I’ve had a sense of foreboding for the last month or so about the mental health of the United States. And sure—the Trump situation is raising pulses, but it’s more than that.
It’s a building tension that I feel coming from everyone—especially online—from being forced by current events into extreme versions of ourselves. It’s like the country is a giant piece of strong but brittle steel being bent closer and closer to the snapping point. It’s creating a piercing sound that everyone can hear and can’t get out of their head.
In broad strokes, we are polarizing and the center is disappearing—both economically and ideologically. 50 years ago we would pick between something like a Romney and a McCain character for president, which were basically the same because the country had shared goals.
Today, everyone is getting forced to pick between socialism and fascism, and if you strike a single wrong note in a conversation with someone, you’re assumed to be their opposite.
Nuance and exploration in a political discussion today lasts around 40 seconds. Then as soon as someone hits one of the keywords—like “free speech”, “me too”, “the wall”, etc.—the conversation becomes a garbage fire. Each side labels the other, automatically figures out the 39 other beliefs that they probably hold, and then figures out how to exit the conversation and go tell their in-group that they encountered another enemy in the wild.
Labeling and ostracising has always been present in politics, but in the last year it’s become pathological.
One place I see it very prominently is in the information security community that I’m a part of, with Twitter as the courtroom of choice. As I write this, we’re in the middle of the worst community conflict I’ve seen going back to 1999. It’s not separate from the bending steel bar that is our country right now—it’s a characterization of that stress through a particular lens. In this case, a lens of a Cybersecurity industry with serious gender imbalance and male chauvinism problems.
The INFOSEC community is collapsing on itself.— Marcus J. Carey (@marcusjcarey) January 24, 2019
As a result we have every national-scale debate taking place within our community as well, which feels magnified ten times because you see and know the people being affected. Some of the arguments I see on both sides include:
- Women can’t get respect in the industry
- It’s a boy’s club
- It’s a bunch of immature GamerGate types playing with more expensive toys
- You can’t get accepted to speak if you’re a woman
- Men (both customers and talent) don’t respect female security skills
- There’s too much focus on technical skills and not enough on other abilities
- InfoSec/CyberSecurity needs more diversity
- You’re either a vocal advocate of these things or you’re part of the problem
- It’s all smiles in public, but it’s a nasty frat house behind the scenes
- The female population’s interest in tech and security is lower than the percentage of women in IT/Security, so there’s no imbalance. It’s natural, in other words
- Even if the imbalance is somewhat natural, there’s still far too much discrimination, so we’re not yet at the natural numbers
- Women can get accepted to conferences just by being a woman, and their content doesn’t even have to be as good as for men
- There’s a #metoo shaming mafia that’s out of control
- The #metoo movement was overdue for InfoSec, and it’s good that it happened
- People are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being labeled something, and we should blame women and “SJW’s” for that
- The community is going underground again because it’s too risky to have honest/interesting conversations in public in this political climate
Of course, if someone is wearing a swastika, pick a side.
What I find most interesting about these types of argument lists is that people think they need to pick a side. Stop trying to pick a fucking side. Reality doesn’t have sides. Reality is multi-dimensional. Almost everything being argued by anyone is probably true to some degree. The question is how much, and how that ranks against the other simultaneous truths.
What if we just accepted the entire list—even the crazy ones—and said, “ok, that’s probably true to some degree—and then moved on to an empathic exploration of the shades of grey? Wouldn’t that be something?
Imagine that world. Where we could start by saying I agree that all your points have some merit to them, and you accept that all mine have some degree of merit, and then we had a nuanced discussion from there.
Did you know that Utopia doesn’t just mean an ideal place? It also means an impossible place.
The InfoSec community is eating itself right now, and so is the entire country. The list of arguments at the national scale is even more interesting:
- #metoo was needed to correct an imbalance
- #metoo went too far and is causing damage right now
- #metoo has more work to do; it’s not fixed yet
Let me just pause right there. Which of those is correct?
Trick question—they’re all true. Let’s keep going:
- White people are in more positions of power and therefore have more responsibility and should be willing to absorb more discomfort during this adjustment process
- Free speech is the closest thing to a secular commandment that we have in this country, and we should protect it at all costs
- Free speech includes letting people you don’t agree with speak in public, and in a functioning democracy you don’t get to demand someone not be allowed to speak because something they say might offend you
- White people are acting like snowflakes when they’re called out for being politically incorrect
- Disagreement is not aggression
- People should care how their words affect others
- Disagreement is not assault
- The alt-right is flirting with—and in many cases married to—outright facism and racism, and many of those types are using this “free speech” baton to try to spread their poison to the masses
- It’s time for a major pendulum swing towards socialism, to correct for our worship of the free market
- We want to make sure that pendulum doesn’t go too far, because it’s clearly been demonstrated that socialism doesn’t work
- We need universal healthcare, and it’s ok to tax people with tens of millions of dollars in the bank to help make it happen
- Poor and older white people are worried their country is being replaced by non-whites, and they’re supporting fascist politicians either knowingly or unknowingly in order to oppose that motion
- There’s a strong anti-white sentiment in the country that’s not healthy for anyone—including minorities
- There’s a strong anti-white sentiment in the country that’s needed—at least in moderation for a period of time—to lift minorities and rebalance the future global equation in terms of internal pride and representation
- Masculinity is toxic
- Masculinity is natural, and 95% of the world thinks the liberal parts of the US and Europe are losing their minds about the issue
- 95% of the world is simply lagging behind the progress on gender being made by the US and Europe
- The genders are naturally different, and that’s ok, we can work with the differences and keep everyone happy
- The genders are identical, and any indication of difference is evidence of culture poisoning and programming that harms outcomes
- The poor should experience some suffering so they’re encouraged to break out of it
- The poor need our help and it’s our responsibility to help them
- The poor need opportunity but not a guarantee
- Libertarianism is shirking away from the role of luck and circumstance, and therefore the responsibility to help others less fortunate
- This all started when we lost Jesus in the classroom
- When we lost our central agreement on morality, that’s where it all went astray
The ideas of race-based nationalism, for example, or that equal rights for women was a bad idea.
Again, unless someone is saying something overtly wrong and hateful—we don’t have to pick a side—and we shouldn’t.
The thinking person’s responsibility is to imagine the world not as ones and zeros, but as slider bars of nuance, subtlety, and complexity. If you were to respond to the list above in terms of what you agree with, you should end up with a heat map, not a series of x’s and check marks. But that’s a utopia—at least for now. I think we’re heading for a dark place in 2020.
I try to avoid hyperbole these days, but I honestly don’t think we should strike “Civil War” from this discussion’s vocabulary. Not like before of course, but a modern version.
I see a world where people believe some collection of the arguments above, and they’re triggered by the others they don’t believe. It’s symmetrical stupidity—belief in one, and trigger in its opposite. And this has permeated into the very claims about reality itself.
So when Muller releases his report saying Trump is compromised by Russia and colluded with them to help get elected, and that he’s been taking actions on Russia’s behalf to cause harm to the United States—millions of white people will literally see this as Hilary Clinton and George Soros committing some conspiracy against their rightful ruler of the country.
The reason this is so ugly is because it’s ultimately about resistance to change regarding the biggest issues in society—work, race, and gender.
These are the trends that are driving the overall tension.
- White people are becoming the minority in the U.S. Link
- Women are becoming more successful, while poor men are suffering Link
- Automation and AI is taking more and more jobs, mostly from poor white men Link
- The rich is separating from the poor Link
I think many racists and sexists are so without knowing it, and find other outlets to say it without saying it—like nationalistic slogans. Many aren’t dishonest, but rather confused.
It’s not just one thing. These all combine to make millions of white people extremely angry, and in a way that I don’t even think they can understand or articulate. I think it’s how you explain them hating Obama when he had a perfect family, no major personal scandals whatsoever, while one of the most proudly amoral men in the world gets massive support of white Evangelicals.
The point in all of this is that I’m seriously worried it will come to violence.
Not French Revolution, but many small to medium-sized protests similar to what happened in Charlottesville. And as a bonus, we have Putin doing his best with information warfare to make it happen.
There is so much change—happening so fast—that part of our population is lagging behind, feeling disrespected, and is willing to vote for anyone who says they can make the pain go away.
- Tensions are higher than ever, and the moderate voices have been replaced by extremists on both sides.
- There are multiple conflict points—from race, to gender, jobs, to economic status.
- This is clearly visible in the InfoSec community, as a microcosm of the country overall.
- All of the tension is being echoed and magnified by social media, with the added inertia of an active Russian information warfare campaign.
- Trump leaving office—by either resigning or being forcefully removed—could be the tipping point for actual violence.
- When Michael Moore said he saw so much small-town support for Trump, and that we needed to see his election as a real possibility, everyone laughed. Including me. I see this as the same sort of thing, although I have less anecdote to go on. But I do think the general tension seen in social media right now is a similar signal to what Moore was seeing in 2015.
- I don’t know much about the UK situation, but this feels 90% applicable to the Brexit situation as well. In both cases it’s about the size and pace of change for an aging majority that’s watching its influence diminish.
- January 27, 2019 — Changed the description of my graphical image to reflect that it’s a characterization of multiple studies and not pointing to a particular dataset. Someone said it was biased, but since it’s symmetrical I don’t see how that’s possible. I assumed it was common knowledge that multiple studies have shown our beliefs and discourse becoming more extreme.
- January 27, 2019 — Changed Charleston to Charlottesville.