USA

A Counter-extremism Critique Milo’s Approach, from a New Centrist

A Constructive Reply to Milo by an Army Information Warfare Veteran

Lessons from tribal engagement in war zones can help us understand how to engage fellow Americans here at home. I offer a critique to Milo and his approach to engaging the Left.

I understand why Milo exists on the public scene — or at least, why he first came to prominence. As a skeptic and freethinker who despises dogma and ideology within academia, I really do. Steven Crowder rightly pointed out once that the excesses of the Left — in particular, on campuses and within some corners of the social justice movement — helped create Milo as a public figure. There is a dangerously closed and conversation-stifling atmosphere in much of academia at the moment, and this is harmful in many ways — it stifles important conversation, drives discourse underground and into the extremes, assists the pendulum effect of political reactionism that trolls feed on, makes the Russian propagandists’ job much easier, and fuels the recruiting of the far Right. It also creates a suffocating atmosphere for many students who feel they have no where else to go but Miloland in order to escape the toxic atmosphere of their classroom or university — in some cases, an environment where they can’t be authentic. A place where they can’t safely speak their mind on things as benign and scientifically sensible as evolutionary psychology of differences in male-female mating strategies.

However, I want to address why much of his approach is flawed when it comes to fighting some of the excesses on the far Left — and how we can find a better way to combat bad ideas and win over hearts and minds.

Ever since my return from Afghanistan in 2012, I have been simultaneously heartbroken and deeply disillusioned by the state of our discourse. Surely we can do better. Two key ingredients that are missing from the equation:

Intellectual humility and skepticism, as well as effective communication to get others to be willing to sit down and listen.

We need to foster incubators for honest discussion and self-reflection, to identify genuine problems within our own ‘idea community’, see our blind spots, and hear necessary criticism and different perspectives that enrich our own understanding. We do not need more Milo-style zero-sum conflicts between “SJWs” and “anti-SJWs”; we need to provide open, public alternatives to extremism, hate, combative discussion, and group bullying (on any side). We need to show people better alternatives. We need to create exchange spaces for fruitful discourse. We need to do this while encouraging reason, humility, compassion and skepticism.

That is our best way forward.

An Alternative to the Milo Model

Some of my friends have joking called this use of finding common agreement and deflating misunderstanding “The Kirbow Model”. I prefer to simply call it ‘the way of the Social Science Warrior’. Not only does this model emphasize building bridges, but it focuses on using this to expand our coalitions to more effectively combat dogma, hate and extremism. I hope this can become an alternative to the methods of people like Milo Yiannoppolis — as such alternatives are desperately needed right now. If we can create reasonable spaces for people to air out these issues and discuss them honestly — something they often feel they cannot do on their own campuses — we are bound to see more unproductive, narrow-minded ping-pong between the “social justice warriors” and the “Anti-SJW” crowd. We all deserve something much better.

I can assure young critics of excessive political correctness on campus that ‘The Kirbow Model’ is far better than the Milo Model — and will win far more hearts and minds on ‘the other side’ over the long run. Or even the short run. I only use the term ‘Kirbow Model’ here lightly and in good humor, and rest assured that most of these ideas and tools did not originate with me, but with countless points of research and hard-earned experience by those who’ve gone before me, and some who are doing this work as we speak. What I am attempting to do is combine these tools into a larger toolkit, and into a new paradigm for civil discourse and effective communication. A way to drive a wedge against the extremes, while teaching and empowering other people around the country to build bridges of empathy and understanding — something essential to the war of ideas.

In essence, this approach — if I may make a bold but well-backed proclamation — is categorically better than the kind we’ve been seeing across our campuses and social media by folks like Yianoppolis and many of the fanboys who mimic his tactics and style. There’s no denying that folks like Milo are often quite skilled at satire and entertainment, as well as impressively versed at quick wit and humor. But people like him are not well trained or equipped with the real tools to play this game at the adult level. They are less situationally attuned, less nuanced in their approach, and unseasoned in the things I will talk about in the next section of this book — the things I learned from real warzones, from actual dialogue in seemingly impossible environments, working with cultures thousands of years old and tribal systems born out of centuries of conquest and survival.

Learning firsthand about building trust and respect with powerful former Mujahedeen warlords and power brokers, in a post-Taliban-era environment, using the tools of true engagement and effective communication, will get you light years beyond the amateur hour we see with many ‘anti-PC’ warriors. As will learning secondhand how to adopt these lessons within our society (something mature, intellectually serious readers of this book are certainly capable of). It will make Gavin McInnes’ or Milo’s methods look petty and childish by comparison. These people’s approaches may seem effective in the very short run, especially when they lay waste to the toxic versions of PC culture described above. However, they fail to acknowledge and build common ground with people’s genuine grievances and suffering. Discussion of things like ‘social justice’ and ‘PC culture’ cannot be a one-way street or zero-sum game of team sport. It must cultivate nuance and understanding if we are to move forward, and disentangle the good from the toxic. These nuances get lost in the amateur interplay of these belligerents caught up in shit-flinging matches with their sworn opponents, often at the expense of long-term gains for sensibility and reason. All of this will become clear in the proceeding articles on this topic.

The need to think outside the box of our campus debates

Last year, I wrote several articles on this subject, one of which was Die Hard with a Weinstein. It was about why a model of skepticism, reason and compassion should compete for campus hearts and minds — and why it can eventually win.

In this article, which lays out my response to the Evergreen incident from a counter-extremism and ‘psywar’ perspective, I open by explaining my use of the title.

“In the Die Hard films, the situation tends to be resolved with one or a few people taking the initiative and thinking outside the box, even against seemingly overwhelming odds. Perhaps an unconventional approach is what we need on campuses today. Outside-the-box thinking, creativity, and fortitude, combined with a defiant resilience exhibited by those lone few willing to go out on a limb, may be what’s truly needed to escape from our toxic state of campus discourse.”

The ability to have conversations and think critically about issues, as well as a willingness to listen and change our minds, is central to problem solving and social progress. We need the space of sensible and civil discourse in which to discuss practical answers to real life problems. To engage challenges with as little partisan ideology or sensational thinking as possible. The style of provocative conflict, blanketed dismissal and zero-sum opposition that I feel we often see in the Milo Approach is not conducive to this. Rather, it tends to solidify rival tribes and conflict mindsets, making it harder for people to see nuance on the other side. Or listen with the genuine desire to refine their views, acknowledge blind spots and ultimately find room to grow.

In particular, there are many areas where people actually could find agreement on important issues, but fail to do so due to the combative mindset that holds back openness to sensible agreement. The provocation model tends to increase sound bite culture and creates a kind of bifurcation between “SJW” and “anti-SJW”, both of whom are supposed to see one another as either terrible people (or empathy-lacking privileged jerks) or crazy-eyed overly-emotional ideologues. People often instinctively group dissenting opinions and messages into the ‘rival camp’, rather than listen proactively for nuance. “You don’t like PC culture? You must be one of those Right wing Milo types”….”You think privilege is a real thing worth discussing? You sound like an SJW”. This creates a kind of dead weight within our conversation, where people become far more prone to conflict and disagreement than is actually necessary, and automatically assume disagreement or bad faith on opposing sides of an argument due to being primed by the spectacle of political pro-wresting that we see across campuses, YouTube videos and the media.

I want to combine a few key points from other articles, to summarize and give a concise breakdown for readers of my philosophy and approach.

My Main Points of Criticism to Milo’s Approach — A Summary

First, an ongoing supply of moral psychology and political science is increasingly showing us something: An approach that feeds polarization and furthers the divide is likely to be ultimately unhelpful. Is is even likely to be quite unhealthy. ( — -)

I want to acknowledge something upfront. Many will point to the need for the jester, the provocateur, who is willing to expose absurdities and contradictions within dogmas and over-confident ideologies. People who can openly and crudely challenge the intellectual and ideological status quo of institutions — in this case, academia and parts of social activism and media. I actually share this sentiment — we do need forms of this, especially to help break the wall of conformity built around unwavering, dogmatic, rigidly suffocating ideologies that take themselves far too seriously. Revoking their immunity from sensible and honest criticism is one of the best things we can do to help society — including adherents to the ideologies themselves — move forward. However, there are better and worse ways to go about this. Good and bad, productive and unproductive ways to attack such ideas and present alternatives.

Like most people caught between the extremes of social media, I recognize limits. I recognize that the merits of using provocative tactics depends on the nature and scope of the provocations. I do not deny the need to occasionally — or in some parts of academia today, perhaps somewhat frequently — offend and provoke. But the reason for provoking should not be merely for the sake of provocation and offense — in fact, bridges of civility and mutual understanding, or merely willingness to be more open to listening — should be built whenever possible. When head-on collision and passionate disagreement is inevitable, however, there are better and worse ways to engage in provocative rhetoric.

This is not to deny the need for taking on issues head on, nor the need to sometimes offend and challenge status quo wisdom even at the expense of civility. Sometimes it is necessary to offend, to stir the pot, or to engage in direct confrontation with bad ideas or patently false claims. However, needless and excessive provocation is actually counter-productive, as it mostly pushes people back into their tribes and further reinforces the echo chambers. It often solidifies the false dichotomy between two extremes, when truth and wisdom (as well as the pulse of most people, conservative- and liberal-leaning alike) between a false choice (the extreme shades of feminism vs flammable anti-feminist rhetoric, for example; or, the “fuck social justice!” approach vs a toxically quasi-religious social justice* approach).

Secondly, this false dichotomy brought on by excessively provocative, head-on approaches like we often see in Milo’s engagements tends to expand the illusion that we are more divided than we really are. While social attitudes and ideals are indeed quite divided and in a state of violent intellectual conflict among the fringes of our conversation, this conflict actually does not map onto the sentiments of most Americans. Nor most Britains. Or most of any population — fringe pendulums tend to swing back and forth at the expense of the average person. While most people may indeed be tired of the excesses of the Left, excesses of political correctness, and the condescension of much of our elites, this does not mean that the average person wants to swing to the further reaches of the opposite camp. Rather, most people seem to prefer to breath the air of civil discourse and reasonable conversation in the grey are between the fringes.

I write about this in my article on Principles and Values of a New Center Movement.

Finally, there have been a growing number of articles, studies and data to back up the fact that most people are not nearly as divided as the provocative fringes and echo chambers make us out to be.

From, Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture. Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness, and race isn’t either.

Reality is nothing like this. As scholars Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Yudkin, Miriam Juan-Torres, and Tim Dixon argue in a report published Wednesday, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” most Americans don’t fit into either of these camps. They also share more common ground than the daily fights on social media might suggest — including a general aversion to PC culture.

(please read also: An optimist’s guide to political correctness)

Image: An Antifa clash in Portland.

Reciprocity: The Pendulum Effect of Radicalization

Reciprocal radicalization (a term used by counter-extremism and terrorism researcher Julia Ebner, and discussed in her book The Rage, about islamists and the far Right in parts of Europe) is when two or more ideologically bonded groups feed off of one another, increasingly becoming radicalized and fueling more recruiting within their respective communities. The process drives more and more people to the extremes, and amplifies the fringes of discourse, where zero-sum thinking and tribal dynamics tend to set in and solidify. This is rarely productive. This can, on some level, occur on our own campuses, in our own cities, and within the online universe. People increasingly bond as opposing tribes, taking on a binary view of the world and closing the door to nuance and sensible discussion that is so essential for us to combat extremist thinking and bad ideas.

From Die Hard with a Weinstein,

“There is a vicious cyber component to this as well, that occurs with online communities, increasingly bonding together like ‘tribes’ inside an ‘ideological bubble’. Social media has arguably made us more polarized, as well as isolated and closed off from one another. This has nurtured an environment for people and movements to organize and recruit, and identify with one another. We are also — generally speaking — seeing increasing political polarization, not only in the US but parts of Europe as well.

Extremists on both sides seek to fill the vacuum left by the chilling effect of toxic and broken discourse. Hyper-polarization and radical recruitment on the fringes of our political spectrum are acting to undercut sensible discourse, fueling a kind of reciprocal extremism that makes us less safe, less intelligent, and less empathetic to those outside our immediate ideological circle. Universities, professors, public thinkers and even many students are seeking practical answers.

We need a plan of action. In the end, the war against tribal thinking, dogmatism, hive mentality, and empathy gaps will require a new set of tools. Not the conventional approaches of ideologues and bureaucrats, but of innovation, courage and scientific understanding. As well as compassion.”

This is not the TMNT Footclan. Antifa clash at Evergreen. Image: http://www.rightlyreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Evergreen-protest.jpg

Fueling the Echo Chambers: The Dangers of Overly Combative Approaches

I want to re-iterate something I wrote in The Way of the Social Science Warrior: A New Paradigm for Conversation.

The current model we see today is one of conflict and zero-sum thinking. It often leads even decent and reasonable people to talk past one another in a game of tug-of-war, where seeing and acknowledging one another’s concerns and nuances takes a back seat to ‘scoring points’ or echoing ideological narratives or repetitious talking points. As an example, I have seen people literally argue for hours around a simple misunderstanding: one person rightly attacks the excesses of PC culture, while the other rightly defends the need to be respectful and responsive to the dignity of vulnerable human beings. One is saying, “don’t hold back needed conversation because of dogma, ideology or sensitivity!”, while the other is saying “do you not see that hateful people exist?! Why be needlessly cruel to others?”

They are talking past one another, when one sentence could deflate the entire misunderstanding. In short, we need to learn to distinguish legitimate criticism of PC culture, vs merely being a jerk. This may seem overly obvious, but — in the echo chambers of social media or the heat of real-time conversation — it often is not. Encouragingly, there are ways around this. Even on occasions when the discussion is quite complex.

The Venn Diagram Drinking Game: An Entry Point for Changing Minds

With this said, I want to introduce what I call The Venn Diagram Drinking Game. It may well be a gateway to bridging one of the most harmful — and persistently annoying — divides that we face when trying to bridge even the most basic gaps on the “PC” debate.

As a warmup to such a game, we can use a set of tools un moral psychology to get one another to be more open minded and willing to listen to dissenting views — a practice we want to promote to more people. Social scientist and Righteous Mind author Jonathan Haidt talks about ‘dinner table conversation’ through a better understanding of moral psychology. The Open Mind Library — part of the Open Mind Platform from his website -encourages us to ‘explore the irrational mind’ — that is, to “learn a little bit of psychology to see the tricks the mind plays on us, making us all prone to be self-righteous, overconfident”.

Here’s how this drinking game would work.

Likewise, the other group (or person, if it’s a 1 on 1) would ask,

“What are some instances where ‘PC’ culture might go too far, or be misapplied? What are some instances where people are right to criticize it?”

From this, a row of the table is filled out for each side. Whomever gets their own row filled out first gets to drink first. Ideally, no one leaves until both sides drink a second round, and the entire table gets filed out.

Below, the “PC” 2×2 Table, part of the Venn Diagram Drinking Game.

The conversation on ‘PC culture’ and ‘social justice’ is deeply broken

Here are a few reasons why this occurs, and why our very paradigm for discussing social justice and political correctness is so terribly broken.

It keeps us intellectually stagnant. The current paradigm of binary discourse (‘Left vs Right’, or of Centrist vs Left, or “SJW” vs “anti-SJW”) is to avoid changing our minds, and to viscerally shun the very idea of being wrong. This is a problem: it keeps us in an intellectually vegetative state of conversational paralysis. Often, it also locks us, even unknowingly, into a state of moral judgementality and smug self-assurance.

It see things in overly simplified, All or None ways. When we look at things through the prism of dismissive tribal warfare, we put on the lens of simplicity, of all-or-none thinking — its all black and white, with no room for real nuance or growth. Little maneuver space to be wrong and see our blind spots. This is not healthy — and it holds back ur ability to communicate our values and ideas to those who most need to hear them. Do we want to ramble on about being right, or do we want to reach people and change minds?

It hurts our ability to self-correct and grow. The current paradigm does not facilitate self reflection or wanting to see our blind spots. We don’t pressure-test our own ideological bubble. Rarely do we distinguish between where people we oppose may be wrong on something, but in other aspects of the issue, be right. This failure — this giant blind spot — helps drive others further away from us, and into their own echo chambers and bubbles. No one is better off or smarter.

It runs on primal psychology. This tendency to see things in an all-or-none way (Binary Fallacy aka False Dichotomy), and have a visceral reaction to nuance, is an evolutionary feature of our primal hardwiring. It is often easier for the brain to split the world into a binary opposition of simple “good and bad”, “I’m right, you’re wrong”, than to entertain the nuance needed on sensitive, emotional topics. We have to learn how to recognize and adapt to this. A large portion of the secular community — which has long championed itself as the standard bearer for being reasonable — has been particularly harmed by this feature of our moral psychology.

As I recalled in The Way of the Social Science Warrior,

“I was having a rather in-depth dialogue with a Leftist friend about a week or so ago, and he raised the point that many self-described centrists and classical liberals often rail against ‘PC Culture’ and accuse the Left of lacking nuance and civility, but don’t always show this in return. While it is important for more on the Left to actually listen to what critics of PC Culture are saying, it’s also important for these critics to listen, and pay attention to why so many ‘SJWs’ feel its so important to be concerned about hurtful language or the consequences of a certain way of othering minorities. And he was right. Many critics of the Left do in fact come across as needlessly insensitive towards legitimate concerns of people whose inner lives and experiences they cannot relate to, and this tends to drown out any sensible point they may have. Effective communication crashes and burns like one of Donald Trump’s businesses ventures. And no one walks away smarter or more open-minded as a result.”

Let’s all think about this more. And reflect on it with integrity and moral honesty.

A Buffer against the Toxic Extremes: A Healthy Space for Mindful Conversations

Imagine for a moment if more of us felt the breathing space to have real conversations, without being funneled into toxic Manosphere echo chambers where genuine sexism runs rampant, or into radical Left circles where walking a tightrope is needed just to get by. To an extent, thankfully, this breathing space is starting to emerge. New conversation forums and discussions around the country — both on campuses and online — are starting to create this niche. It is this niche of honest conversation that will be our buffer against extremism, by giving more and more people a better option, and a more human outlet to find their footing amidst a landscape of tribal hostility to freethinking and dissent. This can also create the space for nuance — something needed even more in serious situations. Imagine for a moment if we, and others who disagree with us, could regularly start to see important distinctions, and embrace more edifying nuance that neither we nor our critics had seen before. Or even imagined seeing.

This can also perhaps help stop the swinging pendulum of toxicity between the fringes of conversation. By giving people who feel isolated by the suffocating environment of Leftist culture — be it online, on their campus or in their activism circle — we also give people more options for nuance, both in articulating their opinion, and in listening and hearing others. It would be a healthy place to go in order to be more honest, more authentic, and more able to speak and listen. If this mode of discussion were scaled up across our campuses, for example, this would become serious competition for the fringes that have planted their flags as the loudest and most vocal answers. By failing to create spaces for these conversations, we have essentially outsourced the discussion to these fringe groups, who all too eagerly fill the vacuum left by the rubble of our fractured society.

If more people had this ‘third option’ of nuanced, effective discourse, they would be far less likely have to ‘pick a team’ between sensational provocateurs like Milo Yiannopolous and the loud mob of Antifa footclan who look like they’re ready to move on from fighting Ninja Turtles. It would help people in gradually abandoning the rigid narratives and suffocating environment they all too often feel beholden to, socially and intellectually, and move beyond the status quo of narrow discourse.

Intellectually curious people everywhere will be surprised where this can lead us as a society.


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