Navigating the Culture Wars

“Attention to all racists: we will not just “replace” you, we will erase you. All trace of your worthless empty lives will be discarded from history. Your murderous temper tantrums will be like so much static noise lost forever as you are shuffled into the dirt.”

– William Gillis, Twitter

The internet is a place of endless political discourse, and one of the main battlegrounds of  “culture war 2.0,” which I will generalize as a far-reaching conflict between social justice advocates and the political right. While the culture war’s flashpoints appear absurd when viewed from a distance — Twitter drama, banned subreddits, Discord raids, suspended Youtube channels, and street-fights involving Pepe cosplayers — the cascading political implications saturate our lives as emboldened right-wingers lash out at shifting social norms and act in tandem with liberals to leverage the state to their ends.

Although both sides of every discourse like to present their own views as “truth,” we all rely on personal preferences in our final calculus on whether political issues exist, whether they matter, and how they should be resolved. These preferences are, in many cases, reactions that do not necessarily follow from a fundamental set of moral axioms, which in turn vary significantly from person to person. Hence, there are unbridgeable epistemological gaps in communication between individuals, what I will call the is-is gap. Arguments in this space devolve in performativity and self-gratification, facts are leveraged to justify preconceived biases until the one participant stops responding, rarely out of wisdom but typically after running out of steam. The concealed point is to build social capital (upvotes, views, likes, applause) and at best, convince spectators who’re on the fence. Often, there comes a point where arguments achieve nothing and, whether or not there is common ground to be found, we are left at an impasse. Beneath the stacked layers of abstraction is a power struggle flamed by egoistic desire.

Our present conflict centers, in part, around moral preferences and categorizations. Social justice advocates emphasize intersubjectivity, the blurring of mental and physical borders, and the dissolution of hierarchy, while the political right works towards compartmentalization imposed by political authority. In an anarchist framework, reality is constituted through reciprocity in the center and absolutism at the margins (typically in cases of harm), this is reversed in a statist model. These differences are not a matter of truth, but relative truth. Neutrality that ignores this underlying balance of power is not neutrality.

Moral preferences and categories are subjective and relative, although they tend to cluster around certain norms. These clusters only exist when observed from a very high level. Once we zoom in, moral preferences diverge from person to person, between cultures, and over time. A more pronounced expression of this subjectivity and the potential for mutual accountability is curtailed by the state. Under all social systems, ethics are codified and propagated in order to uphold existing power structures; normativity is self-reinforcing. In present popular culture, concepts such as patriotism are presented as morally good, natural, and necessary as opposed to harmful and historically contingent.

Our moral landscape is shaped by power. We do not speak truth to power, but power into truth. In other words, by engaging in praxis, erecting counter-institutions, researching new technologies, writing and providing spaces for people to ask questions and learn, we are effectively striving to build power and hence reconfigure normative values and perceptions in line with our political ambitions. Similarly, the far-right has its own funding platforms and propaganda centers. The false objectivization of moral preferences and categories as neutral and universal is incoherent and provides shelter for bigots. One such example is free speech. A universal application of free speech dissolves into incoherence at the margins, a dynamic where people can endlessly shout over each other with no intervention. The is analogous to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance where a society with unlimited tolerance for intolerance enables its own destruction. Legible dialogue, where privileged voices do not silence others, can only exist when a platform chooses which voices it wants to prioritize. Given this silencing dynamic, when one chooses to defend bigoted and fascist speech, they are implicitly picking a side. The state regulates speech according to its own interests; in America, whistleblowing is illegal, figures in power can sue for defamation, incitement of violence can be prosecuted, and criticizing government agencies like ICE can get you arrested and charged. Anti-authoritarians oppose speech that silences marginalized voices by spreading hate and making calls to violence in the form of nationalism. We use direct action to de-platform speakers as part of an ongoing conflict over who controls a given platform, where the fascist side is usually backed by state violence.

Thus, the debate is not about the universal application of free speech, which cannot and does not exist in practice. The free speech warriors of the political right are either leveraging it to serve their own ends or do not fully comprehend its limitations. If you accept that some forms of speech ought to be de-platformed, the debate becomes about who deserves a platform and which views we ought to prioritize, which can be further reduced to moral preferences. When white nationalists gain a platform, they organize outside cyberspace, spread their views, and ultimately commit acts of violence, as we’ve seen time and time again. The far-right uses the principle of free speech to protect itself, defended by hordes of idealistic liberals who focus on abstract principles, seemingly unaware of their role in the underlying power struggle. When anarchists and far-leftists get banned from social media platforms, the free speech mobs remain conspicuously silent or openly celebrate.

Other political issues get caught up in the same underlying power struggle, with the right making the same fallacious attempts to objectivize their perspective. Just as with free speech, concepts such as gender are presented as objective and universal. Bigots appeal to “science” in order to justify their views, while vilifying postmodern proponents of deconstruction as “cultural-Marxists.” This is an epistemological mistake that runs into the is-ought gap; our empirical observations do not entail ways of categorizing them with any finality.

Jean-François Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Postmodern theory does not devalue science but demonstrates that it is incapable of deriving absolute truths. While we cannot seem to transcend matter and the laws of physics, our interpretation of reality is mediated by a cacophony of symbols, denying us absolute lucidity, if such a thing exists. Our limited instruments and perspective can’t perceive or accurately conceptualize everything. It’s important to note that this does not mean science does not sufficiently allow us to accurately predict future conditions insofar as our conscious experience goes. Nor does it imply that our categorizations are false, but that they have no truth value at all, only usefulness. Of course, human perspective tends to prioritize certain clusters of symbols over others, which is conducive to our survival. Analyzing human sexuality is a good way to demonstrate exactly what postmodern philosophy is trying to get at. Sexual dimorphism can be deconstructed in both metaphysical and epistemic terms. In metaphysical terms, sexual characteristics follow a spectrum rather than a binary (this is basically scientific consensus). Chromosomes can manifest as XXY, XXXX, etc; intersex people are about as common as red-heads. People with androgen receptor insensitivity can have XY chromosomes and present with a vagina while people with XX chromosomes can present with a penis. Categorizing people by chromosomes or sexual organs loses its predictive power in this context.

In epistemic terms, binary categorizations of sex and gender are socially constructed. Categorizations are nothing more than clusters of observations in thought-space. We can draw any number of correlations between sexual traits while referring to them independently i.e. XY chromosomes and high estrogen which, together, can define a category. The terms “male” and “female” are just labels to describe clusters of observations, which are in turn conceptualized in terms of other abstract categorizations and perspective biases, which are in turn a product of further abstractions and biases.

“Truth and reality are clusters and networks of symbols interpreting symbols interpreting symbols, and at the top, we do not find ideal forms emanating down to us, but empty phenomena” – Ormi, Discord

The way we choose to cluster facts to form categories is relative and based on predictive power and personal motivations. In light of the experience of gender non-conforming folks, in our framework, people are the gender they identify as. Consider the boundary conditions for being a mathematician. Gender identification tends to be non-trivial, hence the set of factors that one might use to identify as a certain gender is highly predictive. Despite the largely binary statistical distribution of gendered traits, numerous historical cultures acknowledged and accepted the existence of GRSM (gender, romantic, and sexual minority) folks. The emergent, bimodal distribution does not give us any reason to force everyone into our heuristic categories. Doing so requires a conscious agenda. This is not to say that those who defend GRSM folks do not have an agenda either, but that we are not caught up in an immutable current of perception.  

Michel Foucault demonstrated the role of power structures in determining how we conceptualize reality. Dominant power structures teach people to internalize fixed categorizations, which they project onto the world. In this framework, free speech is analogous to science, a widely accepted symbol leveraged in a conflict that has nothing to do with truth but has everything to do with prioritizing experiences and our resulting values and categories. While cultural conditioning is impermanent, the matter of categorization represents an unbridgeable is-is gap between the two sides of our conflict.

For the political right, people or color do not truly experience racism but suffer from a victim complex (of course, this is easily contradicted by statistical evidence). When this evidence is acknowledged, the right shifts to not caring about racism, which they were only leveraging in order to vie for power in-itself (note that there is a difference between seeking power in-itself and acquiring political power for the ends of social justice and that this distinction doesn’t matter to our opponents). The gas-lighting would become increasingly systematized in a right-wing framework. Not so surprisingly, this way of interpreting the culture wars is shared by coherent right-wing commenters:

“Ideological feuds are battles between egoic relationships to the world where both parties deny the moral experiences of each other.” – Truediltom, YouTube

An illustrative example here are the feuds over defining the term “racism,” which is almost universally seen as a bad thing in popular consciousness. However, this definition of racism is often limited to verbal abuse and racial discrimination. For radicals, racism can also be institutional or systemic in nature. This is reflected in disparities in income, wealth, health outcomes, incarceration rates, and representation and is reproduced by algorithms, loan boards, juries, employers, and immigration officers. In cases of systemic racism, the variable on which discrimination operates is not necessarily race but income, neighborhood, nationality, religion, and so on, which all have a disproportionate impact on certain races. An intersectional approach to anti-racism threatens the privilege of various elites and white supremacists who have a vested interest in avoiding the label of “racist,” and who ignore the ways in which racism can apply to things like borders and the global caste system under our definition. As a result, we have new words for racism like “racialism” and a marked attempt by the political right (and liberals for that matter) to define it in a way that does not implicate them. The structure of language itself determines whether political issues exist and how we normatively define words is a function of power. This is exemplified by the American state’s recent attempt to define trans people out of existence.

Anarchists oppose fixed categorizations that erase the experiences of people who are impacted by the harmful effects of state authority. The aesthetic sensibilities of fascists are none of our concern, and our politics correspondingly strives to negate their lived experiences and desires, which by our metrics would be harmful. Our political vision actively denies a right-wing vision of reality, a world divided by borders, where gender non-conformity is pathologized, where individual autonomy is subordinated to teleology and the state continues to dominate our day-to-day lives.

When it comes to the culture wars, we’re not just participating in rational, good-faith discourse but engaging in a power struggle over the values and categorizations that constitute our shared reality.

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

– Mark Fischer

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