Lots of media people today talking about whether “heated” rhetoric resulted in what we have seen in the past few weeks. But this is the wrong frame.
The “heated rhetoric” approach to thinking about public discourse imagines political violence as a barroom brawl. Someone spills a drink. Someone calls that person an asshole. That person makes a comment about that person’s girlfriend, which results in a push, which leads to a shove, which leads to a punch and pretty soon people are fighting.
These dynamics do occur, both in personal situations and larger political ones. Gang warfare and neighbor disputes have these dynamics. These dynamics also exist within deliberative bodies. I’ve seen such things happen in local political settings too.
But that’s not what the last week has been about.
The problem with the rhetoric we are seeing is not how angry it is or how insulting. It’s not even the viciousness of the attacks.
Our problem is not heated rhetoric, but toxic rhetoric.
Toxic Rhetoric Doesn’t Just Inflame, It Warps Reality
Toxic rhetoric is used not just to attack, but to warp people’s reality. It often works as a system, with bottom up web-based networks providing dangerous meta-narratives that map on to mainstream news stories and that are reinforced by elite dog-whistling. When the different parts of the system are assembled the effect is different than any one part acting individually.
The prime example of this is the “caravan” meta-narrative that seems to have been the partial motivation of the apparent pipe-bomber and a central motivation of the synagogue shooter.
Consider the last social media message of the shooter.
Bowers states that HIAS, a Jewish charity that helps refugees, is “bringing in invaders”, and he can’t stand by and let his people “get slaughtered.” He knows this close to the election a mass shooting will not look good, but he has no choice, time is of the essence.
This is not the voice of someone that has gotten so mad or angry they are going to hurt somebody. It’s not about the heat, or even the hate. There is a belief here that if something is not done now it will literally lead to the slaughter of the white people. That is the motivation. Hate plays a part, but it is the delusion that triggers the action.
Why does he believe that the white race is literally weeks or days from annihilation from foreign invaders? And what does it have to do with the Jewish community?
His posts provide an answer. There is some speculation required here but not much. Bowers seems to have believed that the migrant “caravan” had been organized by George Soros as part of a vast Jewish conspiracy to subjugate white people. This theory first emerged in March, attached to a different caravan, and circulated in Facebook groups and other platforms. When the more recent caravan appeared it was attached to that caravan.
For people deep in “anti-globalist” social media distortion field, there were added overtones. A popular book among white nationalists, the alt-right, and a number of mainstream conservatives is the 1975 novel Camp of the Saints which tells the story of an “armada” of 800,000 impoverished Indians that winds its way slowly to the shores of France seeking asylum. Politicians dither about what should be done as it moves towards France’s shores, not knowing that the landing of the refugee ships is a signal for migrants everywhere to rise up and begin the white genocide.
This is not “heated rhetoric”. This is toxic rhetoric. It doesn’t just inflame the passions — it rots the mind and poisons the intellect.
I want to be very careful about how I say this — but if you believed this was true, if you really believed your entire race was about to be extinguished by an invading migrant army controlled by all-powerful Jewish interests, then violence not an insane act, or even an act of anger. It would, in a demented way, be rational. And that — not angry words — is what makes our discourse so dangerous.
These Beliefs Are Insane, But the Perpetrators Are Probably Not and That Should Scare You
There is a rush whenever this happens to say that the people committing these acts were insane. This is never based on any real analysis, but usually based on the fact that they committed unspeakable violence and the fact they believed delusional things.
The “they committed violence” approach is easy to dismiss as it is tautological:
- Q: “Why did they commit these unspeakable acts?”
- A: “They were insane.”
- Q: “How do we know they are insane?”
- A: “They committed unspeakable acts.”
The second thing the media does to paint these folks as insane is show their beliefs. So Bowers apparently believed that George Soros was organizing the “caravan”, funding it and assisting it. Obviously delusional, right?
Except these views are quite common. Here’s a VP of Campbell’s Soup (now a former VP). Open Society is a charity that Soros runs:
Johnston was a former Secretary of the US Senate under Bob Dole. And these beliefs are quite common, propagated through a massive amplification and dissemination network on social media. Here, for example, is a “Soros” mention network that researcher Jonathan Albright pulled off of Instagram just before the synagogue attack.
The dense connections you see up there in red are a sign of a coordinated effort to get Soros disinformation in front of people. Exposure to these narratives provides the framework through which those exposed will view mainstream coverage and the statements of their chosen elites.
As a result, millions of people are consuming these narratives, along with false flag and crisis actor memes. And it is not hysteria to see those who read and spread these memes at different points along a radicalization spectrum. The former VP of Campbell’s Soup was not striking a pose. He had bought into the idea that not only was George Soros funding and coordinating an invasion, but that there was a conspiracy by the media to hide it, so much so that the camera operators and reporters were under orders from the networks to hide the “troop carriers and rail cars” that were there to take them north.
Going the next step, and believing this massive conspiracy of a thousand moving parts is a Jewish conspiracy wouldn’t even be the hardest radicalization step here. To a person who has been consuming toxic garbage for years and has bought into plainly impossible vast conspiracies this is the smallest, not the largest step.
This Was Predictable
Almost two years ago I wrote a post about the wrongheaded idea that when people consumed disinformation it was mainly a case of confirmation bias, with people becoming more confident (and perhaps more emotional) about ideas they already held. The better way to look at it I said was as a process of radicalization into conspiracy-driven networks and other alternate realities. Seeing it this way was crucial, I claimed, because bit by bit social media was pulling us toward a disaster much bigger than the 2016 election, where the net-enabled mainstreaming of conspiracy theory and the mythology of white supremacy would mix with disastrous results:
People exposed themselves to Facebook multiple times a day, every single day, seeing headlines making all sorts of crazy claims, and filed them in their famil-o-meter for future reference. We’ve never seen something on this scale. Not even close.
If Facebook was a tool for confirmation bias, that would kind of suck. It would. But that is not the claim. The claim is that Facebook is quite literally training us to be conspiracy theorists. And given the history of what happens when conspiracy theory and white supremacy mix, that should scare the hell out of you.
Many people provided welcome feedback to it, some supportive, some critical. Was this a moral panic perhaps? Was it really historically unique? Was the 2016 election just a weird blip? Did people’s minds really change or did they post these things without believing them? Silly Mike, you need to take these things seriously but not literally.
Years later the prediction has proven true, time and time again, with horrific regularity here and abroad. Yet we’re still talking about confirmation bias and heated conversations and civility as the core issues. We’re still stuck in tiny pilot programs around web-based literacy to address this stuff on stunningly small scales.
Meanwhile, post by post, click by click, people of all ages are being slowly groomed into conspiracy cultures that turn fear into violence and authoritarian rule. Once people’s reality is warped in this way, bringing them back is difficult, and yet we are moving at a snail’s pace on educational and technological fronts. The media is still talking about the problem as if the core was people being impolite. The world slowly slides toward a dark future, across the globe. We have educational solutions (just read the rest of this blog) but they remain un-deployed or under-deployed.
The events of the past week were completely predictable, in the most obvious way: they were predicted. Multiple times. They have happened before, in multiple countries, multiple ways, multiple incidents. This all should matter. I’m am crushed and broken by the events of the past week. But much of my anger and frustration is at the too-small educational solutions we continue to roll out as the entire edifice slowly sinks.