Commusings: Redeeming the Black Pill by Charles Eisenstein

Dec 05, 2020

Watching an interview with Frederick Brennan, the extremely penitent founder of 8chan (the main forum for the conspiracy theory QAnon), I was moved by his description of typical 8chan users, particularly the “Incels” and those who’ve swallowed the “black pill.” The former term refers to men who are involuntarily celibate; the latter refers to nihilism.

Displaying varying degrees of misogyny, the Incels draw a lot of condemnation. They are denounced for believing themselves “entitled to sex,” and reviled for placing blame for their own failings onto women. We can denounce them and fight them online, call them out and cancel them, but can we see them as human? Can we see their frustrated yearning to love a woman, to raise a family, to contribute meaningfully to life? Frustrated desire naturally turns to violence, directed at others or oneself or both.

I hear a protest: “Fine for you as a straight white male to call for compassion for these perpetrators and their avatar, the perpetrator-in-chief Donald Trump, but what about compassion for the victims? They need it even more.” To that I say: as a matter of sheer practicality, it is precisely compassion for the victims that requires compassion for the perpetrators. Compassion enables us to quell the violence at its source. Compassion isn’t the same as giving someone a free pass or allowing them to continue harming others. Compassion is the understanding of another’s inner and outer condition. With this understanding, one can effectively change the conditions that generate harm. It is precisely the same logic that leftists use when talking about crime. Instead of waging an endless war on criminals, let’s look at the conditions that breed crime. What makes someone a drug dealer, a robber, a gang member? What conditions of trauma and poverty? Following the trail of these questions, one may arrive at compassion and root-level responses.

Whether we are talking about the inner city youth growing up in extreme trauma and deprivation, or the white Incel living in his parents’ basement with only his despair, his student debt, and his video games for company, we must be careful not to impute helplessness onto these victims of circumstance. There is no circumstance too oppressive for the human being to transcend. There is a place for messages like “Stop being a victim. Take ownership of your life. Stop asking for charity.” Crucially though, these messages will be useless, counterproductive even, if they come from a place of superiority or disgust. It cannot be, for example, the privileged white person telling the ghetto dweller to get his act together. Such messages have to come from a full appreciation of the anguish and misery of the oppressed condition, and a genuine vision of the greatness of those in it. Yes, greatness. It is hypocritical and pointless to call someone to greatness without believing in their greatness. And this belief cannot be a mere spiritual ideology. For these reasons, usually it is only other black people who can effectively exhort African-Americans to take responsibility for raising themselves up, and it is usually other men who can do the same for the Incels. I know people who say their lives were saved from addiction and despair by this kind of “tough love.” We just have to keep in mind both words of that phrase: the love as well as the toughness. If you secretly despise those you are trying to help with your tough love, you will hinder not help. To transcend one’s conditions requires courage. It is a lot easier to be brave when someone knows you ARE brave.

One of my favorite quotes, by Viktor Frankl, will help illustrate these points: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” One can feel truth ringing through these words. Yet obviously, their application would not be to visit a concentration camp, quote it to the prisoners, and then walk away. The right application is to one’s own circumstances. The words ring the bell of bravery; having acted from it, one may then ring it for others who may be in similar circumstances.

Let’s be clear that compassion is not the absence of anger. I am not asking the abused or the oppressed not to be angry. Quite the contrary – anger is a sacred force. It arises in response to confinement, violation, or threat (to oneself or in witness to another). It is key to social change, because it supplies the energy and courage to break free of familiar holding patterns.

Hate is the result of a narrative hijacking anger and channeling it onto convenient enemies. Hate preserves the status quo. Martin Luther King once said, “Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

Once anger becomes hate, one no longer has an accurate understanding of the situation. Hate interposes a projection in front of an adversary, making them appear both more terrible and more contemptible than they actually are. Therefore, hate is an obstacle to victory in a fight. To win, one must be in reality, accurately understanding the opponent. With that understanding, the fight may no longer be necessary – another response may present itself. Or not. Sometimes forceful intervention is necessary to prevent harm. Sometimes the abused, the persecuted, the oppressed need to fight back, go to court, run away, or enforce a boundary. Sometimes they need allies in doing that. Sometimes abusers need to be physically restrained so that they do no further harm. But when it comes from hate rather than anger, the goal of force undergoes a subtle shift. It becomes no longer to stop harm but to inflict harm – to avenge, to punish, to dominate – in the name of stopping harm. To quote MLK once again, “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.” Please meditate on these words. It looks to me like such a cancer is spreading in America, with precisely the effects on its national “personality” that King predicted.

Earlier I used the term the “Black Pill.” Nihilism, of course, is no mere philosophical position, but the intellectual expression of a psychological state of despair. In fact, this despair is always latent in modern society, because (1) its reigning reductionism renders the universe into a meaningless scribble of atoms and void; (2) its reigning theory of life tells us we are here to survive and reproduce; (3) its reigning economics directs our creative energies toward unfulfilling work and mindless consumption, and (4) its dominant social patterns cut us off from nature, community, place, and the experience of belonging. For a while, rapid increases in wealth and dazzling technical achievements kept the despair at bay. But it was there all along, a gnawing void at the heart of the ideology of progress. It was there all along, an inner poverty mirroring the destitution progress had wreaked upon other cultures and beings. It was there all along, our own shadow that followed us as we raced toward a Utopia ever just at the horizon. Now as the glamour of progress dissolves, as our exhaustion mounts, and as we face the sobering realization that the horizon grows no closer no matter how fast we run, despair overtakes us at last.

Nihilism is a natural response to the shoddy and tired myths offered to us as sources of meaning. How many of us have had experiences directly contradicting what our epistemic authorities (science) tells us is possible? How many of us sequester narrative-busting data points in a separate mental compartment, living more or less in official reality but unable to wholeheartedly believe in it?

One reason that cults and conspiracy theories are so compelling is that they gather threads snipped away from official reality and weave them into another fabric. Some of those threads may have been snipped because they are simply untrue, and have no place in anyone’s reality. Others may have been snipped because they clash with the color scheme of the main fabric; that is, they disturb reigning institutions and paradigms. These are the threads we must weave into any tapestry of meaning that could be a satisfying successor to today’s dominant political narratives.

What I am saying is that some of the claims that weave through the conspiracy narrative merit attention. The delusional nature of the narrative does not invalidate all of its threads, and we should not dismiss everything conspiracy theorists say just because they said it. All the more important this is at a time when our information gatekeepers malign and suppress genuine dissent as conspiracy theories, disinformation, and Russian propaganda.

When the meaning offered us is not only psychologically unsatisfying but even fails to acknowledge our direct experience and our hearts’ recognition of truth, no wonder so many of us lapse into nihilism, thinking that life and the universe itself is meaningless. That nihilism and the latent despair that drives it was QAnon’s spawning ground. The same ground spawns mindless consumerism, technology fetishism, the hypnotic myth of progress, and the spectacular pseudo-dramas of politics, sports, and entertainment. These are the spawn and also the ground, comprised within what Guy Debord named “The Society of the Spectacle.” Any edifice of meaning collapses around the hollow core of its fundamental inauthenticity.

The hunger for the real that gnaws at the Spectacle’s subjects cannot be met from within the Spectacle itself. Online experiences may assuage the nihilism and despair, but they cannot fully meet it. Only direct, sensory, multi-dimensional relationship can. Ultimately this, and not intellect, is the source of meaning.

The Black Pill is the distillation of cultural despair. It spreads from one dispossessed person to another, leaching its poison into the body politic. The frustrated desire of the Incels morphs easily into racial hatred and sexual violence. The nihilism of the Black Pills finds relief in grandiose fascist stories of past and future greatness.

The situation is closely analogous, as Chris Hedges describes it, to 1930s Germany, where just as today “...the spiritually and politically alienated, those cast aside by the society, [were] prime recruits for a politics centered around violence, cultural hatreds and personal resentments.” Their rage, he observes, then as now, was directed in particular at the liberal political intellectuals who had abdicated their proper role within capitalism, which is to soften its rough edges, mitigate its worst tendencies, and wrest a fair share of its wealth for the working class. American liberals performed that role admirably from the 1930s through the 1960s and even into the 1980s, before, as Hedges puts it, they “retreated into the universities to preach the moral absolutism of identity politics and multiculturalism while turning their backs on the economic warfare being waged on the working class and the unrelenting assault on civil liberties.” In the 1990s the Democratic Party (like Labour in the UK and various social democratic parties in Europe) began its romance with Wall Street and the transnational corporations. They consummated their marriage in the Obama era and spawned a child called totalitarian corporatism, which vies with its rival, Trumpian neofascism, for our future.

The closeness of the election shows that these two futures hang in near perfect balance. Is there a third option? There is, but it depends on building bridges across the most forbidding fault lines of our fragmenting social landscape.

The Incels, Black Pills, and QAnons show us in magnified form the dispossession of a vast swath of middle America (dispossessed of hope, meaning, and belonging, and increasingly economically dispossessed as well). They join the traditionally dispossessed racial and ethnic minorities, but not, tragically, as their allies. Instead they turn their rage on each other, leaving little energy to resist the continued plunder of the commons. The two main cults each offer their followers a proxy target – a caricature of the other side – for their rage.

In light of this tacit collusion, one wonders if both are not two arms of the same monster.

For any of this to change, we must be willing to see past the caricatures. Caricatures are not without truth, but they tend to exaggerate what is superficial and unflattering while ignoring what is beautiful and subtle. Social media, as described in The Social Dilemma, tends to do the same, chiefly by herding users into reality-proof echo chambers and keeping them on-platform by hijacking their limbic systems. They are part of the apparatus that channels popular rage – a precious resource – into populist hate. QAnons and Black Lives Matter protesters actually have a lot in common, starting with a profound alienation from mainstream politics and loss of faith in the system, but having been maneuvered into false opposition they cancel each other out. That is why compassion – seeing the human beneath the judgments, categories, and projections – is the only way out of the social dilemma.

Compassion is the tide of our times. Perhaps that is why increasingly furious attempts to sow hatred are required to maintain the psychic conditions for a control-based society. A person in the online community I host described her stint going door to door in Iowa as an Andrew Yang campaign worker. Her strongest impression was of an intense desire among these common folks for unity, an end to the strife. Maybe we are closer to social healing than online behavior, with its vitriol and venom, would indicate. Hate is usually louder than love – in society and within ourselves. What will happen if we listen to the quieter voices?

Underneath the distorted and betrayed hopes of the QAnons lies the authentic hope that had to be there in order to be betrayed and distorted in the first place. It is the same hope that came out with Obama’s election: change, a new beginning. It is the same hope that Trump invoked: Make America great again. Today the same perennial hope rises again among Biden voters. It is authentic hope: a premonition of a real possibility that is in our power to create.

How could it be the same hope that animates forces that seem diametrically opposed? It is because it passes through numerous distorting lenses of ideology and circumstance. To a greater or lesser degree, most of us are in the same boat as QAnon. Subject to the same crises of meaning and belonging, we grab frantically at one lens then another to make sense of a world gone suddenly topsy-turvy. Eventually we give up, put down the lenses of judgment, ideology, and self-righteousness, and look into the dark mirror that reveals what we were not willing to see. We look with new eyes at the people and information our stories had banished. With that, we may follow the light ray of hope back to its source and find there the unity of purpose that hope requires for its fulfillment.

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Charles Eisenstein is a teacher, public speaker, and author who examines the unspoken narratives that direct our society and our lives. His work covers a wide range of topics, including the history of civilization, consciousness, economics, spirituality, interdependence, ecology, and how myth and story influence culture. He is the author of The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible, Sacred Economics, and The Ascent of Humanity.

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Commusings is a curious and contemplative commentary on the current and timeless from Commune Co-founder Jeff Krasno (and occasional guest writers). These weekly writings help us envision a collective path forward through deep thinking, quiet listening, and honest conversations about spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Subscribe to the weekly Commusings newsletter here.

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