4chan and all its offspring are venues for anonymous unmoderated talk, places where anything goes—the more offensive to the conventional wisdom, the better. Long before Trump announced his candidacy, the chans were already having a significant impact on internet culture. Most of my readers will know, for example, what a lolcat is; 4chan invented lolcats. One of the subdivisions of 4chan and many of its offshoots is /pol/, short for “politically incorrect,” and that’s one of the places where the young and disgruntled gathered to talk about the things you can’t talk about in the workplace or the academy these days.
That’s a phenomenon that deserves a quick note here. One of the lessons of the history of morals is that the more stridently you repress something, the more desperately people want to do it. In Victorian England, when sex was utterly unmentionable in polite company, the streets of London swarmed with prostitutes and brothels thrived, so that people could do in private what they wouldn’t dream of talking about in public. The drug abuse epidemic in the US today, similarly, is almost entirely a product of the much-ballyhooed War On Drugs—countries that treat drug addiction as an ordinary medical issue, not a subject for moral grandstanding, have much lower rates of drug use.
Recent crusades against “hate speech” have had exactly the same effect in today’s America. Those who attend university classes or work in white-collar jobs know that their every word is scrutinized by jealous rivals ready to use accusations of sexism, racism, or the like as a weapon in the competition for status. Most people, forced into so stifling an environment, will end up desperately longing for a place where they can take a deep breath and say absolutely anything, no matter how offensive. The chans were among the internet venues that offered them that freedom. Posts on the chans are anonymous, so there was no risk of reprisal, and the culture of the chans (and especially of /pol/) tended to applaud extreme statements, so they became a magnet for the people we discussed in last week’s post: those who for one reason or another lost out in the struggle to become flunkeys of the established order of society, who were locked out of what had been the normal trajectory of adult independence by plunging wages and soaring rents, and who were incensed by the smug superiority of a system that assumed that it had all the answers.
It’s become pretty much de rigueur to denounce the chans as racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic. Is there racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism in /pol/ and its many equivalents? You bet, but that’s far from the whole story. A venue that allows people to say anything anonymously is going to field whatever kinds of speech are most loudly forbidden. What was going on in the chans was considerably broader than those categories suggest: every value, every bias, every presupposition of the cultural mainstream was being shouted down with maximum glee. That’s what you get in outsider culture.
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