Mainstreams and Trust Networks [Trenchant Edges]
The linchpin of social reality; Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 24 seconds. Contains 1883 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter about fringe culture, ideas, and general weirdness.
I’m Stephen, your host and research guy, and we’ve got about another two weeks before a format and probably a name change. So that’s fun. September will be moving to a Sunday email for everyone and a Friday email for subscribers.
I’m going to embrace procrastination of our main investigations into Terence McKenna and Marshall McLuhan so we can all return to them refreshed and ready to digest them in September.
Today I’m going to zero in on one of my most frustrating interests: The nonexistence of a mainstream in the modern world is one of my big issues with media discourse in 2021.
No Mainstream Here
As I was developing from my pupal libertarian stage around 2008 to my obnoxious liberal phase, I started to notice the way everyone would use the word mainstream.
Identities are often easier put together by opposition and it’s here where the idea of a mainstream can be extremely helpful no matter who you are.
See, all you have to do is point to some vague group of people you’re reminded of regularly and, no matter their actual size or influence within culture, you can start interpreting their actions as “the” mainstream.
This is very good news for propagandists because it means all you have to do is skew someone’s reference groups and they’ll have MUCH more difficulty sussing out exactly where you are outside your echo chamber.
At the risk of being a filthy centrist, this is something many groups of extremist groups do. Fascists will call anyone to the left of Hitler communists. You might think I’m exaggerating, but one of the most famous quotes of one of the more enduring fascist writers, Julius Evola went something like, “If Hitler is a fascist, than I am a hyper-fascist.”
This kind of Defining-by-skewed-reference also drove social dynamics in both Bolsheviek controlled Russia and Maoist China. And unlike most of the ideals of either of those periods, too-online leftists often run into the trap of playing competitive who’s the least liberal.
That kind of radicalization loop is a staple of online fringe movements. You start shifting your rhetoric and it turns some people you already know off and turns some new people on. Chances are you get love bombed by them. Suddenly your old beliefs feel worse and your new beliefs feel better.
Naturally, nobody driven by this experience has any kind of principled politics so much as a junk drawer of escalating radical hot takes, with cooler takes replaced with hotter ones as you gravitate to more hardcore groups.
What drives someone between different ingroups and outgroups to find their specific politics?
Ethos, the linchpin of Ideology
There may never may be a less helpful term than ideology.
It’s the fallen child of theology. Ideas and ways of thinking glued together with emotions and imagination but without any awe-inspiring numinosity.
Terry Eagleton’s book Ideology: An Introduction separates out 16 definitions of the word. Yikes. We… don’t need that much nuance in the term.
When I say Ideology here, what I mean are the ideas people swim in the way fish swim in water. They’re the ideas built into our assumptions about ourselves and the world so their distortions appear natural and normal.
Within an individual, ideologies are messy, mixed affairs. More like birds nests than anything coherent. Because ideas within mind are built out of association chains, if they form unconsciously, they won’t be the kind of perfectly rational masterpieces most of us like to assume our beliefs form.
As we go through life, we run into a number of forces that can reshape our beliefs or push us towards digging them in deeper. Some seem to resemble the forces of physics: friction or drag, lift, and occasionally blunt force.
Friction can come from internal tension between two inconsistent beliefs or from hearing about someone who doesn’t live up to your values. Lift comes from a belief’s ability to help you step back from the mundane and trivial and get some elevation in life.
And, of course, sweet blunt force comes when reality stomps one of your precious beliefs.
The important thing is that it’s a dynamic process that only ends when you die. Hell, maybe not even then.
This is where psychological theories like cognitive dissonance come in. The point here is that you’re always moving somewhere, even if it’s just swimming harder to stay afloat where you are.
So, you’ll see something and react to it. Perhaps it’s an injustice or a joke. Could be both. And then other stuff will happen and you’ll react to that. You might synthesize the experience or reject the new information.
There are a few important things that happen in this dynamic: First, if we take our fish and water metaphor seriously, there are different regions representing different constellations and combinations of ideological debris. Much of this is freefloating material that can be rebuilt into anything you might want to.
Often, unexpectedly. You can teach class warfare to an antisemitic nationalist, but instead of unmaking an antisemite, you’ll probably just have radicalized a Strasserite or Nazbol. If you don’t know what I mean… well, good.
Point is, if you try to teach someone with awful beliefs you might just create a new kind of awful belief.
The second important thing is the view within an ideology is much different from the view outside it. The former is richer and more interesting with much finer distinctions. The latter is more broadly encompassing, but often has trouble focusing on an individual, seeing only the larger pattern.
This is why conversations between ideologies is so often frustrating and two people can have an argument and both leave feeling clearly like they obviously won.
In fact, because each ideology has stock ideas about what other ideologies say and believe, it’s easy to assume you’re not talking to a real person. Just a set of predetermined responses.
This optical illusion is so strong on the far right it has its own meme.
The last important thing about this dynamic is you can’t change ideologies casually without some external force. The energy and new information has to come from somewhere. Either from self directed self examination or entering a radicalization funnel.
The boundary between two ideologies, even if their not apparently close, is usually only crossed with an initiation. A kind of experience where there’s a distinct shift between two ways of looking at the same information.
In my own life I’ve felt this happen a few times. Catholic to Atheist, Atheist to agnostic, political neophyte to libertarian. Libertarian to liberal. Liberal to anarcho-communist.
It’s usually pretty distinct.
Let’s take Atheist to Agnostic. I spent a ton of time arguing over evolution in the middle-internet’s message boards. And there came a moment when I realized that so much of the atheist’s posts were taking out personal frustrations on Christians and agnosticism was more intellectually rigorous.
I went from not seeing a dynamic I was participating into to seeing one of my own deep flaws.
Now, I didn’t lose the chip on my shoulder in a day. It took 5 or 6 years from that moment to work through most of it. I had a lot of chip to work through.
But once I saw myself as failing my own ideals it was hard to keep going there.
Such moments are precious and magical, even if they can also be extremely painful.
I used to chase them, hoping the sense of transformation they provide would fix my problems. But that’s just another dragon to chase.
The real magic is in the moment to moment mundane work of living.
Which I’ve been in denial about for almost a decade. hah!
Hey, didn’t you mention something about Ethos?
Ethos is one of the three parts of Aristotle’s rhetoric alongside Logos and Pathos. Ethos means character, virtue, or standing.
Logos = logic, evidence
Pathos = emotion, feeling
A good piece of rhetoric will use all three in roughly equal measure.
A ton of media analysis today will put a ton more focus on logos vs pathos, but will skimmp on thinking about ethos.
But this is a mistake. Ethos is critical. And it’s conditional on the audience. It’s not a general quality, but something granted or denied from a general audience.
We can learn this most easily from the rhetoric of the republican party and most of all Donald Trump.
If you’re reading this, you probably loathe Donald Trump because I’m sure as fuck not on his team. But whatever you think of his intelligence and competence, there’s one thing he’s objectively really good at.
Appeals to ethos.
Now, if you’re a liberal or if you’re on the left you might say, “But Trump is a piece of shit, how can he want to be seen as having high character?”
Donnie tapped into a VERY powerful gamble. The Ethos version of double-or-nothing.
Everything he says is, “I have the most highest best character, anyone who opposes me has no character.”
And then he says something racist or sexist.
The people he doesn’t want criticize him. Then he takes that criticism, turns to the people we now think of as his base and says, “Hey, those people you hate? They hate me too. If you make me your god-emperor, I will make them suffer.”
And that’s his one campaign promise he kept.
And that was good enough for between 34% and 49% of the country.
This isn’t a mistake, it’s a shrewd move if you’ve got the clout and skill to sell it. And Trump is one of the few people on the planet who could even try.
Less extreme versions of this happen everywhere else.
It’s all about who you trust and who you don’t trust.
This is the role conspiracy theories play in American politics at least since the 1950s and the founding of the John Birch Society.
Not so much in creating political groups that can effectively act, but in denying them from groups they’d otherwise ally with.
Ethos is the aggregate reasons underpinning trust or distrust, and thus mediates all communication networks.
I don’t know how to sum up how these dynamics any better than the author of The One Sentence Persuasion Course, Blair Warren:
People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies.
And it’s this line we’ve got to navigate differently if we want to do more than repeat the same destructive social patterns that have gotten us to our current ecology-threatening industrial civilization.
Would anyone be interested in us going through Plato or Aristotle? I think they’ve got a *ton* of useful and interesting ideas.
And I sincerely believe you can get MASSIVE benefits from digging back into the foundational ideas of the western philosophical tradition.
I think Plato especially is useful for understanding the basics of many existential questions.
Anyway, you can still book a time to chat with me if you’d like to give me some advice. I’d appreciate anything from abuse to support. Nothing that starts with T-Z, though.
Blatent Engagementbait Questions
Have you seen this ethos/trust dynamic in action? What happened?
Have you seen someone recognize they’re radicalizing and choose to stop?
How can you apply this knowledge to yourself?
Oh, and for people wanting an (even more) fictionalized take on what Plato's Republic might look like: the novel "The Just City" by Jo Walton. A brief summary:
"Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, [based on Plato's Republic], populated by over 10,000 children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future - all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past"
If you're the sort to like extended thought experiments on 2,500 year old philosophical texts, then this is for you.
I think a dive into Plato would be great. His writings are still relevant to this day, and a baseline of shared Plato understanding would let us take some fun digressions into neoplatonic gnosticism and all sorts of other great, weird stuff.
My favorite professor in college, when he was feeling feisty and self-consciously reductive, would describe "western civilization" as an ongoing conflict/dialogue between the two forces of Dialectic and Rhetoric, symbolized primordially by Plato and Isocrates.
He favored rhetoric, begrudged Plato's dominance from the middle ages onward, and saw signs for hope that Rhetoric could become ascendant again in our new postmodern age.
Anyway, good stuff.