“I see them as symbols, and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.” ~ George Carlin.
I’d like to share a revelation with you. It came to me, as most great ideas often do, while I was in the shower this morning. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that, right? We all have.
As the water was pouring down on me, my mind wandering, letting the universe speak to me, I thought back to a conversation I’d had yesterday in which I had condemned both sides involved in the recent Charlottesville riots. I condemned – in the clearest possible terms I knew how – both the Nazis, the KKK, the white supremacists, as well as the Antifa commies, and the rest. Basically everyone involved in that whole thing was just stupid.
Turns out, that wasn’t good enough for some people, as even after all that, I still got called a Nazi apologist. Naturally, I was confused by this. I thought to myself: I guess not being racist is the new racist or something.
Fool that I was, I should have known better, since even people far more egalitarian than I, and far more persuasive, have been called the same and worse. I was deluding myself to think I’d somehow be excepted in this, because we’re dealing with a frankly delusional group of people.
So, after probing some more, I came to discover that the person I’d been arguing with had cognitive blindness, not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Or the Commies for the Freedom Sticks, as it were.
They used the “false equivalency” argument, saying that I was a Nazi apologist because I had put a few Antifa on the same level as Nazis and how dare I! Yes, how dare I compare a group of racist mass-murderers to about the only group that is arguably objectively worse than that, at least by the numbers. Fortunately, I had a persuasive technique for pushing back on that: pacing coupled with sarcasm, leading towards absurdity.
After basically assuming my opponent’s position and taking it to the logical extreme to show how retarded it was, I had left the conversation there for the night and went to bed, not particularly hopeful that I would be able to turn this person’s mind around. They were just too deeply inured in their own self-righteousness.
Despite having a thick skin, I began to actually feel hurt by the false accusations levied repeatedly. We all have our breaking points and there are only so many times you can be called a racist Nazi sympathizer when you’re not before you start to say, “Fuck it, I may as well just go with that and become what they say, since they’re gonna call me it no matter what I do.”
No worries, I’m made of sterner stuff than that, but many people aren’t and that’s something to consider. In a minute, I’ll explain why that’s never going to happen to me, but for now, back to my story.
So I left the conversation wondering whether this person’s irrational accusations constituted a form of bullying. I mean, if you kept calling someone a nigger over and over, you’d be locked up for a hate crime and society would put you on a list of the most evil people imaginable. I’m not saying calling someone a Nazi over and over is on par with that, but in terms of how it makes people feel, I gotta think it’s at least in the ball park.
I wondered if I should report this person to the admins, or call them out in public, but again that’d just be me being a butthurt little hypocrite; and special snowflake-ism was actually expressly prohibited in the forum rules, so I just took my lumps and resolved to think about how badly I was losing and how to do better next time, since I’m the type of person who believes that if people knew better, they’d do better, and there’s always a way to reach someone, even if I don’t know what it is.
How then, I thought, do we deal with this? Where had I gone wrong? Why was it so stupidly easy to twist true and objective egalitarianism into the furthest thing from it?
Back to the shower, because I know you enjoy that mental image of me.
So there I was, wondering how it could have gone all wrong, when I started to think back to Scott Adams’ fire and fury analysis. The reason “fire and fury” was so effective as a persuasion technique, as Scott explained, was its use of fear-based emotional imagery. It was visceral and evocative.
Suddenly, it dawned on me.
The reason why it was so easy to convert egalitarianism into racism, why the “Nazi sympathizer” and “Trump is Hitler” imagery is effective, whereas things like “yeah, but Communism is worse” are not, is precisely because these are visual arguments.
Consider this as we do a little thought experiment.
When I say the word “Nazi,” what sort of images pop into your mind? Probably an angry, shouting dude with a mustache wearing brown standing behind a podium giving a Sieg Heil to rows of black-clad men in military uniform carrying Blutfahne flags as they gun down women and children, putting people with star patches on a train and burning their frightened, sickly bodies in some oven.
Was I close?
If not, at least it’s easy to craft such an evocative image and put that into your head. Plenty of fire and fury there, right? Who wouldn’t be stirred to hate that?
Ok, this isn’t really helping the analogy…
Now in contrast, let’s repeat this experiment and I want you to tell me what you think of when I say the word “Communist.” Probably the portrait of some neckbeard elitist looking smug with his hand in his coat, a few red shirts with the graphic of some doughebag in a beret, another dude in a mustache, but decidedly not doing Sieg Heils or even really shouting, or if he’s shouting, it’s with a piece of paper in his hand before a bunch of poor and downtrodden workers. You probably see sickles and hammers and lots of gold stars against red backgrounds, maybe some breadlines and a wall with barbed wire on top, a few people starving to death, but that’s about it, right?
When put that way, it’s not as compelling, is it? It doesn’t stir you to fear and hatred the way the first set of visuals does.
Seeing it in those terms, it almost becomes understandable why people would support and defend communism despite the fact that Communists killed way more people than the Nazis ever did, and got far closer to undermining the values of western liberal democracy than the Nazis ever did.
But it’s about spectacle.
Think about the imagery the media uses to frame the situation in Charlottesville. Lots of white hoods and Nazi flags and that one image of all the white men lined up holding tiki torches. Lots of fire and fury, all very scary stuff. Easy to evoke deep emotions in support of their narrative.
Notice any similarities here?
Now try and do a Google search of Antifa and Charlottesville. We know they’re there, but it’s not as obvious, and not just because of the search algorithms either, but because the visual impact is less striking. They’re mostly dressed in plain clothes, carrying signs that say vaguely positive sounding things about how they oppose fascism.
Even though we know they’re full of shit, they at least have better optics and optics is what the media-political complex specializes in; which is why Donald Trump can go on TV, denounce all the violence, all of it, telling them exactly what they wanna hear, and they’ll still come out a winner over him.
Remember when the Black Bloc was turning over trash cans and lighting them on fire and everyone on the Internet came together to denounce them? It’s because they had bad optics that made it easy to hate them, especially when contrasted with the more professional-looking Richard Spencer.
I use “professional” in a loose sense.
So like the image I used in this very article as a reference to Antifa was about the best I could find while still being relevant and aggressive-looking without giving them room for positive spin; and even then, it doesn’t really hold a tiki torch to a mob of angry white guys, does it?
Something else about that photo, note the caption I used. I was being clever and ironic with it, but note how, if I didn’t recall your attention to it, it may have left you with the subconscious association between communists and freedom fighters. I did that deliberately to show how wordplay is just as important at conveying emotional optics as actual photos.
In fact, this whole article has been one big exercise in persuasion, with me painting a picture for you of a story – a true story, mind you – about me and this person I fought with on a forum and how it made me feel. The opening lines probably even harkened back to this scene from The Matrix, subconsciously grounding you in something you’re already familiar with, making it more palatable.
You may not have been consciously aware of it at the time, but if you’ve seen the movie, you remember the monologue about viruses and part of your brain drew connections between that and viral imagery and the prolific spreading of information. Framing my argument in this way probably helped elicit a degree of both sympathy and intrigue and led you further on to this point, did it not?
Pulling back the curtain kind of kills the show, I know, but in this case, it’s necessary to serve a purpose in revealing how, if we’re going to win the culture war against the statists, against the media-political complex, then we as libertarians need to adopt better tactics of persuasion. We need better optics than this:
Like this is just embarrassing, frankly. Disavow!
Something to consider in your political activism is how it looks to others. That it’s not so much what you say, as how you say it.
Why is Ironman so much more successful than Atlas Shrugged, despite being basically the same story? Because Tony Snark is sassy, sexy, popular, with lots of flash and action from the get-go, whereas I couldn’t even make it past the first few pages of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus without slamming it shut and thinking it’s as dry and stale as what I imagine something else of hers to be.
Her nose, clearly. Why, what were you thinking I meant?
Things like The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings (at least the movies) create emotional carriers for their deeper philosophical points. A red pill and a ring of power are simple, easy to grasp concrete objects that help ground abstract philosophical ideas, even if they’re a bit cliché and overused at this point.
Think about the contrast between the beautiful hero and the ugly villain in just about every story you’ve ever heard. Makes it easy to side with people you find appealing and against people you find repulsive. Now imagine if you could somehow personify one’s ideology in the same way, turning their inner thoughts into external traits.
We remember how we feel about things a lot more easily than what we think about them. It’s an evolutionary shortcut our brains have taken and is something I try to put more of into my own writing as well in the hopes that it makes people want to read and consider it. Because if you don’t establish that emotional connection, and anchor people into something more visceral like hope and fear, it won’t matter what else you say after, you’ll have lost your audience.
Donald Trump himself is a master of manipulating optics, though this particular situation provides a bigger challenge than what he’s used to. Previously, he’s tapped into the “loser” moniker by attaching that term to his opponents.
No one likes being associated with a loser, and the pro-statue crowd in Charlottesville has the misfortune of suffering from this twice, first by association with the Nazis, and secondly by association with the Confederacy – both of whom lost wars against the United States. They are two-time losers, which itself has the added linguistic burden of association with “two-timers,” i.e. traitors, for a full on three-strikes to their brand before even considering their ethics or their arguments or the complexities of historical reality.
Contrast that with the Antifa, who’ve aligned themselves with anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-slavery, and their brand is looking pretty good before we get to the violence, the hypocrisy, or the nuance of States’ rights and historical preservation.
When my opponent said comparing Nazis to Communists was a false equivalence, they were actually one-hundred percent correct, but only because the imagery didn’t match the reality. People fear Nazis, as well they should. They don’t generally fear Communists, though. Time to change that. Time to make communism scary again. Time to make socialism scary again. We need to invoke better visual imagery in the minds of our adversaries if we’re to convince them.
Imagine how much more effective we’d be as libertarians if, when we talk about the monster that is big government, we could get people to actually envision monsters.
Feautred image: H. Dragon
* Marushia Dark writes fantasy novels and is also the founder of The Freeman State and an admin of the Facebook page Just Statist Things. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Minds.
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