrors of the early 21st century burn themselves out.
Why this matters
I think I understand why there is so much rage in the world. I suspect it’s because the governing, one-party system is every bit as corrupt, and their enforcement arms in the police and military are every bit as brutal as the people who are protesting and revolting here and abroad assert it is. Qualified Immunity and Civil Asset Forfeiture here, War on Terror every place else, and Patriot Act, Five-Eyes Surveillance on everybody, and now Robespierre like enforcement of ideological purity, it all becomes overwhelming.
However, as I alluded in the last #AxisOfEasy podcast I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding around the underpinnings of that corruption that defines the establishment. It is understandable why that confusion exists. There is pervasive injustice, and there is an imbalance in power and there is unimaginable wealth inequality. But redistributing wealth or power isn’t the primary issue.
Max Keiser totally nailed it when he said “Forget wealth redistribution, what we need to redistribute is risk”.
Risk asymmetry means a two-tier system. Rule makers, and rule followers.
Risk asymmetry is differentiated into those who can borrow billions of dollars in freshly printed currency at no cost, and those who pay 22% on their credit cards (Keiser calls this “interest rate apartheid”).
Risk asymmetry is when the bank fails, or some public corp that levered up to buy back its own shares fails, they get bailed out in the latter, and maybe even bailed-in, with your money, if the former. But when your small business fails, or your job gets eliminated, well tough titties, that’s capitalism.
Important point from Powell. What’s true at the micro (that business failure is an important part of capitalism) doesn’t apply to the macro (that mass business failure is good for capitalism)
— Joe Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) June 10, 2020
That is the class distinction of our age. That is the nature of privilege. And until that is widely understood, nothing will improve. Until that is understood, then all social justice efforts are doomed to be co-opted by those who directly benefit from that risk asymmetry and class distinction, or hijacked by new Robespierres, who will springboard this angst to their own, ideologically extreme ends.
Of course, this will never be widely understood unless discourse is permitted. When people do step up to sound heterodox views on current events it is important that they not be demonized and destroyed. Otherwise, to the back channels and the back alleys these impulses will go, and when they are pushed underground like that, they tend to mutate and then emerge in widely unanticipated ways. This is where things like 4chan come from.
When the Girondists were led up the scaffolds to the guillotine, one of them yelled at Robespierre “you will follow us up these steps!”.
He was eventually correct, and Robespierre did indeed lose his head. The French Revolution, ignited to overthrow a repressive caste of oligarchs, devolved into The Terrors and later gave rise to Napoleon, who would crown himself Emperor and plunge Europe into war, killing millions. It took about 10 years.
We’ll know when this phase is over today when a few of the shrillest, most radical, uncompromising gasbags of virtue-mongering are found to be offside on some byzantine moral criterion or in possession of some inexcusable form of privilege and devoured by their own minions in a crescendo of sanctimony.
But what it will lead to next is anybody’s guess. If we allow open discourse and free thought, perhaps we can avoid a similar outcome. If we don’t, maybe not.
In the meantime, the virtue-mongers should take heed:
If it’s unsafe, or career threatening to participate in public discourse, then the counter narratives will diffuse behind the scenes. Nobody is going to be aware of them until they boil over into real world consequences, at which point the guardians of the narratives will lament how unprecedented and surprising it was. They may then construct some intelligence insulting mythology to explain what has happened, typically involving racism and alt-right tropes, then attack and demonize anybody who dares call out their folly.