The BernieBro Simulacrum
The Straw Man Argument gets a 21st century overhaul
One cheap way of trying to win an argument is called the straw man fallacy — invent a crappy version of your opponent’s position and argue against that instead of what they actually say, guaranteeing easier victory. It’s called the “straw man” fallacy because the move suggests swapping in a straw-stuffed scarecrow for an actual human being, something that looks human but is really fake and feeble and holds super-still and is pretty much ideal for target practice.
Social media has changed things, though — you don’t have to invent a garbage version of your opponent’s arguments out of thin air, you can find actual people online making similar statements and being complete idiots about it. You can point to them as exemplars of the position you want to destroy.
Twitter, with its traditional 140-characters-per-post restriction, is easy pickings for finding such fools. The length-limit doesn’t exactly lend itself to depth and nuance, plus it’s really easy to read the posts of complete strangers and interact with them despite never having met them. The default profile picture that Twitter assigns to you before you upload one of your own is a simple two-tone egg, pictured here — many users never bother to upload an actual profile picture at all, leading to legions of users all running around the internet looking exactly the same.
With this, I propose a new argumentative fallacy for the 21st century:
The Egg Man Fallacy.
The Egg Man Fallacy consists of finding a loud and ignorant Twitter Egg (or other social media equivalent) who holds positions similar to the one you want to refute and tagging them into the argument, contrasting their concrete noxiousness with your own untouchable virtue.
There’s low-hanging Egg-fruit to be picked for pretty much any position you can think of. They might not be influential at all, their tweets garnering no Likes or Retweets or engagement of any kind, but you can still point to them if you want to.
The abundance of uninformed rude people online makes it interesting when one particular group of them is called out for being even more rude than most, especially when the accusers manage to fail in making a concrete case that actual extra-rude people are there.
Let’s take a look at a case in point, the BernieBro, the virtual specter that currently haunts the 2016 Democratic primary.
The BernieBro is the mold from which all Sanders supporters are made.
The BernieBro is a young, white, angry, misogynist male piece of trash. He believes that all women are stupid and owe him sex. He is a spoiled suburbanite who opposes Capitalism because he thinks big banks are the only thing holding him back from torrenting free weed all the time. He slacks at his job (if he even has one), spending hours a day making derogatory anti-Hillary memes and interjecting himself into every conversation not about men or about white people so he can shout people down. He devotes his life to being online, ready to flood your comment section or Twitter mentions with vituperative filth if you express any support for Hillary or any kind of criticism of the candidate which will deliver him and his kind to their ultimate paradise.
It would be very silly indeed to argue that zero Sanders supporters are like this — like I said above, the ubiquity of social media means that you can find at least a few odious people who support any given position, and politics tends to bring out the worst in everybody. But what makes the BernieBro phenomenon unique and weird is that this is all a failed Egg Man Fallacy — the whole thing started when a few journalists tried to pick out some social media posts as examples of entrenched sexism in the Sanders campaign, posts which didn’t turn out to be sexist or Sanders-supporting at all but which nevertheless gave more journalists the chance to cite the original journalists which gave still more journalists the chance to cite the second level of journalists and so on and so on and so on. I’m going to show some concrete examples to prove my point — not from any Twitter Eggs, mind you, but from prestige journalists with giant platforms and huge audiences and very real influence which they gleefully abuse.
First, though, I want to frame all this with one more cheap rhetorical trick which I think explains a lot: The Magic Word Fallacy.
The Magic Word Fallacy
We live in a discursive world of privilege-checking, microaggression-policing, trigger-warnings, and all sorts of various strained attempts at linguistic purity which (as I’ve argued elsewhere) are mostly useless and actually counterproductive and harmful for the modern Left. This sort of environment gives rise to Magic Words, words you can say to instantly shut down an opponent and invalidate anything else they say, words which unstoppably demand the response of apology, retraction, and silence.
‘Mansplaining’ is a prime example of a Magic Word in this case. ‘Mansplaining’ started out correctly referring to a sexist phenomenon where a man presumes ignorance on the part of a woman and explains stuff she already knows in a patronizing fashion, maybe even presuming that his impartial man-mind gives him logical insight into women’s issues too. Since its inception, though, ‘Mansplaining’ has drifted into over-generalization and has become a Magic Word, prime for abuse — if you’re accused of Mansplaining then any attempt to explain or justify yourself is just further evidence of your Mansplaining ways! “You’re just Mansplaining me” can be repeated forever and ever and ever, in any context and against any response, sealing the accuser off from ever really having to wonder if they’re wrong.
This is the pattern: a discursive critique or strategy is introduced to protect a small set of vulnerable people with real problems but is then expanded and overgeneralized to the point of becoming useless for its original purpose and even becoming counterproductive and harmful. Entrenched power will mock it and push back as said discourse expands beyond its purview before finally assimilating it themselves — see, e.g, the language of Trigger Warnings used to defend conservative law students at a prestigious school who were ‘traumatized’ by an anti-Scalia email.
‘BernieBro’ is an example of this too, a Magic Word which can be deployed against anyone regardless of race or class or even gender to preemptively excoriate people who are critical of Hillary Clinton.
With that all in mind let’s conclude with a look at where the BernieBro came from and where — unless we do something — it will end up taking us.
I Am Not The Eggman
Here’s a much-cheered example of a ‘BernieBros are Real and Bad’ article, “The bros who love Bernie Sanders have become a sexist mob”.
Cited as proof is New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, who tweeted about her explicit abuse at the hands of “the Feel The Bern crew” — she later tweeted a retraction though she still claimed that Bernie supporters are uniquely bad, this time without citing anything. The article mentions this in a small one-line ten-point-font update without changing anything else — the fact that BernieBros are real and bad becomes just a part of the background, something that Everyone Already Knows.
Consider also the recent debacle in Nevada, where Labor leader Dolores Huerta claimed to be shouted out of an offer to translate a speech to Spanish by rabid Sanders fans who chanted “English Only!” — this didn’t actually happen, but those who reported on it didn’t exactly retract their claims that Sanders voters are racists. Look at this Vox article, leaving the headline intact and preserving their claims that this event disconnects Sanders from Latino voters despite the clarifications and walk-backs that have since come to light.
This is another pattern:
1. Make a claim, circulate it widely
2. Dismiss criticism of the claim as nitpicking, insist the central point is true
3. Admit that the central point is false but insist that claims like it are still true in general
This pattern is what lets the BernieBro exist in the weird postmodern category of True Fiction, the Hyperreal, something that everyone believes and which shapes their view of modern politics but which nobody can ever really point out or capture footage of in the wild.
Remember how I mentioned the Egg Man Fallacy? Here are the random internet people the Mashable article cited as misogynist Bernie supporters:
The misogynist in the first post is, well, a woman, who used a bad word to say she liked Bernie and got two whole Likes for it. There’s nothing misogynistic in the content of what she said, though former Secretary of State Madeline Albright regards such words as wretched treachery and deserving of a “special place in hell”.
The misogynist in the second post is a man who definitely said something misogynistic — note, though, that nowhere does he actually say he supports Bernie Sanders in any way. It’s just presumed.
Why is it presumed?
Hillary Clinton Needs Magic Words
According to Politico, Hillary’s net worth stands at $32,015,000, 137 times more than the median person in her age group. The Clintons have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars each from Goldman Sachs for delivering a handful of short speeches, collecting fees which probably didn’t exactly match their value-add to the economy. The Clintons have shifted the ownership of their houses into residence trusts to shield the value of those homes from the estate tax. She was intimately involved in ‘Welfare Reform’, massively spiking extreme 2-dollar-a-day poverty and laying down the model that the current Republican Party is using to dismantle the welfare state. She talked trash about poor people while taking money away from them, saying that they’re so bereft of dignity that even their own children are ashamed of them.
Such a paragraph could go on. The only way Hillary can secure any left-wing nomination is if identity politics is completely severed from economic justice, and that’s exactly what is happening.
Hillary has undoubtedly faced a great deal of sexist bullshit over her career, there’s no question of that — what has happened now, though, is that any criticism of her has since become sexist, because it just has to be. Conversely, Feminism (to her and her surrogates) now means supporting any woman seeking any power towards any end, even if it’s the immiseration and death of women both at home and abroad who could never ever hope to fight back.
She portrays herself as the last great hope of preventing a Republican presidency, though as of this writing that isn’t true — my great fear is that Clinton will be eventually be coronated as the nominee but garner massively depressed Democratic turnout in the general election, inevitably leading to me freezing to death at the You Betcha Luxury Deeducation camp in Alaska during year IX of the Trump Imperium. As I fade into the void I’ll spare a final thought for what really brought me there — the BernieBro, the postmodern menace that never really was, an unmoored caricature full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.