Listen, then, he [Thrasymachus] said; I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger. And now why do you not praise me? But of course you won’t.
Let me first understand you, I [Socrates] replied. Justice, as you say, is the interest of the stronger. What, Thrasymachus, is the meaning of this? You cannot mean to say that because Polydamas, the pancratiast, is stronger than we are, and finds the eating of beef conducive to his bodily strength, that to eat beef is therefore equally for our good who are weaker than he is, and right and just for us?
That’s abominable of you, Socrates; you take the words in the sense which is most damaging to the argument.
–Plato, The Republic, ~380 B.C.E.
The problem, or perhaps the power, of polysemy is illuminated online. Even the most thoughtful responses can be subsumed by the hivemind and rendered impotent, and the worst arguments can win out. Trolls refer to online shit-disturbers: people who deliberately try to provoke others in the hopes of garnering an outraged response. Trolls employ a perversion of the Socratic method in which they make mimic the form of argumentation with absurd content, as with graduate students who pare down their research projects into a single sentence. Dialogue, the prized form of communication in democracies, is rendered ridiculous by the trolls’ antics. But trolls also point out the sometimes tyrannical function of dialogue–forcing the other to converse on your terms–and some use it as a tactic of resistance.
[H]e solemnly announced in the discussion that there is nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people’s belief in their immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added parenthetically that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880
The millenials, as the least ‘religious’ generation ever, demonstrate Ivan Karamazov’s claim that there is no natural law uniting humanity. Yet, as far as free speech is concerned, this resolutely irreligious generation does not hold that everything is permitted. The millenials’ support of government censorship of offensive speech reveals an interesting twist on rule 42: nothing is sacred, not even free speech. Free speech, one of the cornerstones of liberalism, gives rise to offensive speech, which gives rise to illiberal censorship, suggesting that there is, indeed, something sacred in need of protection.
You look up when you feel the need for elevation. And I look down because I am elevated. Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time? Whoever climbs the highest mountains laughs at all the tragic plays and tragic seriousness…
I would only believe in a god who could dance. And when I saw my devil I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn: it was the spirit of gravity—through him all things fall. Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-1891
Like Nietzsche’s ubermensch, the cultural transgressors of the internet revel in mocking, belittling, and desecrating the values of the dominant culture and in doing so derive a sense of superiority. To take things seriously is to conform; to laugh in the face of seriousness is to resist. Whereas reddit tries to balance between ‘the spirit of gravity’ (i.e. seriousness) and laughter (through the use of ‘serious tags’ and different standards for posting depending on the subreddit), 4chan’s content is presumed to be a priori un-serious. 4chan’s modus operandi is the lulz: a perversion of schadenfreude in which the perpetrator delights in causing the emotional distress of others. The logic of the lulz dictates that those who cannot handle the emotional stress inflicted upon them are naturally weak; the perpetrator’s strength is derived from his immunity to such harassment. However, while following rule 20 sometimes results in insidiousness, it can also provide fertile ground for humour.
Among all the things that a prince should guard against is being contemptible and hated, and liberality leads you to both. So there is more wisdom in maintaining a name for meanness, which begets infamy without hatred, than in being under a necessity, because one wants to have a name for liberality, to incur a name for rapacity, which begets infamy with hatred.
-Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532
Former CEO of reddit, Ellen Pao, was not a well-liked (or well-respected) leader and her eventual resignation was met with glee by many members of the reddit community. As CEO, Pao struggled to maintain users’ safety from harassment (on and offline) while also allowing ‘edgy’ (read: bigoted, misogynistic, bordering-on-illegal) content. Even after resigning, Pao was subject to trolling, flaming, and harassment by reddit users–ironically, these were precisely the behaviours that she fought to reduce for the betterment of the site. Her denouncement of these ugly facets of reddit worked only to fan the flaming. Pao was perceived as an intolerant fundamentalist trying to impose moral absolutes on reddit.
Pao’s replacement by reddit co-founder Steve Huffman (a.k.a. spez) symbolizes the renewed alliance between the cultural transgressors and the liberal advocates of freedom of speech, since both are able, unlike absolutists like Pao, to tolerate even that which is most intolerable. Whereas Pao defended those who felt that reddit’s policies tended to reinforce unequal power relations and created unsafe environments for women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups, Hoffman has thus far aligned himself with the ‘abyss artists’–John Durham Peters’ term for those who dance along the edge of acceptability and threaten to destroy the social fabric–through his laissez-faire method of dealing with offensive subreddits: rather than banning these kinds of subs outright, Huffman’s method of quarantining hides the subreddits from the ‘average’ user who might find them offensive; only registered and verified members who opt-in are able to access the content. However, Huffman’s policies have been met with the same sorts of criticism as Pao (“it’s an assault on free speech!”). Perhaps being the leader of a website meant to uphold the values of liberalism, such as unmitigated freedom of expression, means, as Machiavelli claimed, being inevitably subject to hatred and contempt.
Only as Creators! It has caused me the greatest trouble, and forever causes me the greatest trouble, to perceive that unspeakably more depends on what things are called, than on what they are. The reputation, the name and appearance, the importance, the usual measure and weight of things being in origin most frequently an error and arbitrariness thrown over the things like a garment, and quite alien to their essence and even to their exterior have gradually, by the belief therein and its continuous growth from generation to generation, grown as it were on-and-into things and become their very body; the appearance at the very beginning becomes almost always the essence in the end, and operates as the essence! What a fool he would be who would think it enough to refer here to this origin and this nebulous veil of illusion, in order to annihilate that which virtually passes for the world namely, so-called ‘reality’! It is only as creators that we can annihilate! But let us not forget this: it suffices to create new names and valuations and probabilities, in order in the long run to create new ‘things’.
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882
In the same way that the coining of the term ‘political correctness’ allowed members of the political right to attack the left for infringing on personal freedoms, the creation of the terms ‘social justice warrior’, ‘feminist/feminazi’, and even ‘safe space‘ has served much the same purpose of delegitimizing leftist politics. These catchy terms homogenize disparate, localized acts of resistance to hegemonic norms into a single, recognizable something–a mere trend. The creation of the term ‘social justice warrior’, for instance, renders a massive, heterogeneous network of actors into an easily dismissed group of radicals who seek to destroy the foundations of liberalism and control peoples’ thoughts. On reddit, the mentioning of the term ‘social justice warrior’ draws up a whole host of connotations that reinforce its undesirability: Ellen Pao, censorship, feminism, XXChromosomes (a default subreddit dedicated to womens’ issues).
However, this rule is democratic in that it applies to everything that can be labeled: men’s rights activism, racism, sexism, homophobia–reddit’s dominant culture abhors these phenomena, too, but only when they can be explicitly labeled. When the label is absent, the underlying discourse thrives. The invocation of label tends to halt discussion.
Every tower invites toppling.
-John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 2015
Destroying one’s gods is not a new fad. Conspiracy theories, plans to overthrow the government, and speaking truth to power continue to proliferate online. And pets knock things over a lot so thank goodness there’s a medium to quickly share those videos with others now.
But language—the performance of a language system—is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist.
-Roland Barthes, “Lecture in Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology,” 1979
Reddit’s CEO Steve Hoffman explains the changes in reddit’s content policy in terms of effecting a better environment for the circulation of ideas; unfettered free speech is not always a good thing, he admits, but aside from a few exceptions (child pornography, spam, threats, harassment, illegal activity), it is still the goal. Some users, however, pointed out the arbitrary nature of this new policy and its fascist undertones: reddit admins can ban whatever and whoever they want. Such criticisms, however, seem to miss the point that reddit was never supposed to be a ‘bastion of free speech’; it’s a company and its purpose is to accrue capital. The unofficial policy of banning anything the admins didn’t like was rarely criticized (if only because such moderation was not transparent) but now that reddit has enacted official content policies, which are effectively the same as the old unofficial policies, users lamenting the loss of freedom of speech on reddit abound.