“We’re Just Like You!”: The Empathy Scam of the Alt-Right

Internet memes and image macros have become increasingly associated with the alt-right and white nationalism, a connection that has been very intentionally fostered. As seen in The Huffington Post’s recent release of The Daily Stormer’s style guide, internet gags and self-deprecation are used to intentionally obfuscate the sincerity of their racism. This simultaneously camouflages their true purposes from those not in the know, communicates with those in their movement, and potentially entices edge cases to slip further and further into indoctrination. While all of this is highly alarming, that last point concerns me in particular because I believe it to be part of an very intentional and long-standing scheme to target and slowly brainwash confused, scared, and vulnerable men.

4chan has had an enduring reputation as a cesspool of human interaction, where posters under the guise of anonymity are unafraid to pull punches or go for ad hominem attacks whenever possible. At the same time, as sexist and caustic as it could and can be, it didn’t always act as a haven of extreme right-wing thought. What has persisted through this transformation is that emphasis on self-deprecating internet humor as seen in image macros, purposely stunted and incomplete English, and posts written as series of actions, e.g.:

>Went to the store
>Saw a girl
>She gave me a look

Another example is the now-antiquated internet phrase “pee in her butt.” I’ve seen articles and people unfamiliar with that 4chan culture have trouble parsing its meaning or taking it literally. However, it does not mean “urinate in her butthole,” it means “ejaculate in her vagina.” The word choice is basically implying that the user is so unfamiliar with how sex works that they’re confusing the liquids and physical parts involved; it’s a jab at one’s pathetic self. That’s the sort of obtuse humor that can block outsiders, and failure to understand that mentality means they remain defensive.

While I don’t visit the 4chan anymore, in my earlier years I did browse it fairly often and noticed that examples of this toxicity often were cries for help in disguise. These posters should not go without criticism for their language and slurs, but their choice of vocabulary also would function as a defense mechanism to keep outsiders away, allowing only those of a similar mind or spirit to commiserate with them or even give advice. This, I suspect, is the hole that the alt-right has exploited. By speaking the language of memes, they falsely present themselves as friends and kindred spirits.

As much misguided anger that exists within places like 4chan, 420chan, and the defunct reddit incels board, on some level the posters who might potentially turn to extreme sexism and racism are simply looking for people who understand them. The abrasive presentation and the willingness to “outrage” others is a way to protect the scared little boy deep inside, and to only allow in those who can empathize. The insidiousness of the alt-right’s adoption of meme culture is that they can come across as brothers in arms, but are possibly more like an abusive drug peddler eager to get their victims hooked on their own frustration and pity.

So where is the other side, those who try to pull people away from such harmful thinking and towards more benelovent and inclusive ideas? The answer is that many have run away, myself included, and this has created a void that’s increasingly filled by questionable philosophies. It used to be that 4chan had many different people with different views clashing with each other, but only those who can still maintain themselves in that space and not get subsumed by the monster can thrive. In other words, one needs to fit into the 4chan environment (or places similar to it) without succumbing to the same close-minded mentalities frequently seen there.

This isn’t blaming anyone who decided to step away from places like 4chan for their own sanity, nor those who haven’t dared try to enter in the first place. Part of those environments is indeed trying to make them as inhospitable as possible for perceived outsiders. Again, it’s a defensive measure, to attack before you’re attacked, and people just generally don’t like being on the receiving end unless they’re the rare sort that thrives on conflict and arguing. It’s also not like those who gradually turn more extreme-right-wing should be absolved of responsibility, nor that existing prejudices and misguided beliefs should be ignored. But it still means that there’s precious fewer individuals providing an alternative viewpoint to the alt-right in those spaces. Excessive compromise and concessions aren’t necessary, but patience and compassion are vital.

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3 thoughts on ““We’re Just Like You!”: The Empathy Scam of the Alt-Right

  1. Internet communities are frail: the same medium is all it takes to brittle them down, or thrown them in a marmite of confused initiatives. In other words, neither alts nor antifa are really conclusive, just expressive burst of commonalities between individuals in society (those which, at large, are mostly very busy to just survive or enjoy life as possible). But with those people we get a meassure of the disjointed state of the individual and his comunities. Zygmunt Baumman explains succinctly that society is a necessity that we individuals disregarded in pursuit of groups, affinities, ambitions and individuality , all in a post-industrial world that doesn’t know very well what to do with societal purposes and debate (which are more useful in a system not driven by profit , competition and efficiency). Alts are a cry, a warning, even if they want to be reckoned along the Forefathers or the golden age of America. In a way, it’s the old cuestion of Big or Small Government, and how economy should be handled. This question is at the base of many of our matters (Aristotle never separates economy from politics, something the Greeks knew well, Athenas profited from being a commercial empire in the Aegean Sea , but at the same time, ignored the fate of slaves, exempted of citizenry). I admire the culture of debate in America, but that is getting increassingly difficult to have at ease, instead, the drive or confrontation (B&N views) is getting stronger, and common ground is stark and seen as menial. That is worthy of worry in a society so powerfully mediatized as EEUU, and by extension, to Europe.

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  2. As someone who still uses 4chan, mostly on boards unaffected by these changes. I believe it’s more like 4chan’s attempt to troll itself. Hear me out here. It’s hard to tell if alt-righters are all serious or just that way to annoy as many people as humanly possible. Poe’s law and all that. But I’m more likely to lean toward the latter.
    “Some SJW said all anime (or thing related to board) is sexist once: here’s a article.” They drag alt-right discussion into as many places as they can to lessen the quality of the board and annoy as many people as possible. It’s like those few years where My Little Pony was posted everywhere just to achieve this same effect but worse. 4chan loves conflict and chaos even if it’s on it’s self.
    Don’t get me wrong, there’s tons of 100% serious alt-righters elsewhere. But as far as it goes on 4chan, I think it’s mostly a farce designed for trolling purposes. “How can I make as many people as possible angry at me and respond to my bait thread/post?”

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