The Strange Paradox At The Heart of the Alt-Right

The most worrisome side effect of Donald Trump’s candidacy is the publicity he has done for dangerous fringe elements of our society. Through tacit endorsements of conspiracy theories and offering policies based on bigotry and blind nationalism, Trump has given a loud voice to the concerns of white supremacists, misogynists, militant patriots, and other groups loosely collected by the umbrella term “the Alt-Right.”

The chief campaign of the Alt Right and figures within it — such as provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos or MRA crank Scott Adams — is a war against attempts to give women and minorities a larger role in our culture and anyone who might suggest hate speech is actually dangerous. Calling themselves “cultural libertarians,” many of these young conservatives feel they are waging a righteous war for liberty against a powerful establishment of feminists and crybabies.

The mistake of the cultural libertarian, however, is to assume they are anything new at all. Conservatives have used complaints about the suffocating nature of “political correctness” to justify hateful policies and establishment bigotry for decades. Their perennial victimhood helps in convincing themselves any threat to the dominant cultural and political forces at play — the same forces that have always kept queer and minority voices from being respected — is really an unchained threat to liberty and freedom of expression.

They view the fight for fair treatment and representation of sexual and racial minorities as invasive instead of corrective. They view the privilege of white cishet males as a default status instead of an imbalance. They see debate as censorship, harassment as debate, and traffic in the ugliest ends of conspiracy theories to confirm their own biases.

The term itself, cultural libertarianism, was popularized by a 2015 Breitbart article by editor Allum Bokhari. According to Bokhari, there exists “cultural authoritarians” who seek to stifle debate by shrinking the frame of ideas considered acceptable — a notion known to media and political theorists as the “Overton Window

“In order to control what they see as dangerous expression,” writes Bokhari, “authoritarians often resort to casual and spurious accusations of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The goal is to manipulate the boundaries of acceptable speech by smearing their targets with socially unacceptable labels and to write off speakers they don’t like as bigots so they don’t have to engage with the speaker’s arguments.”

The way others and Bokhari see it, the social consequences of promoting hateful views or of abusing people online are akin to needless government regulation, strangling the life from our culture and public debate. Cultural libertarianism is a broadening of the argument made by Gamergaters — that racial and sexual minorities vying for representation are actually fencing in the free and open market of ideas, a form of affirmative action run amok.

To witness this delusion in action, observe the response to Twitter’s outright ban of Milo Yiannopoulos, the firebrand Breitbart columnist with a thick portfolio of racist and misogynist writings. After Yiannopoulos led a campaign of racist and sexist messages against Ghostbusters and SNL star Leslie Jones (which culminated in hackers doxxing her and releasing stolen nude photos), the outpouring of love for Jones and pressure on Twitter forced the site to permanently outlaw Yiannopoulos and his popular Twitter account @Nero.

Yiannopoulos and his cohorts immediately made a grab for the moral high ground, claiming the ban was an act of censorship against a popular conservative (and homosexual) voice.

“Twitter is intent on protecting free speech, as long as you are a Hollywood actress who bravely tweets about white people, or a New York globalist advocating for violence against Donald Trump,” he said at the time.. “They’ve made it clear that being gay and conservative doesn’t get me past the velvet rope into their free speech club, which is looking more and more like the same liberal echo chamber the mainstream media turned into decades ago.”

Free speech, in this context, evidently means the freedom to abuse and encourage the abuse of individuals. Jones was the target of a widespread campaign of hateful rhetoric, racist taunts, and threats familiar to far too many women who work online. These trolls who would portray themselves as fighters for liberty were saying things to Jones that would have them arrested had they done so on the street.

But for Yiannopoulos and his followers, his ban seems to confirm the fears that they feel justify cultural libertarianism. Here was their idol, stricken down by the liberal establishment, for doing what they do all of the time anyway. It would seem they would like to say whatever they like with no repercussions at all.

But this is far different from any understanding of traditional libertarianism, or what used to be called “classical liberalism.” The point of libertarianism as a political or economic philosophy is a belief in the good work of competition — the ability of markets and people to self-regulate based on the basic rules of capitalism and “the invisible hand.” Should a business or individual do something that’s unpopular — be it unreasonably raising its prices or treating some of their patrons lesser than others — and suffer because of it, that’s capitalism at work.

If cultural libertarianism were as dependent on liberty as Bokhari, Yiannopoulos, and others suggest, they might actually have no problem with Twitter’s ban. Likewise, they wouldn’t find fault with an all-female Ghostbusters, a black Mary Jane in the new Spiderman film, or the general diversifying of our culture to better reflect its population. These are quickly becoming winning ideas in both the marketplace of ideas and the actual market. The people who find fault with this are merely on the losing end.

What the alt-right is actually decrying is not a loss of liberty but a loss of privilege. What they fear is not censorship but the levelling of a playing field that is a natural partner to the progression of Western society — an event that same society actively yearns for with its voice and its wallet. If they see progressives as the cultural equivalent to a nanny state leaning against economic progress, then they should see themselves as the cultural equivalent of a corporation overfed by subsidies and propped up by archaic and outdated institutions.

When the alt-right complains about positive representation of women onscreen or in-game, or having to respect nonconforming gender identities, or losing the ability to serially harass people online, they are not fighting against the oppressive forces of liberal feminism. They are fighting against the tide that seeks to make them as relevant as everyone else.