I’ve just finished reading “Kill All Normies” by Angela Nagle, a thoroughly enjoyable experience for anyone who is interested in Internet culture wars and how politics is shaping and being shaped by various online tribes. The title comes from the name given to normal people in some online chatrooms, particularly 4chan and 8chan.
I have to start by saying that I really loved this book, although it is altogether too short and left me wishing that it was longer. I have been fascinated for many years by the rise of the alt-right, a phenomenon that I have followed in gaming communities and Reddit forums, but it was very nice to see the disparate narrative of the online alt-right phenomenon brought together so well. Some of the best parts of the book come when it shines a light on various groups and events, such as elevatorgate, gamergate, and the so-called manosphere. It does so in an even handed and authoritative manner, and it is evident that Nagle has done her homework and is very familiar with the ins and outs of various movements and cultures.
The subject matter can be difficult to read, particularly some of the descriptions of abuse endured by prominent feminists such as Anita Sarkeesian, Briana Wu and Jessica Valenti. The vile nature of many of the troll armies and men’s rights vloggers is made clear without being overly preachy or excessive, and often using their own words to explain their views. These sections are a must-read for people who want to gain better understanding of how the alt-right movement originated, and how exactly did these people manage to spread so much and gain political influence.
I found the depiction of the right-wing online spaces enthralling, even though I was already quite familiar with a lot of these movements, perhaps with the exception of the Red Pill and incel communities. I was aware of them, but one look at the red pill Reddit forum left me feeling extremely sad, and I never came back. Nagle has a great talent for conveying the nature of the forums and vlogs without having to visit them, but also it is quite clear that she does not take these opinions seriously. Her style in this chapter serves as a stark contrast to this ridiculously complimentary article about so-called men’s rights in this rightly derided New York Times article, normalising and giving a platform to MGTOW groups, which are filled with known abusers. It is difficult to get the balance right in these issues, and Nagle hits the nail on the head.
While most people will read to book to find out about the alt-right, my favourite part of the book came when Nagle portrays the online left communities such as Tumblr, which have given rise to a type of identity politics that has managed to split mainstream leftist politics as well as online spaces. This is probably one of the most forceful political messages in the book, as a self-described leftist, Nagle is open in criticising some of the excesses of leftist online politics, particularly the emphasis on identity politics. This is a difficult political fight on the left right now, the split between economic left and identity left, as it feels like the identitarians have been winning by virtue of being loudest online. This is a phenomenon that was greatly described in Mark Fisher’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“, and Nagle sides with Fisher’s views that online communities have become problematic in their own right. At some point an obsession with identity became one of the guiding lights of the left, but also a toxic mixture of victimhood and vicious attacks on anyone not toeing the line.
I found this chapter extremely interesting because I have to admit that during the zenith of the Tumblr left and the cultural revolution that followed I managed to elude most of the drama described in the book. I had a quick look at the silliness that was rising in some sectors and decided to cull my social timelines to filter out all such idiocy. I refuse to turn my identity into a source of victimhood, and found constant calls to check my privilege as a cis-gendered person of colour who currently identifies as male as extremely tiresome. The problem of course that right wing and the alt-right have been quite adept at using this obsession with identity to their advantage, and they constantly use this seemingly inexhaustible capacity of the left to take the bait on identity politics to dangle morsels that are always swallowed whole. To me nothing speaks more about this obsession with identity than the transgender bathroom ban debate in the United States on the run-up to last year’s election. A large part of my social timeline became obsessed with toilets, an amount of interest that is not proportional to the percentage of the population affected. I am not saying that transgender rights are not important, but to me it was evident that this obsession was detrimental because it showcased something that was cleverly exploited by the right. The left came across as degenerates obsessed with sex, while some sectors of the economy were suffering. The right took the opportunity to talk directly to those who felt rightly or wrongly alienated by the debate. In some ways, the left has been colonised by US-centric identity obsessions that have little relevance to the rest of us, and often forget important developing world struggles.
This is something that comes across quite well in the book. At some point the left forgot how to argue, and we have been losing the meme war online. Brexit, Trump and AfD have exemplified that the right takes the excesses of the left and weaponises them in the shape of memes. Nagle explains that an online culture that only responds by blocking and hiding in safe spaces has completely forgotten how to hold an argument and adequately respond when the need arises. We have been getting our arses kicked online, and people like Richard Spencer, Milo, and Steve Bannon have understood the power of populist narratives. Bannon is actually on record saying:
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
I cannot really consider myself a leftist in the traditional sense any more, and this is in part because of the movements that Nagle and Fisher talk about. But the online nazis need an opposition, and if anything, I hope that Nagle’s book will help to galvanise those of us who think that we need to take the alt-right head on and beat them with their own weapons. But to do that, we need to look at the big picture and stop engaging in tiresome witch-hunts that do nothing but antagonise and alientate potential allies. The enemies are the nazis, not the economic and anarchic left.
As a gamer, I just have a small complaint about the term kek. Nagle says that the term “started on 4chan and translated to ‘lol’ in comment boards on the multiplayer videogame World of Warcraft“. This is somehow accurate, but being such an important part of video game culture, and as a WoW player, I thought that it deserves a better explanation. In WoW there are two factions, Alliance and Horde, and each speaks its own language, Common and Orcish respectively. This means that you cannot communicate with the other faction, and when someone types a chat in a space where the other faction can see it, the game translates it to look like common or orcish. So if I’m a Horde player and say “Victory or death!”, an Alliance player will read “Lok-Tar Ogar!”. Very early on, players found out that when a Horde player said “lol”, it would be read by the opposition as “kek”. This meme took off, and it is more common to say kek than lol in the game.
Just another weird meme, like Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker (don’t ask, it’s complicated).