Reacting to Reactions to Reactions: a review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies
While social justice activists have gotten quite good at shaming those with subtly different views from their own, all their internet crusades combined will never match what the alt-right has shown that it can do–and is more than willing to do–to its chosen enemies.
From Rhyd Wildermuth, a review of Kill All Normies, by Angela Nagle
The other morning, just before starting my morning tea, I looked at my phone. I once made a practice of not looking at my phone for the first hour after waking, but I’ve let that habit slip because my lover often sends me texts in the morning, and I miss him a lot. He lives in Ireland, we don’t see each other often enough–those messages kinda get me through, you know?
So groggy, before tea, I looked at my phone, and saw I had a message from someone I didn’t know:
I’m the editor of an anti-capitalist website and publisher. I get hate mail all the time, and I generally have a rather thick skin. But for some reason, this message was harder to deal with than the ten or so others I get a week. That same day I’d also gotten accused of being the ‘real’ fascist by someone who themselves actually is one, a ‘mansplaining’ message about how I obviously don’t understand capitalism, and some others I really don’t want to recount here.
Precisely why it bothered me, though, wasn’t clear until the next day when I was engaged with a commenter whose last message to me ended with this:
“This is the clearest indication of what a trans antagonistic POS you are and completely unable to take responsibility for the harm that you cause. Really, you’re nothing but a spiritual bypassing fuck.”
In case anyone is tempted to ask the social justice version of “but what was she wearing?” suggesting I may have deserved that statement, I’ll briefly explain myself. The latter was in a post where I’d criticised Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology, saying it didn’t belong in Anarchist thought. And I’ve some history of being attacked by TERFs: photos and misquotes of me have been used by actual trans-hating people to attack me as a ‘threat to women.’ I and the other co-founder of Gods&Radicals were both attacked last year for our anti-TERF stances (she got the worst of it, getting banned from Facebook by a notorious TERF lawyer). Previously I have also been threatened with a libel suit for revealing how someone tried to prevent myself and other writers at another site from writing anything critical of anti-trans ideology.
So perhaps ‘trans antagonistic POS’ is not precisely accurate.
Getting harassed from people on both sides of an argument is always a bit perplexing. I now get as much hate mail from would-be fascists as I do from the social justice ‘left,’ and by the time I saw that last comment I had reached what felt like critical mass. There’s only so much online ire that one can comfortably digest before you just feel over-full, nauseated, and sort of done with it all.
But these last two statements rattled me deeply, and not just because I try very hard to be supportive of trans folk and also not to be an “oppressive reductionist mansplaining misogynist.” What shook me about them (besides the fact they both came from people I do not know, one anonymously), was that I recognised the attacks from somewhere.
Last year, we published a piece that cast light upon the influence of the New/Alt-Right within Paganism. For months afterwards my inbox was full of threatening emails attacking my character, calling me a fascist, a racist (against whites), a “Marxist Demagogue,” a liar, a misogynist (because I’d criticized a woman who called for the return of a ‘conservative monarchy,’) and many more things. I also lost my writing position at a Pagan site, someone bought URL’s of my name and created an attack site against me, and I still haven’t fully lived down rumors that I have collaborated with the government and the FBI.
Going back and reading some of those messages I began to understand precisely why I recognized these newer attacks. They follow the same form, the same logic, despite having different moral content. On the one hand I’m a cultural marxist feminist out to harm anyone who I don’t agree with, and on the other hand I’m a ‘mansplaining misogynist’ and ‘trans antagonistic POS’ who causes harm to strangers.
Online Markets of Virtue
No doubt most will feel a little uncomfortable drawing equivalency between alt-right types and social justice warriors. One wants fascism, the other wants tolerance, and I generally agree with that assessment. But undoubtedly, they use the same tactics, and the question remains: why do they act the same way? Published this summer, Irish author Angela Nagle’s recent book, Kill All Normies, comes closer to the answer to that question than many will find comfortable.
Kill All Normies is first and foremost a cultural history of the alt-right and of internet political culture in general, focusing primarily on the last five years. Yet its fiercest criticisms have come not from the far-right, but from the social justice ‘left,’ because like any good historian, Nagle refuses to narrate the social and cultural forces which birthed the alt-right in terms of good and evil, guilty and innocent, or righteous and barbaric.
Nagle opens her book with a discussion of an event few reading this could possibly have missed: the first explosively viral internet phenomenon, Kony 2012. If perhaps you were living in a forest and were not one of the 100 million people to have seen it, Kony 2010 was a short film produced by Jason Russell for a Christian children’s ministry to drum up support for a campaign to catch or kill the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.
Seemingly overnight, everyone with an internet connection knew about the video. And then, not long after, everyone with an internet connection knew about another one, too:
Angela Nagle correctly sees this event as a significant shift in mediated cultural and political consciousness. Suddenly, millions of people knew about a social injustice in Africa about which few had previously cared. Similarly, all those people also learned that the immense cultural and social capital accumulated by a single person could be completely wiped out just as suddenly, and by the very same mechanism by which they accumulated it.
Like the markets of capital, internet social markets giveth and taketh away, and we are now all subject to invisible hands clicking ‘like’ or ‘retweet.’
This point, unfortunately, is an only minor thread of her rather profound book. She weaves it in and out of her primary narrative deftly, and it is more than enough to stitch the entire book together, but readers unfamiliar with the applications of Marxist thought to social phenomena can be forgiven for overlooking it. However, no such leniency should be granted some of the critical reviewers of her work, who rely instead upon the very same dogmatic social justice tropes which Nagle criticises.
Because Kill All Normies isn’t just about the alt-right, but also about the social justice left. In fact, the story of the rise of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos and the social pogroms they employ against women and oppressed people cannot be told without examining the mechanisms of those crusades themselves. But to do so, those mechanism have to be looked at without their aesthetic-moral content, and that leads to some very uncomfortable questions for the new breed of online social justice advocates who have arisen from internet culture.
We are unaccustomed to viewing violent tactics from a materialist standpoint, temporarily suspending our feelings and personal allegiances to look at the act itself. A case in point would be the complete failure of the American left to regard Obama’s war tactics (and particularly the use of drone assassinations) with the same scrutiny with which they viewed Bush’s employment of those tactics. Obviously, we generally liked Obama–he was charismatic, POC, and somewhat ‘on our side,’ so we were happy to overlook his expansions of the security state and extra-judicial slaughter of American ‘enemies.’
That same inconsistency occurs when we regard other political tactics. When an alt-right troll publishes the personal information about a feminist activist (doxxing) causing her to lose her job, have to leave her home, and fear for her life, we are certainly right to see that as a violent tactic. However, when the same doxxing occurs to people in attendance at the public fascist rallies which have swept through the United States recently, our criticism falls silent. If anything, collecting and publishing the names, phone numbers, employers, and home addresses of alt-right members became a celebrated social justice cause itself.
Tumblr-Liberalism, Virtue Scarcity, and the Employment of Shame
To view the tactics as-themselves. without their moral/aesthetic content (who the target is, why it felt justified, who was using it), doesn’t necessarily lead to moral equivalency. When I receive harassing emails from TERF’s or social justice ‘leftists,’ I do not then automatically see them as ‘just as bad’ as the threats I receive from white nationalists. From such a vantage, however, I am able to note that the weapons are the same, similar to how the gun in the hands of a domestic abuse victim and the gun in the hands of a bank robber are both guns. If one decides that doxxing is ‘bad’ in the hands of 4chan trolls but ‘good’ in the hands of social justice activists, we can no longer say doxxing itself has any moral content.
So to note that the tactics employed by social justice activists and by the alt-right are the same then begs a more important question: how did they both become so common?
Nagle’s book answers this very well by presenting a cultural history of online communities, tracing the growth of ideas and narratives through both 4chan and its social justice (and let’s not forget–porn) twin, Tumblr. Particularly of note for her is the explosion of new gender identities birthed in the alembic of Tumblr’s virtue-market, paralleling 4chan and the ‘manosphere’s’ obsession with misogyny.
While gender non-conformism is nothing new, and has certainly been ever more mainstream since the beginning of the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement, this is part of the creation of an online quasi-political culture that has had a huge and unexpected level of influence. Other similar niche online subcultures in this milieu, which were always given by the emerging online right as evidence of Western decline, also include adults who identify as babies and able-bodied people who identify as disabled people to such an extent that they seek medical assistance in blinding, amputating or otherwise injuring themselves to become the disabled person they identify as.
You may question the motivations of the right’s fixation on these relatively niche subcultures, but the liberal fixation on relatively niche sections of the new online right that emerged from small online subcultures is similar in scale – that is, the influence of Tumblr on shaping strange new political sensibilities is probably equally important to what emerged from rightist chan culture.
As she points out, not conforming to the gender binary is hardly a new thing. What is new is how we talk about gender variations, how we argue about them, and what sort of recognition they require. While sites like Tumblr (founded only ten years ago) are not the only place people have discussed new ideas about gender, there is an extra capitalist mechanism at play which mediates those discussions.
That mechanism? Attention, distributed through the accumulation and appropriation of virtue.
At the beginning of the last decade, if I wanted to express my gender in a way that did not fit in with the dominant modes in my community, the amount of work I would have to do in order to convince people would be quite extensive. I might have personal friends who were supportive, might even be able to meet people who felt in similar ways, but merely saying that I was an “ambigender Otherkin” wouldn’t really get me far. Through Tumblr we are now able to find hundreds of people around the world who feel exactly the same way, or read our account and ‘discover’ that they, too, are also an Otherkin ambigender.
Upon discovery of kindred Otherkin ambigenders, a sense of community is created around which each person with similar experiences can share their joy and sorrow and especially their struggles against a world that doesn’t embrace, understand, or (likely most painful of all) has never heard about Otherkin ambigenders (!!!). From such communities can then arise political narratives which explain the oppression that one might experience when others refuse to acknowledge your identity.
Demands for better recognition, for protection, and collective actions against those who erase or dismiss your existence are now much easier to organise through such mediums, so much so that Tumblr can be said to have significantly contributed to the liberation of ambigender Otherkin.
Whether you as a reader find such discussions a bit ridiculous or truly liberatory, a more important question arises. How, then, do we judge the oppression of peoples? What moral frameworks should we use to prioritize in whom we will invest our limited political attention and energies? Is the struggle for disability recognition, the protection of women’s access to contraception and abortion, liberating Black men from the prisons, and bathroom access for trans people all equal to the needs of the Otherkin ambigender community? And can an intersectional social justice framework hashed out through social media by means of listicles on Everyday Feminism and Teen Vogue really help us answer that question?
Rather than answering that question in any meaningful way, Tumblr-Liberalism (Nagle’s description, and apt one) has provided us instead with a playbook to get attention for our cause, to get our concerns heard. To do so, we must accumulate virtue through a highly-ritualized social process invoking the demonic spirits of ‘shame’ and ‘privilege’ to coerce others into action on behalf of each individual cause. And when virtue is too equally distributed and its ‘buying power’ lessened by inflation, we must then appropriate the virtue of others by showing them no longer worthy of it (the social justice ‘call out’).
This playbook works because very few of us want to appear like assholes, and invoking virtue is a way to make others feel like they have wronged someone and should make amends. So if while reading my explanation of the oppressions faced by Otherkin you smirked or rolled your eyes, you just engaged in Otherkin-shaming. You showed your privilege as someone who is not Otherkin. And no–it’s not up to ambigender Otherkin to educate you on their oppression. And because you likely do not want to be a bad person, or at least do not want to appear as a bad person, such accusations may shame you into being more willing to listen to the concerns of ambigender Otherkin, help them raise awareness, ‘call-in’ your friends whose actions are obviously antagonistic micro-aggressions against ambigender Otherkin, etc..
Nagle asserts that virtue is the core capital of social media interactions. I want to appear virtuous, to appear as if I care about people (because I do). So I express things which show my virtue on the internet, and that grants me virtue capital. But when I do something un-virtuous, I can lose that very quickly as others seize the opportunity to accumulate the virtue I have forfeited by saying something ‘oppressive’ on-line. And even if I have not said something oppressive, it can be enough for virtue competitors to convince others that I have by changing the rules on what is oppressive or not, redefining oppression in a way that benefits the virtue competitor.
Rejecting the cumbersome and solipsistic nature of these closed systems of virtue has given great strength to the alt-right. The popularity of charismatic figures like Milo Yiannopoulos derives precisely from his boldly-stated rejections of the economies of virtue. But what the alt-right (especially 4chan denizens) do to political enemies (particularly women) operates on the very same mechanism. Women have had to flee their homes and people have actually killed themselves because of the social media campaigns against them, but whereas with Tumblr-liberalism the stakes are your social status, with the alt-right it is that and also your physical safety.
Shame is the core weapon in both political tendencies, the goal in both cases to ‘ruin’ the transgressor, and though the consequences of such ruin are different, the processes are so similar that we cannot help but wonder why they got that way.
This is another place where Angela Nagle’s book feels a little too short. One wishes it were not just a cultural history but a psycho-analytical study unraveling why both the alt-right and social justice left act like schoolyard bullies, the latter banishing transgressors from the popular group and the former kicking them in the shins and stealing their lunch money.
Misogynist Masculinists and Anti-male Feminists
To attempt such an analysis, however, would make the book even more uncomfortable, because underlying the two tendencies is the unspoken matter of gender-difference itself. The “manosphere,” 4chan and all other related subcultural/political milieu are overwhelmingly male, while their victims are primarily female. On the other hand, while Tumblr users are only slightly more often female than male, the social justice left sees maleness to be the most oppressive of the hundreds of genders existing on Tumblr.
While it may seem too simplistic or reductive to re-insert the gender binary here as a political tool, Nagle comes to the same conclusion as I previously outlined in my series on Jack Donovan (someone she briefly mentions in her book). That is, the anti-feminist “Manosphere” cannot be talked about without also speaking to the flaws in feminist thought to which they react.
This crop of forum dwelling-obsessives would be horrified to learn that the original men’s movement grew out of and alongside the feminist movement and the sexual liberation movement as a critique of rigid traditional sex roles, according to masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel. Men’s liberation later grew apart from the feminist movement as second-wave feminism became increasingly antagonistic towards men, criticizing men as a whole in its rhetoric around rape and domestic violence. Splits and tendencies developed as the question of men’s experience of their societal role took different thinkers and factions in radically different directions. It was by the 90s that the men’s movement became primarily focused on institutions in which men were excluded or discriminated against. [emphasis mine]
“Criticizing men as a whole” is basically essentialism, ascribing to all men traits and behaviors which oppress women, and it is this which actually opens up territory for the very oppression feminism attempts to fight. To quote my essay on Donovan:
Jean Baudrillard expanded Walter Benjamin’s work on aesthetics by noting how, now that we only have reproduction of art, we now also only have reproduction of politics. The ‘real’ we imagine is always a copy, a simulation of the real. Those copies and simulations become how we determine what is real, affecting our behaviour and the construction of our identities.
Whereas once the aesthetic was the visual representation of a way of being, the aesthetic is now our only blueprint. We do not know what it is like to be masculine except by the representation of the masculine, anymore than we know what it is to be anti-modern without representations of the anti-modern.
More dangerous, however, is that the negatives of images reproduce themselves as well. The aesthetic of hyper-masculinity from which Donovan and Waggener build their politics is produced from the negative space of liberal feminist critiques which reduce men to enemy, alpha-oppressor, toxic, and dangerous.
It will not seem surprising that it is on this point which Nagle has received the most ire from social justice/leftist critics, who have accused her variously of blaming feminists, trans people, and social justice advocates for being worse than the alt-right. But on the contrary, if there is anywhere that Nagle could be accused of moralizing, it’s in her accounts of what the alt-right has done to women. Her history of the harassment of women during “Gamer Gate” is harrowing and she spares no details, and particularly her criticisms of Milo and the “manosphere” are everything but gentle or sympathetic
Kill All Normies is just as much an indictment of the social justice left as it is a warning about the alt-right, but it is not completely without flaws. Much attention already has been given to one particular aspect of the book, so much so that I was told to read the book was to side with the enemy. “She hates trans people,” I was informed, because of her sympathetic discussion of the incidents surrounding Germaine Greer and her rejection of no-platform tactics.
These aspects deserve further attention. Germaine Greer is a feminist thinker in the United Kingdom who has been no-platformed by trans-activists for her public rejection (15 years ago) of trans identity. Her feminism is indeed trans-exclusive, and while Nagle makes clear she herself supports trans issues, her sympathetic treatment of Greer has led some to claim the opposite.
First, the entire section in question:
These dynamics, which began in subcultural obscurity online, later spilled over into the campus wars over free speech, trigger warnings, the Western canon and safe spaces. Trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder. They claimed to be ‘triggered’ by mention of anything distressing, a claim with no scientific basis and including everything from great works of classical literature to expressions of pretty mainstream non-liberal opinion, like the idea that there are only two genders.
At the height of all this Germaine Greer was announced to speak at Cardiff University about ‘Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. The women’s officer at Cardiff University Students’ Union, Rachael Melhuish, decided that Greer’s presence would be ‘harmful’. In her petition calling for the event’s cancellation, she claimed:
Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether… Universities should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses, not invite speakers who seek to further marginalise them. We urge Cardiff University to cancel this event.
The petition was signed by over 2,000 people and Greer was transformed overnight from a leading veteran figure who worked for her entire life for the cause of women’s liberation to a forbidden and toxic TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), whose name was dragged through the dirt. As far as this new generation of campus feminists was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right. Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years, which was ‘not my issue’, she later told Newsnight. In response to the controversy, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor pandered to those attacking Greer, saying: ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’ and how it ‘work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people’.
Not satisfied with the attacks on Greer thus far, online activist Payton Quinn, identifying as ‘non binary’ and a ‘trans feminist activist and all round ethereal being’ penned an angry public letter suggesting Greer’s actions were criminal in an article titled ‘Entitled to Free Speech But Not Above the Law’.
Greer’s feminism undoubtedly falls into what most would describe as Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism, and though it is not up to me to decide whether Greer deserves a platform to speak, Greer’s no-platforming seem neither the social justice victory trans activists believe it to be, nor does it seems nearly the great loss which Angela Nagle suggests.
Nagle’s reason for bringing Germaine Greer up at all is not to defend her brand of trans-exclusive feminism, but rather to elucidate how no-platforming and Tumblr-liberalism has led to the left having no coherent intellectual discourse against the alt-right. Few theorists or intellectuals can accumulate enough virtue capital to withstand the friendly-fire long enough to iterate a coherent political and cultural ideology that can weaken the alt-right’s position. But here she makes a rare intellectual error herself, because Greer’s feminism is precisely the sort that hobbles the efforts to cultivate something that can oppose the core brilliance of alt-right fascism.
Greer’s feminism is actually not much different from the feminism we see in Tumblr-liberalism; both heavily rely on the notion that men are the alpha-oppressors of women, and merely differ on whether trans women are part of that oppressor class or part of the sacred oppressed. For a TERF, the answer is the former: male socialization and/or the possession of a penis at some point in ones life makes you part of the privileged male oppressor class no matter what surgery or life experiences might make you feel otherwise. But the social justice position on trans women (they are no longer men, maybe never were men, are just as oppressed and even more so than women) is no more radical. It keeps the same basic article of faith (men are bad) and only disagrees with TERF ideology on whether or not maleness can ever be mediated.
While both sides resort to harassment, no-platforming, doxxing, and even direct violence against each other, the alt-right continues to build support from men (who are after all the alpha-oppressors with no chance ever of undoing their patriarchal male privilege, so why not embrace it?). No one on the left could possibly articulate a way out of that anti-masculinist deadlock–to even question such articles of faith is to risk all your virtue capital, if you are even listened to at all. And so while social justice activists have gotten quite good at shaming those with subtly different views from their own, all their internet crusades combined will never match what the alt-right has shown that it can–and is more than willing–to do to its chosen enemies.
At the end of Kill All Normies, Nagle ends with an understandably bitter indictment of the feminist social justice left after the death of Mark Fisher:
During the period examined in this book, Mark Fisher stood out as one of the few voices not on the right who had spoken out against the anti-intellectual, unhinged culture of group hysteria that gripped the cultural left in the years preceding the reactive rise of the new far right online. In January 2017, when news broke that Fisher had committed suicide, those in the same online milieu that had slandered and smeared him for years responded as you might expect—by gloating.
Stavvers (aka Another Angry Woman), an influential Twitter figure among what the alt-right call SJWs, had already written ‘Vampires Castle’ sarcastically down as her Twitter location and responded to the news of his death by tweeting: ‘Just because Mark Fisher is dead, doesn’t make him right about “sour-faced identitarians”. If only left misogyny would die with him,’ with the follow-up: ‘*dons vampire cape, flies off into the night*,’ This response is a fairly typical example of precisely the sour-faced identitarians who undoubtedly drove so many young people to the right during these vicious culture wars. The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.
While a tragic tale, reading it made me feel a little less alone. While I am hardly excited about the onslaught of anonymous messages from TERFs calling me a “oppressive reductionist mansplaining misogynist,” or angry comments from trans people calling me a “spiritual bypassing fuck” that this review will elicit, the very fact that Angela Nagle wrote this book at all gives me hope.
Perhaps this will all change soon. Perhaps enough people will read her book and decide to opt-out of the 4chan/Tumblr outrage machine, holding the line against the absurdity with thoughtful critique and actual organizing. Because the people who actually benefit from the call outs and doxxing and harrassment are neither the victims nor the perpetrators themselves. It’s the capitalist machines profiting from every click and retweet, every social justice crusade and manosphere pogrom–not us.
thecollective note: this is a month old. we missed it when it first came out.