I think I know what it feels like to be “red-pilled,” the alt-right’s preferred metaphor for losing one’s faith in received assumptions and turning toward ideas that once seemed dangerous.
For me, it happened over several visits to the West Bank. I’d inherited, without really thinking about it, a set of default liberal Zionist beliefs about Israel as the good guy in its confrontation with the Palestinians, whose hostility I understood to be atavistic and irrational. This view collapsed the first time I walked down Shuhada Street in Hebron, in a part of the city where more than 30,000 Palestinians live under Israeli military control for the benefit of 1,000 or so Israeli settlers. Palestinians whose homes are on Shuhada Street aren’t allowed to walk out their own front doors, because the street, constantly patrolled by Israeli troops, is reserved for Jews.
Going there, I felt a transformation not unlike the one my colleague Bari Weiss described in her recent article on what’s been called the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a group of iconoclastic thinkers, many on the right, joined together by their confrontations with, and rejections of, social justice ideology. “The metaphors for this experience vary: going through the phantom tollbooth; deviating from the narrative; falling into the rabbit hole,” wrote Weiss. “But almost everyone can point to a particular episode where they came in as one thing and emerged as something quite different.”
For my own part, I didn’t emerge an anti-Zionist, exactly, but anti-Zionist arguments I’d previously dismissed began to make sense. Such experiences, in which feelings of confusion and betrayal are resolved through immersion in a once-anathema body of knowledge, are extraordinarily powerful. Every passionate Jewish critic of Israel I’ve ever met has had one. They’re the reason ex-communists made the fiercest anti-communists, and why religious converts tend to be particularly pious. The red pill metaphor – taken from the sci-fi movie “The Matrix” – is potent because it can apply to wildly disparate situations in which one reality seems to crumble in the face of another.
To the alt-right, of course, being red-pilled means abandoning liberalism as a lie. It means treating one’s own prejudices as intuitions rather than distortions to be overcome. The act of doing this – casting off socially acceptable values in favor of those that were once unthinkable – creates the edgy energy that has, of late, attracted Kanye West. (West’s sojourn on the alt-right has been facilitated in part by Candace Owens, a conspiracy-minded African-American conservative who created the website Red Pill Black.)
Because the red pill experience is so intense, progressives should think about how to counter dynamics that can make banal right wing beliefs seem like seductive secret knowledge. Attempts at simply repressing bad ideas don’t seem to be working.
To be clear: I don’t think the members of the alt-right or the Intellectual Dark Web – which overlap in places but are quite different – are repressed. The latter regularly appear on television; write for the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, including The New York Times; publish best-selling books; and give speeches to large crowds. They haven’t been blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, who lost his football career for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality. No state has passed laws denying government contracts to critics of political correctness; such measures are only for supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
But online life creates an illusion of left-wing excess and hegemony that barely exists in the real world, at least outside of a few collegiate enclaves. Consider, for example, how an online mob turned a Utah teenager who wore a Chinese-style dress to her prom into a national news story. The sanctimony and censoriousness of the social justice internet is like a machine for producing red pills. It makes people think it’s daring to, say, acknowledge that men and women are different, or pick on immigrants, or praise the president of the United States.
Leftist writer Angela Nagle captured this phenomenon in her 2017 book about the alt-right, “Kill All Normies.” Long before the alt-right “bubbled up to the surface of college campuses, and even Twitter and YouTube,” she wrote, it developed in opposition “to its enemy online culture of the new identity politics typified by platforms like Tumblr.”
Countering right-wing movements that thrive on transgression is a challenge. One of the terrifying things about Trump’s victory is that it appeared to put the fundamental assumptions underlying pluralistic liberal democracy up for debate, opening an aperture for poisonous bigotry to seep into the mainstream. In California, a man named Patrick Little, who said he was inspired by Trump, is running for U.S. Senate on a platform of removing Jews from power; in one recent state poll 18 percent of respondents supported him. On Thursday, Mediaite reported that Juan Pablo Andrade, an adviser to the pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies, praised the Nazis at a Turning Point USA conference. (Owens, West’s new friend, is Turning Point’s communications director.)
It’s a natural response – and, in some cases, the right response – to try to hold the line against political reaction, to shame people who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment. It should not be overused. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between ideas that deserve a serious response, and those that should be only mocked and scorned. I do know that people on the right benefit immensely when they can cultivate the mystique of the forbidden.
In February, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has garnered a cultlike following, asked, in an interview with Vice, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” To him, the Me Too movement called into question coed offices, a fundamental fact of modern life, because “things are deteriorating very rapidly at the moment in terms of the relationships between men and women.”
Having to contend with this question fills me with despair. I would like to say: It’s 2018 and women’s place in public life is not up for debate! But to be honest, I think it is. Trump is president. Everywhere you look, the ugliest and most illiberal ideas are gaining purchase. Refusing to take them seriously won’t make them go away. (As it happens, I’m participating in a debate with Peterson next week in Toronto.)
More debate, I think, is what’s needed. Not with everyone – I wouldn’t bother talking to a huckster like Milo Yiannopoulos, for example. But a left that’s confident in its ideas and values should be able to debate someone like Ben Shapiro, a young conservative who often speaks on college campuses, or Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic of contemporary feminism.
Ezra Klein recently demonstrated how progressives can engage with ideas they abhor in his two-hour podcast dialogue with Sam Harris, a star of the New Atheist movement who defended right-wing thinker Charles Murray’s work on race and IQ. Klein appears to have put a lot of patient work into the debate, but given where we are now, such work is necessary.
Some might argue that respectfully debating ideas seen as racist or sexist legitimates them. There’s something to this, but refusing to debate carries a price as well – it conveys a message of weakness, a lack of faith in one’s own ideas. Ultimately, the side that’s frantically trying to shore up taboos is the side that’s losing. If there’s an Intellectual Dark Web, we should let the sun shine in.