The Laziest Revolution: How “Kill All Normies” Defines and Defies Political Extremes
To define a movement as a subculture is to suggest that it lies below the mainstream current. The word subculture alone does not attribute an intent, meaning, or goal pushing said movement. Instead, it gives it a sense of counter-culture elusion. And in times of political upheaval or confusion, the elusive contrary becomes more and more desirable.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is neither an attack on the alt-right nor extreme left, but rather a deep analysis of socio political priorities based on counter-party politics. She criticizes the left’s solipsistic tendencies along with the alt-right’s inability to legitimize discourse. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Nagle is that politics today lack any sense of direction and focus. The alt-right’s dependence on memes and internet grotesqueness are merely examples of this. This essay seeks to understand the ways in which the alt-right can appeal to average Americans (as it so often does), how follower mentality is brutal, the left’s obsession with correctness, and why the intersection of humor and political discussion will never satisfy the societal need for actual productive discourse.
In doing research for this macro style analysis and finding only academic essays, each with their own opinion, I am reminded of a particular Chinua Achebe quote; “as a sensible man I will not accept just any traveler’s tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself”. So I went and logged onto 4chan.org.
Upon first glance, it’s an internet dinosaur, complete with a peachy monochrome background and the ever comforting “Copyright © 2003”. There’s a thread of surprisingly harmless My Little Pony images, homework help, debates about Oxford or Penguin publishing, and anonymous users condensed to numerical monikers asking some of life’s big questions.
Going deeper in this search, one will find an ongoing trend- the use of profane insults, directed at the previous commenter. The topics in question make it easy to dismiss some words; users talking about fictinonal horses referring to one another as “retarded”.
It’s an exhibition on the strength of digital semantic satiation. Because even though my “normie brain” still reacts to the shock value, the words no longer mean anything to the users.
Following in Nagle’s digital footsteps, I made my way to the section known as “Politically Incorrect.” What I found were a slew of deeply violent conversations about immigration and people of color. What was curious about each dialogue is that the user would not only insult the political “playing piece” in question, but they’d also manage to slander whoever they were responding to, as well as themselves. It is as though the users creating the content have some underlying understanding that their opinion does not matter by itself. Being that rejection of individuality tends to be a core tenet of the genuinely fascist alt-right, this makes an awful lot of sense. As Nagle puts it, the site involves “self-deprecating in its own self-mockery of nerdish ‘beta’ male identity” (17). This self awareness of their own weakness leads them to believe that they as an individual have no power with their words, causing this uproar of internet entropy via slander. Not only that, it means that they have given themselves permission to say whatever about whomever, whenever they want.
4chan is a grave reminder that there is power in things that are easy.
That is, it makes sense that a site like this could consume your average conservative American and radicalize their beliefs, if only from the comfort of their own basement. But condemning the online alt-right without taking a deep look at why these trends catch on would be a mistake. There are logical reasons that leaderless online groups have been successful, if you define success by turnouts for events like the Charlottesville protest.
Liberal politics occupy a sufficient amount of mental real estate, via campus politics or common-goods marketing, so most would agree that we live in a socially liberal society. If conservatives, more specifically the alt-right identifying, want a space free of liberal restriction, sites like 4chan certainly are the place for it. The most attractive part of this emerging online culture is the use of parody and satire because it instills a sense of digital ephemerality. Using memes and creating an entirely new culture surrounding profanity and slurs creates an illusory blanket. You can suddenly live online as a hateful nameless nonentity, but still exist in the real world as a functioning human being.
For users at the helm of this office desk swivel chair revolution, like The Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin and other “proud boys”, it’s about going as far as you can with obscurity and obscenity. For the followers, it’s about how far you can go before the movement becomes real. By the time the social movement exists in a legitimate space, you either stay or go. Charlottesville was a perfect example of somewhat dedicated followers surrendering to the movement and becoming cogs in the alt-right machine. They gave up maybe the most desirable part of the online movement: anonymity. So how does something that can be shrugged off as fake or just a joke for some, become a microcosm of fascism for others?
The use of the word fascism in the past few years can be a dangerous game. Sometimes mistaken for a harmless epithet, the left likes to toss it around in conversations about the current administration and the general right. Using the word to talk about the rise of the online alt-right, however, may be a learning opportunity. In Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, he writes about fascism as a strategic agenda, seeping into different cultural realms. He writes, “Fascist politics include many distinct strategies: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety…” The online movement checks all of these boxes. This is not to suggest that the users of online sites are part of a fascist regime, but rather that the effects of the follower complex are at play. Users forego individuality, react to and share propaganda, organize and support, and act as one. It is easy and ever accessible to be a part of the online movement when anything said can be taken aback, all at the tips of your fingers.
This is a book about dark sides though, which implies a plurality, and Nagle definitely doesn’t hold back on the left. The alt-right is not unique in their domination on an online platform. Nagle sites Tumblr and Twitter as two very common and often overlooked examples. The left established an online culture rooted in kitschy internet lingua franca and focus on identity. Nagle writes that “symbolic representative diversity and recognition became [Tumblr’s] goals, as it admonished transgressors for ‘erasing my identity’ and urged white/straight/male/cis people to ‘listen and believe’”(62).
While identity is a very important part of the modern left, it comes at a major cost. During the late 2000s, the younger liberal generations started to confound genuine political change with the ability to “speak their truth” online. Instead of utilizing actual arenas for discussion, like public forums or community meetings, the online left found comfort in self expression, especially during the Obama presidency.
One might argue that this online safety net has allowed for the subversion of the political left, while the media remains a stronghold. Today, we see this in the juxtaposition between campus politics and actual governmental policies. While schools of thought and modes of entertainment reflect leftist ideology, they fail to affect the American people on paper. One might argue that activist media can work towards actual political change. This is true, but not when entertainment is being made solely for people who agree with said media’s main argument. Deep political movements require patience and some manipulation of “the other side”. It’s about finding the middle ground in the place you’d least expect it.
Another common facet of modern liberalism that serves as a point of contention for the right is the inability to recognize why some identities are more difficult to comprehend at first. For example, if a straight, cis white male has never experienced gender dysphoria, it would make sense that he wouldn’t relate to media pushing transgender rights. And without giving someone time to learn or understand other perspectives, it forces them to shut down the movement completely, creating more unnecessary space between the two extremes.
Change cannot come from preaching to only the choir and shutting the doors on those who are too shy to sing. No one on the left should make the dangerous mistake that ongoing social progress via culture is a replacement for the alt-right undercurrent and what happens in Capitol Hill. Kill All Normies does not fault liberalism for the problems with democracy today, but it does make a point to emphasize our fixation on identity politics and political correctness. Essentially, it serves as a warning for the left to stay vigilant and watch for distractions.
Returning to the discussion about brutal conversations on sites like 4chan, as academics can we ever truly consider this political discourse? The answer is a plain no. Even though the political arena can often be chaotic, it is still somewhat regulated. And if natural societal conduct and FCC regulations are what the American public needs to keep productive political discussions alive, so be it. It may sound simple, but words- when talking about war, race, immigration- should be crafted in such a way that they reflect the likes and motivation of the individual using them. Sites like 4chan are simply destructive to American political processes. There is a part of me that would like to believe that the internet is not a causation of the world coming to a dramatic halt or deep cultural change. Somehow, it is more comforting to believe that humans have always had a deep rooted, natural tendency to be violent and cruel, especially when there is no consequence for doing so.
Lastly, it’s imperative to note that academic discussions about groups like the alt-right can easily serve as fuel for the movement. One of the core characteristics of hate groups is that they seek validation from external resources, especially those who want to push against their cause. Kill All Normies may give a full 103 pages of attention to these basement crusaders, but it’s 103 pages of keen analysis that successfully stands on the sidelines, without cheerleading for one side.
As democracy continues to change, shapeshifting endlessly to accomodate for new political platforms, participants should recognize that discussions are much more effective when they are constructed with manner and poise. If nothing else, the American people need to learn that words are only as strong as the actions that follow.
Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: the Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Washington, USA, 2017.
Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them. Random House, 2018.