Jeff Stein | Strategic Speech Tactics and Alt-Right Metapolitics

By Jeff Stein

This week’s readings reveal an ascendant alt-right “metapolitical” strategy; in the words of alt-right leader Daniel Friberg, the movement’s project is to “disseminat[e] and anchor[] a particular set of cultural ideas, attitudes, and values in a society,” thus laying the groundwork for “deeper political change.”[1]  In response, this post situates the alt-right’s metapolitical project within the larger speech environment.  It offers a taxonomy of commonly-employed alt-right strategic speech tactics.  It then argues that the movement’s strategic speech tactics exploit architectural features of modern modes of digital communication[2] and harness the ideological drift of the American “free speech” ideal.[3]  Finally, it argues that the left is constrained in its response to alt-right metapolitics because the left and the alt-right hold “asymmetric ideological commitments,”[4] thus foreclosing symmetric counter-strategic speech as a viable left response.

 

I. Strategic Speech Tactics of the Alt-Right

Friberg offers a two-part vision of “metapolitical warfare”: (1) The alt-right “undermines and deconstructs” what it perceives as prevailing left-wing narratives; (2) The movement then “translate[s] [the warfare] into actual political power” by influencing of “the masses” and public figures, including media elites (like Ann Coulter) and politicians (like Donald Trump).[5]  In an effort to understand the operation of this metapolitical warfare, it is worth isolating the various strategic speech tactics that alt-right leaders employ to execute their larger strategy.

 

A. Gaslighting and Trolling

One of the alt-right’s most favored tactics involves blatant attempts at psychological manipulation: namely, gaslighting.[6]  George T. Shaw’s “deconstruction” of concepts like “racism” and “sexism” exemplifies alt-right gaslighting methods: First, the concept is disingenuously redefined beyond recognition; then, the alt-righter insists that he has not changed the concept’s uncontested meaning; finally, the alt-righter attempts to wield the redefined concept against those who would dismiss his convictions as per se repugnant and unworthy of intellectual engagement.[7]

As described by Alex McNabb, such gaslighting often occurs through the practice of online “trolling.”[8]  According to McNabb, “the preliminary goal is to get the target to agree to a general premise, and then use that premise to relentlessly clobber him.”[9]  Of course, the ultimate goal is not to persuade the target; rather, the troll’s true audience is the right-leaning social media lurker: “While the liberal or progressive may never repent, there are others watching the exchange, and it is the troll’s mission to demonstrate the strength of his rhetoric and arguments to them while making his opponent look like a pitiful laughing stock.”[10]  In McNabb’s telling, such trolling has “turned the tide against leftwing ideological hegemony,” in stark contrast to past right-wing “debate and argument” approaches.

Perhaps the greatest success of gaslighting is simply bringing abhorrent ideas back into the fold of commonplace discourse.  As Shaw explains: “The shitlib will doubtessly have numerous ridiculous assumptions … but he is now debating, rather than assuming and condemning you based on his fundamental assertion.”[11] Indeed, once the target has been trapped in a gaslighting game, “he must address your assertion.”[12]

 

B. Victimization

Alt-righters also habitually cast themselves as victims of a global phenomenon: white genocide.[13]  According to alt-right leaders like Shaw, their “outrageous and offensive” ideas about “racial differences” and “the Jewish question” are compelled by “a transfer of power from white males” that threatens their very existence.[14]  Indeed, they argue, Jews and other “social engineers” have achieved their goal of white genocide by “collapsing white birthrates through sowing beliefs and attitudes that make family formation impossible, and by sanitizing and normalizing miscegenation.”[15]

 

C. Dehumanization

Finally, the alt-right constantly traffics in dehumanization, belittling “opponents”[16] and allies alike with abusive rhetoric.  Some of these statements come in the classic form of cultivating reliable boogeymen (e.g., invocations of “the Jewish question”).  Invectives also take the form of “distinctive words and terms” which are meant to demean everyone from clear enemies to potential allies.[17]  As Renata Salecl notes: “[T]he alt-right writers lecture men on their lost manliness and the ideals of how a man should look like and behave. With this discourse, alt-right repeats and accentuates the type of aggression that for some time dominates reality TV shows and which has been mastered to perfection with Donald Trump. In this discourse, people are called ‘losers,’ and they are constantly ‘fired.’”[18]  Notably, these attempts at critique, navigation, and persuasion are the epitome of strategic speech; in Habermas’ terms, these speech actions are entirely “disengaged from the mechanism of reaching understanding.”[19]

 

II. A Hospitable Modern Speech Environment

Why have these strategic speech tactics been effective?  While some tactics—like concocting Jewish boogeymen and dehumanizing enemies—are certainly not innovations, I argue that the alt-right’s successful deployment of these tactics is especially potent given two features of the modern speech environment: (1) the political valence of free speech has drifted dramatically to the right; and (2) the architecture of modes of digital communication promotes the amplification of alt-right metapolitical content.

 

A. Free Speech’s Ideological Drift

While the “weaponization of the First Amendment” has become an idée fixe in popular discourse about conservative capture of “the freedom of speech,”[20] a much broader ideological drift[21] has occurred with respect to the American free speech right.  As early as 1993, Professor Jack Balkin noted:

Since the 1920s left-liberals in the United States have tended to take relatively libertarian views on free speech, while conservatives have been more likely to balance the interest in free speech against the interest in social order, the preservation of important social values, and so on. In the last several years we have seen a gradual and partial reversal of these positions in debates over regulation of sexual and racial harassment, campaign finance, and pornography.[22]

This ideological drift has continued at an accelerated pace.  Today, “free speech” is the battle cry of the alt-right,[23] with provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon framing their stunts as vindications of an unflappable societal commitment to the freedom to say anything—especially deeply offensive or demonstrably harmful things—free from fear of any punishment, including social backlash.[24]  By contrast, it is those with egalitarian goals—like religious tolerance and civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities—who highlight the harms associated with an absolute free speech right.[25]

The alt-right’s strategic speech tactics capitalize on—and exacerbate—this trend.  By redefining and hijacking the free speech right—just as they have with many other concepts—the alt-right cloaks its dehumanizing and trolling rhetoric in the language of universal rights and constitutionally-guaranteed liberties.  This, in turn, perpetuates the right-ward drift of the free speech concept, giving the movement increased license to deploy harmful speech as a part of its metapolitical warfare.

 

B. The Architecture of Modes of Communication

Additionally, the architecture of the social media platforms—and the Internet more broadly—creates the conditions for successful deployment of the alt-right’s strategic speech tactics.[26]  Almost a decade ago, Professor Danielle Keats Citron noted that unique qualities of the online speech environment make it especially hospitable to the spread of hateful speech, including the ability of large anonymous mobs to repeatedly single out and harass women, as well as racial and religious minorities.[27]  More recently, Professor Tim Wu has highlighted the threats posed by alt-right “troll armies,” which, in some cases, have driven journalists from social media altogether.[28]

Moreover, the potential for virality makes sensational, dehumanizing, and outrageous content all the more insidious.[29]  This is especially true because major social media platforms often “effectively filter[] people into like-minded groups, isolating them from … moderating voices.”[30]  These features are perpetuated by ineffectual content moderation policies; Twitter and Facebook, for example, routinely fail to stop the spread of hateful speech, promulgating opaque “community standards” which are applied unevenly (when applied at all).[31]  And outside of major platforms, “alt-tech” sites provide readymade filter bubbles where right-wing extremists—like the recent alleged Tree of Life synagogue shooter—thrive.[32]

Finally, the offline importance of Fox News cannot be overstated.  Hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham routinely feature content directly lifted from alt-right social media influencers, broadcasting white nationalist arguments to two important constituencies: (1) millions of Americans who are not active online; and (2) President Donald Trump.[33]  With this final link, the second part of the alt-right’s metapolitical project—translating “memes” into actual power—is regularly achieved.

 

III. A Left Response?

Given the success of the alt-right’s strategic speech tactics—as well as the online and offline conditions that foster them—how might the left respond?  This section argues that symmetric counter-measures, like manipulative and strategic uses of social media and other modes of speech dissemination, are ultimately antithetical to core left speech commitments like sincerity and fairness.

Indeed, the left’s ability to counter the alt-right’s current metapolitical project may hinge on its ability to engage in effective speech.  However, the successful strategic speech tactics employed by the alt-right are offensive to egalitarian commitments, and, as such, must be considered off the table.

Consider, for example, Professor Seana Shiffrin’s efforts to conceptualize “our collective testimonial framework.”[34]  According to Shiffrin, “[o]ur moral lives … depend on our accurate knowledge of others’ beliefs, feelings, and situations if we are to respond well to them, and our democratic lives depend upon respectful and, often, responsive engagement with the positions and concerns of others.”[35]  Further, in Shiffrin’s telling, adopting “a posture of epistemic remove or doubt … hinder[s] our ability to engage with and respond to [others] as equals.”[36]  If a foundational commitment to sincerity is a prerequisite to egalitarian treatment, as Shiffrin argues, then the type of strategic and exploitative speech tactics of the alt-right are fundamentally inconsistent with broader left goals.

Similarly, strategic speech tactics that involve psychological manipulation or demeaning listeners seem deeply incompatible with egalitarian principles.  On this point, consider the arguments of Professor Jeremy Waldron, who writes that a functioning speech environment must provide all members of society with “a general assurance of decent treatment and respect as [they] live their lives and go about their business in public.”[37]  For Waldron, this “assurance” is inextricably linked to the (Rawlsian) project of creating a fundamentally fair society.[38]  Insofar as this is a left project, vituperative strategic speech tactics may be untenable vehicles for left metapolitical moves.

[1] Daniel Friberg, The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition 4 (2014). In George T. Shaw’s telling, the alt-right’s “ideological guideposts” are: (1) “[R]acial [and] ethnic traits are inherited and mostly unchangeable … [and racial diversity] make[s] white societies poorer, more dangerous, and finally unlivable for whites; (2) “Jews not only wield obscene power in Western societies, they use that power to damage native white populations”; and (3) “White genocide is underway.”  George T. Shaw, An Alternative to Failure, in A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders XI–XII (George T. Shaw ed., 2018).

[2] See, e.g., Tim Wu, Knight First Amendment Inst., Is the First Amendment Obsolete? (2017); Danielle Keats Citron, Cyber Civil Rights, 89 B.U. L. Rev. 61, 63–64 (2009).

[3] See J.M. Balkin, Ideological Drift and the Struggle over Meaning, 25 Conn. L. Rev. 869, 871 (1993).

[4] See Joseph Fishkin & David E. Pozen, Asymmetric Constitutional Hardball, 118 Colum. L. Rev. 915, 959 (2018).

[5] Daniel Friberg, The Metapolitical Warfare of the Alt-Right, in A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders 179–82 (George T. Shaw ed., 2018).

[6] See Ariel Leve, How to Survive Gaslighting: When Manipulation Erases Your Reality, Guardian (Mar. 16, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/16/gaslighting-manipulation-reality-coping-mechanisms-trump (“The term ‘gaslighting’ refers to when someone manipulates you into questioning and second-guessing your reality.”).

[7] See George T. Shaw, Dismantling Anti-White Newspeak, in A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders 189 (George T. Shaw ed., 2018).  Shaw, for example, claims that the only “coherent” definition of racism involves the proposition: “Those who imagine that they see different behavioral tendencies and intellectual capacities among differently-evolved human populations are lying, doubtlessly because of psychological issues, and ultimately because of genocidal hatred.” Id.

[8] Alex McNabb, The Art of the Troll, in A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders 201 (George T. Shaw ed., 2018).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 202.

[11] Shaw, supra note 7, at 192.

[12] Id. at 193.

[13] Id. at 187.

[14] Shaw, supra note 1, at XII—XIII.

[15] Shaw, supra note 7, at 186.

[16] Cf. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 26 (1932) (“[T]he specific political distinction … is that between friend and enemy.”).

[17] See Shaw, supra note 7, at 194—96 (describing some “Western males who [are] entirely detached from Western history and destiny” as like insects, soulless, and “expendable unit[s] of a mass society”).

[18] Renata Salecl, Emotions and the Praxis of the Alt-Right, Praxis 13/13 (Nov. 12, 2018), http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/praxis1313/renata-salecl-emotions-and-the-praxis-of-alt-right/.

[19] 1 Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society 196 (Thomas McCarthy trans., Beacon Press 1984) (1981).

[20] See, e.g., Adam Liptak, How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2018), http://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/30/us/politics/first-amendment-conservatives-supreme-court.html.

[21] For a formal description of “ideological drift,” see David E. Pozen, Transparency’s Ideological Drift, 128 Yale L.J. 100, 106 (2018).

 

[22] Balkin, supra note 3, at 871.

[23] See Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda, Free Speech and the Alt-Right, 26 Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 369, 369 (2017) (“‘[F]ree speech’ and the ‘alt-right’ have become inextricably linked in the contemporary media landscape”).

[24] See Aaron Hanlon, What Stunts Like Milo Yiannopoulos’s ‘Free Speech Week’ Cost, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/opinion/milo-yiannopoulos-free-speech-week-berkeley.html (describing “the right-wing tactic of framing anything less than free speech absolutism as ‘against free speech’”).

[25] See, e.g., Jeremy Waldron, Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate, 123 Harv. L. Rev. 1596 (2010); Richard Delgado, Words that Wound: A Tort Action for Racial Insults, Epithets, and Name-Calling, 17 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 133 (1982); Charles R. Lawrence III, If He Hollers Let Him Go: Regulating Racist Speech on Campus, 1990 Duke L.J. 431; Mari J. Matsuda, Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim’s Story, 87 Mich. L. Rev. 2320 (1989).

[26] Cf. Larry Lessig, Code version 2.0, at 121 (2006).

[27] Citron, supra note 2, at 69—84.

[28] Wu, supra note 2, at 13.

[29] Id. at 11.

[30] See Maya Kosoff, Facebook’s Hate Speech Problem may be Bigger than it Realized, Vanity Fair (Aug. 21, 2018), https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/08/facebooks-hate-speech-problem-may-be-bigger-than-it-realized; see also Cass R. Sunstein, Deliberative Trouble? Why Groups Go to Extremes, 110 Yale L.J. 71 (2000).

[31] See, e.g., Aja Romano, Richard Spencer is an infamous white nationalist. Twitter says he’s not part of a hate group, Vox (Sept. 5, 2018), https://www.vox.com/2018/9/4/17816936/why-wont-twitter-ban-richard-spencer-hate-groups.

[32] See Louise Matsakis, Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Suspect’s Gab Posts are Part of a Pattern, Wired (Oct. 27, 2018), https://www.wired.com/story/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-gab-tree-of-life/; see also Kevin Roose, The Alt-Right Created a Parallel Internet. It’s an Unholy Mess, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/technology/alt-right-internet.html.

[33] See, e.g., Michael Edison Hayden, It’s OK to be White: How Fox News is Helping to Spread Neo-Nazi Propaganda, Newsweek (Nov. 19, 2017), https://www.newsweek.com/neo-nazi-david-duke-backed-meme-was-reported-tucker-carlson-without-context-714655.

[34] Seana Valentine Shiffrin, Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality and the Law (2014).

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Waldron, supra note 25, at 1613.

[38] Id. at 1626.

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