I have been wondering out loud a great deal recently about the effect of the mass proliferation of new terminology that seem to arise from the back and forth of the culture wars. Some of it seems more organic, the naming of an emergent phenomenon or interest group, some less so, like the attempt to create a desired phenomenon by naming it into existence. Very often, these terms are pejorative; one of the more effective strategies in recent years in the necessary pushback against retrograde identity politics (primarily but not exclusively from the left) has been to identify and name their tactics and patterns of delusional behaviour. Of course, the identitarian left fired the opening vernacular salvo with their attempt to being terms like “micro-aggression”, “whiteness”, “cultural appropriation” and “trigger warning” among others into common parlance, thus attempting to make the non-existent or absurd more tangible. They have certainly entered the public square but I am hoping in a context that will remain of a moment – historical terms associated with a stalled and misguided social movement.
The same could be true of the language of their detractors. There is a kind of linguistic dialectic that occurs wherein once a term has ascended from the underground into the public conversation, it risks becoming a cliché and a parody of itself, doomed to reside between the derisive scare-quotes I used above. We are beginning to see this in some quarters with the “Intellectual Dark Web” and it remains to be seen if this intellectual resistance to an enforced social consensus can actually survive being labelled. The “New Atheist” movement arguably suffered for being named as Sam Harris predicted over a decade ago.
I have noticed that the calling out and naming of regressive nonsense is beginning to lose its teeth in some quarters.
Recently, when, in my weaker moments, I have been drawn into an online spat (which, for me, at this point, is primarily a spectator sport) I have noticed that the calling out and naming of regressive nonsense is beginning to lose its teeth in some quarters. Some expanded version of Godwin’s Law is at play whereby if one uses a now-known term to describe facile regressive tactics, one is accused of the same for using a known term, so clichéd has it become. I find myself very hesitant to use a term like “Social Justice Warrior” for example (even though I find it apt, useful, and amusing). Similarly “snowflake” and “regressive” and “virtue-signalling”, all of which I also think are perfectly justified in the context of the current culture war. To use more than one of these terms in the same argument can easily result in an accusation of playing alt-right bingo.
It seems the problem with naming a phenomenon or a movement, is that it allows your opponents to apply their own characterisation of or interpretation of the term. This is why Sam Harris cautioned against atheists identifying as a movement; because it would allow the religious to fire off boilerplate anti-atheist arguments with such rapidity that it simply creates too much discursive clutter to keep the discussion on point.
As Harris put it:
“Attaching a label to something, carries real liabilities, especially when the thing you are naming isn’t a thing at all – it [atheism] is not a worldview and yet it is regularly construed as one and attacked as such and we who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by naming ourselves.”
By consenting to be thought of as an interest group, people with very different ideas and persuasions, often united only by the absence of a particular belief system, risk being grouped together and assigned the loopiest or stupidest ideas that can be shoe-horned into that designation.
This trend has definitely begun to play out in earnest. No sooner had the IDW been named, than The Guardian published a staggeringly dishonest hit-piece labelling them “The Supposed Intellectual Wing of the Alt-Right”. To take such a headline seriously you need to lack any understanding of what the alt-right stand for, or any member of the IDW. In order to make that link they simply crammed in fringe figures like Alex Jones, who fits into neither camp, as an intermediary. From there, the sky is the limit; all you need do is to continue to expand the sphere of what constitutes the IDW to include every odious character you can think of. To go back to the New Atheist example, this was the tactic used by religious apologists to smear atheism by association with murderous historical figures from Stalin to Pol Pot, as if this were somehow representative of atheism as a belief system.
Most recently The Guardian and Vox followed this up with an endorsement of a report by Data & Society, employing a non-methodology that wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school project to do precisely this, using a fatuous “degrees of separation” framework long discredited by none other than Kevin Bacon, to try and conflate fairly mainstream dissident figures such as Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro and Tim Pool with white supremacists and alt-righters such as Baked Alaska and Richard Spencer. This could of course, by Ezra Klein of Vox’s own admission, be done with pretty much anyone with a significant social media presence including himself.
This is the challenge that faces any kind of bipartisan opposition to a prevailing narrative that feels under threat. If you allow your opponents to define you only by your disagreement with them, they will inevitably attempt to anchor you to the worst people who share that opposition, no matter what else your vehement disagreements might be. Fortunately for the rest of us, headline-grabbing and emotive though this strategy might be, it is clumsy and infantile enough to dismiss upon even a cursory glance.
Whether or not the IDW can survive becoming “a thing” however, remains to be seen.