In the early 2000s at the paper, we had a prolific and obnoxious troll whose goal in life seemed to be to fill every discussion topic on the paper’s website (DelawareOnline) with profane, angry, eliminationist racist rants. It was serious Neo-Nazi, Hutu-radio level hate with constant calls for state-sponsored and vigilante violence against black people, women, black women, immigrants, LGBT people, and anyone else who wasn’t this sick dude’s idea of the right kind of people. And it was constant.
The guy posted hundreds of times a day from a dial-up account that stymied the paper’s IP-blocking measures, but other readers and posters took to flaming him and mocking him for having lost his job at DelDOT. That’s when he stumbled onto what he thought was a brilliant trick. He changed his username to “Missy” and started claiming that he himself was a black woman. Therefore, in his dim little brain, he was allowed to say whatever vile things he wanted about his “fellow” black women. And also, he imagined, anyone who objected to his rants would have to be silenced because they were being racist and sexist against his white male self.
“Missy’s” ploy was, to say the least, unconvincing. His sneering attempts to “sound” black and female just revealed him ever more clearly as a pasty, racist misogynist who was unwilling and unable to imagine, even slightly, being anything or anyone else. No one — absolutely no one — other than himself was ever fooled by his “clever” trick.
No one ever is.
I thought of “Missy” when reading this remarkable story by Rachelle Hampton for Slate: “The Black Feminists Who Saw the Alt-Right Threat Coming.”
More than anything, Shafiqah Hudson said, the clearest red flag was the accounts’ inability to hide their contempt for the very people they were attempting to imitate. They tweeted about collecting welfare checks and smoking weed, with an occasional screed against white people. And most of these accounts spoke a version of African American Vernacular English that no real black person had ever used. “#EndFathersDay,” said one, “until men start seeing they children as more then just ‘fuck trophies.’ ” To casual observers online, #EndFathersDay appeared to be the work of militant feminists, most of whom were seemingly women of color. To Hudson, the ruse was never anything but transparent. “No one who knew or liked a black feminist,” she told me, “was fooled.” But the hashtag was already trending worldwide.
The minstrelsy of these troll accounts was about as convincing as the transparently bogus claims of “Missy.” It was a contemptuous costume intended only to mock, not to deceive.
The lie here is that such a false pretense amounted to a “lie” at all in the usual sense of that word. The goal of such falsehood is not to misinform or to deceive, but to invite others who may be so inclined to participate in self-deception. “We are pretending that people we don’t like are like this,” that invitation says. “Here is your chance to volunteer to join us in pretending that you ‘believe’ that too.”
Undeniably, the people creating and fabricating these hoaxes know them to be false. They are aware, firsthand, of their own choices and actions in inventing such falsehoods. But what of those who agree to endorse and to spread this disinformation? They lack the absolute certainty of its falsehood that the creators surely possess, so isn’t it possible that they have merely been deceived — that they might be good-faith dupes rather than bad-faith actors who have willingly and knowingly accepted the invitation to participate in deception?
No. That’s just not an option. The sham is too obvious and too self-evidently false. Even if we grant these would-be dupes the dubious charity of presuming that they are too staggeringly ignorant to see this, we cannot exempt them from all responsibility for examining — even slightly — whether or not the witness they are choosing to bear against their neighbors is true or false.“Really?” is such a widespread reaction to shocking news that it has become a lazy comedian’s stand-alone punchline. Instead of bothering to write an actual joke, they’ll mention some trending topic and then just sarcastically and dismissively say, “Really?” It’s not “really” a question when they do this — just a shorthand for disagreement with some idea they presuppose is, indeed, real. Even when it often is not.
That’s annoying not just because it’s bad craft and bad comedy, but because “really?” is a necessary question for comedians and for anyone else interested in the truth — in dealing with reality as opposed to fantasy. The failure, or refusal, to ask that question is what makes the supposed “dupes” complicit in the deception they have chosen to take part in.
They’re not asking that question because they already know — or at the very least strongly suspect — that the answer is quite obviously, “No, not really.”
And that answer would disappoint them. It would take all the fun out of the little bad-faith game they’ve enlisted to play. They do not ask that question because they do not want to hear the answer — do not want to see reality distinguished from fantasy, because they prefer the fantasy. They enjoy that fantasy because they’ve trained themselves to enjoy “contempt for the very people they were attempting to imitate.”
Hudson is correct that “no one who knew or liked a black feminist” was fooled by the foolish frauds incompetently posing as such online. But no one else was fooled by them either.
Some, however, chose to pretend to be fooled — chose to participate in the foolery. These were not merely people who did not know or like any black feminists, but people who emphatically did not want to ever know or to like them:
… The mockery #EndFathersDay made of an increasingly influential online feminist movement became predictable catnip to conservatives. Tucker Carlson devoted a segment to it. Ashe Schow in the Washington Examiner called it the latest “drivel” “from the feminist outrage machine.” Dan McLaughlin tweeted that the hashtag was “a neat illustration of the cultural trajectory of progressivism.” “#EndFathersDay Because it’s really just Second Caregiver of Unspecified Gender Identity Day, you cisnormative a**holes,” mocked Ben Shapiro. What these commentators were missing was that the #EndFathersDay campaign was a hoax, started by anonymous trolls on 4chan to engender exactly the vitriol that pundits so readily stepped up to spew.
Carlson and Shapiro claim to be telling us what they “believe,” but their claim to “really” believe it is not credible. They are not telling us what they believe to be true, but what they wish to be true. And thus by revealing their own eagerness to bear false witness against their neighbors, they bear true witness against themselves.
Rachelle Hampton has offered these bearers of false witness an opportunity for redemption. Her article affords them the grace of a second chance — a chance to retake the test they failed the first time around. More than that, it requires them to retake that test, thereby providing not just an opportunity for redemption but also the opportunity to double-down on their earlier failure.
And what is the test? Here, again, is C.S. Lewis cutting through our pretense and reminding us that toxic bad faith is knowable, measurable, and confirmable. It is also, he warns, terminal:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.