This week I read through How to Make a Social Justice Warrior by Will Shetterly, on the advice of a skeptic friend. (Only 99¢ on Kindle!) For the most part, it is a history of the first wave of identitarian social justice mobbing on LiveJournal, along with a detailed analysis as to why this sort of group behavior continually springs into existence. (Much like the spontaneous generation of maggots from rotting meat.)
Here are a few non-randomly selected bits:
“…third options are always rejected by people who live in black and white worlds.”
“…nuance is the first victim of any political discussion on the internet.”
“It was an intersectional moment of feces and fan. The flames leaped from blog to blog.”
“First influential members of the community make cries of outrage. Then the mob acts on the outrage.”
“That was when I first suspected social justice warriors are a cult: those they can’t convert are excluded so their ideas won’t corrupt their group.”
“Groups with a shared worldview forgive their members’ worst deeds when the motive is to protect the group.”
“No one can be more wrong than smart people who think they read subtext infallibly—they’re the literary world’s equivalent of fundamentalists who see Satan’s hand guiding the pen of nonbelievers.”
A lot of this material is going to sound familiar to those who have been following the multifarious moral panics in the world of online Anglophone Atheism (or, for that matter, #GamerGate) but the events described in the first half of the book (Racefail and Fanfail) took place several years earlier in an even more niche community. If you like, skip forward to the second half of the book (Kindle location 2186) for the more generalizable insights and lessons that Shetterly took away from all hours he invested in online clusterfuffling.
Perhaps the most deeply bonecutting of all the comparisons in the book is the passage wherein Shetterly lists off the symptoms of cult behaviour from Irving L. Janis:
- an illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks;
- collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions;
- an unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;
- stereotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too weak and stupid to counter whatever risky attempts are made to defeat their purposes;
- direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members;
- self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member’s inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counterarguments;
- a shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view (party resulting from self-censorship of deviations, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent);
- the emergence of self-appointed mindguards—members who protect the group from information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.
To all this, Shetterly adds “Cults keep members from questioning their assumptions by creating a self-contained environment, complete with unique terminology.” Which should come as no surprise to misogynist shitlord dudebros spewing their unchecked privilege and oppresive microaggressions all over the place.
If none of this nonsense sounds familiar to you, I want a ticket to whatever skeptopia you’ve carved out for yourself, and I advise you NOT to read Shetterly’s book or the comments sections. If these do sound familiar to you, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences. Ever met a mindguard? Experienced direct pressure to conform to group illusions? Censored yourself for fear of instigating a dogpile? Please leave a comment below.