What Haunts Us III: We Could Each Become Evil, A History Boy, 12/11/2015

The libertarian ethos is one face of a social phenomenon with many different aspects. If they have a common theme, it’s reactionary conservative movements understanding themselves in the language of freedom, even as they suppress the ability of others to free themselves.

For instance, take the screenshot on the right. It was a comment on a LinkedIn Pulse article I read yesterday morning about the recent protests against racist action and administration indifference at University of Missouri.

I tweeted this yesterday. I have no problem signal boosting this racist.
Look past the obviously racist slurs and you’ll see one sort-of-positive idea. If they didn't like how they were treated at University of Missouri, they could quit and go to school somewhere else.

That's the freedom of the pure marketplace. If you don't like the service at one place, take your business somewhere else. The principle sounds fine on its own, but it simply isn’t suitable for the material realities of many of the people who suffer in discriminatory social systems. 

Maybe you can't physically reach an alternative business to provide some essential service that bars you or creates an unwelcoming atmosphere for you. Like if you need an abortion but must travel hundreds of miles, and can’t afford to take time off work.

If you don’t get a satisfactory arrangement from your employer, says this advocate of freedom, simply quit and get another job. But what if there's an economic recession or depression, and there are no other jobs. 

Or job scarcity turns work-seekers into supplicants to potential employers. The sanctified new liberal value of work is the equality of two people who form a contract as employer and employee. 

Libertarians, influenced by Hayek’s writing, see that equality as undermined by the mob rules and thuggery of labour unions. Workers ganging up on employers to intimidate them. But employers hold power when jobs are scarce and they can turn away applicants on a whim. 

Robert Nozick was actually a very kind man, but his
philosophical ideas inspire people to act with terrible
cruelty. This is an actual, genuine quote from Nozick
sincerely saying taxation is forced labour. It's a
philosophical centrepiece of the libertarian / new
liberal right wing's desire to defund all government.
This is our economy. It has been for some time, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Its inequities fall more sharply, macro-economically speaking, on women. And those new liberal arguments are always trotted out, their presumptions of equal starting positions making perfect sense until you consider how real people actually live.

The argument for total free speech, quite often made on social media battlegrounds, work the same way: a presumption of material equality, when equality is abstract at best.

This is the presumption behind the defence of men who gang up on women on social media, hounding her with insults and abuse, then complain that she’s silencing them by blocking or reporting them. The presumption that we're all already equal, and that my democratic right to say whatever I want trumps my responsibility not to abuse people.

Remember that a member of Reddit's Libertarian forum once told me that moral obligations toward other people oppressed his freedom. This is in Robert Nozick's writing, his radio show example. The excerpt philosophy undergrads rarely receive in their textbooks. 

It’s a repugnant state of mind, this toxic masculinity. But why do I say it haunts me? Instead of just plain disgusting me? 

Because I could very easily have become one of these people who thinks women’s empowerment, even in the act of speaking out, is a violent act toward me as a man. I know how close I came to being a man who hates women.

A lot of the most aggressive members of Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies are young men with social anxiety or awkwardness. Maybe in some contexts, some conversations, they can appear confident. But under that bluster is a very uncertain person. 

They feel uncertain about how they’re supposed to approach women. Maybe they develop feelings for a woman in their circle of friends, but they're too nervous to say anything. And if they overcome their nerves, maybe they're still awkward, strange, and come off creepy. 

Maybe that rejection inspires obsessiveness. Maybe instead of nursing some sadness before moving on, they instead foster resentment. Or else talk themselves into deeper infatuation. 

I credit Penny's writing with helping to raise my own
consciousness and understanding of my attitudes and
actions. That's what philosophy is supposed to do.
Men are supposed to be strong, confident, and impressive. Whether it’s with our words, appearance, or some other talent. Why do you think so many men take up music to attract women? We’re taught that we have to act a particular way, and we can win what we're entitled to. Women. Or even a particular woman.

It wasn’t until I read Laurie Penny’s account of toxic masculinity that I fully understood the conundrum that defined my personality through most of my 20s. I thought I had to act in an aggressive, confrontational, showboating way to win the affection of women I wanted, whose affection I felt entitled to only because I wanted it. Even when I'd get so nervous, I couldn't express it.

I thought I should act according to the rules of what I now know is toxic masculinity. But I was really bad at it. And when I tried to act that way, I'd become monstrous. 

I broke that cycle of thought maybe only three or four years ago. Some never do. Some blame the women who reject them for their own loneliness, and become more resentful and enraged. Some think that a woman choosing who she wants to be with, or even just speaking her mind, is an act of aggression toward men and themselves. 

The worst of these men are Elliot Rodger and Marc Lépine. But the same tendency is in so many men who remain twisted by toxic cultures of violent, aggressive, possessive masculinity. Masculinities of control and authority, that see being in authority as freedom.

I could very easily have been one of those people. That’s what haunts me about the modern phenomenon of men hating women. Because when I think about a young woman like Rehtaeh, I don’t just think about the tragedy, the horror, and the cruelty.

I think about how – if my reaction to a few situations leaned just a little bit more one way than the other – I could have become just like her tormentors. Someone who thought she deserved it.

That potential for evil is in me. It’s in many, if not all, of us. And it haunts me to my core.

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