Nash 14: So Your Friend Is A Nazi

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Saturday’s anti-lockdown protest in Dublin City laid bare the scale and danger the influence the far right has on Ireland. On this episode of ‘Nash’, Rick explains how more and more people we know are getting radicalised, how COVID is exacerbating it and how we can look to be proactive and effective in stamping out this dangerous influence.

Song Credits:

‘Dope Vhs Master’ - Desmond Cheese

‘Decomposing’ - Andrea Olivia

‘Divide’ - Supertask

‘Don’t Cry’ - B-Side, Sixcube

‘Requiem’ - Aso

FULL TEXT:

The last year of our lives has seen us disconnected from the rest of the world, forced to retreat to our homes like a bunch of basement-dwelling Smeagols, obsessively going from episode to episode of shows where we watch people perform such impossible feats as:

  • Working in an office together and,
  • Sit in a coffee shop and make pleasant conversation.

Our entire access to the outside world, unless you count 5-second interactions with shopkeepers (and I DO. Nobody can pack my chicken fillet roll like you can Suhail), now comes through screens. And, as we’ve learned in damning depth through documentaries like ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix, those dickhead screens are trained to pick up on our worst instincts and literally fuck our brains stupid.

Your phones, tablets and devices are now programmed with algorithms designed to keep your attention at all costs. So-called ‘free’ services like Google, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook’s business model rely on it. They, in many cases quite literally as we all know by now, listen to our private conversations, track our Google searches and filter the content we consume. All the while, they are keeping us distracted by things like meaningless but addictive ‘like’ buttons, that share similar endorphin-hitting properties as the soothing thrill of pulling a lever on a slot machine in Vegas.

The grand plan is to keep us scrolling, clicking and liking at any cost so they can learn what kind of content does that, feed us more of it, then sell that information to the real customers: corporations and advertisers. This was once a conspiracy theory, now it’s an established fact admitted by many who helped design these exact algorithms for these companies.

With lockdown, we are now fully dependent on our screens. It’s how we talk to our families and friends and how we distract ourselves from the seemingly endless void that our existence has become in an indefinite state of lockdown…*COUGH* Excuse me.

This is a dangerous recipe because, though leading tech companies are now put under public pressure to at least pay lip service to the idea of releasing us from brain prison for a walk for an hour or two per day, we already know that they don’t give a fuck what the consequences of their actions are as long as they get paid. See Facebook being held up as responsible for Russian political interference in the 2016 US Election that resulted in us being forced to sit through 4 years of a racist failed businessman turned Orange coated pussy grabber getting access to the nuclear launch codes.

On a ground level, too, we can see this in action. For the sake of not hurting CT Flexor’s feelings, let’s take a hypothetical example and invent a fictional character called Mark to see the impact that this can have on a normal person.

Mark, pre-lockdown, was a sound but dim, harmless character that doesn’t seem to care about much beyond taking selfies of his abs in the gym. But that’s not possible now because, in a situation where a deadly virus that has wiped out 2.5 million people worldwide (that’s the equivalent of over 840 September 11th attacks!!), and said virus is spread by close contact...opening gyms where people sweat, breathe, heave and spit on each other is not a priority.

This makes Mark sad because Mark’s self-esteem is significantly built upon the idea that he is one jacked motherfucker. To paraphrase 2007’s hottest RnB songstress Jordan Sparks:

“Tell me how I’m supposed to breathe with no (ABS),

Can’t live, can’t breathe with no (ABS),

That’s how I feel whenever you ain’t there,

There’s no (ABS), no (ABS).”

In a world pre-screens brainfucking us endlessly, Mark would mope around for a while until everyone in his life would grow sick of it and tell him to cop on. He’d go running, do Zoom home workouts, or just learn to love carbs again. He may even look inward at why this material instinct is so important to him, recalibrate his self-esteem towards a healthier overall outlook on life and all would be fine.

But that’s not how the world works in 2021. When we have screens, we have a portal where we can take literally any idle thought we may have and find people who share it to validate us. No joke, I just Googled the phrase ‘Ginger People Reincarnated As Cats’ and it gave me ONE MILLION, THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND RESULTS! I made that sentence up off the top of my head and there are literally over a million hits filled with people who probably legitimately think that ginger people, specifically, are reincarnated as cats when they die.

And so a forlorn and dejected Mark goes online and finds similarly dejected narcissists who don’t particularly care about the virus either. When they look at an elderly or vulnerable person, all they see is a person who can’t deadlift 100 kilogrammes. They congregate and go into victim mode, wondering why the world is so prejudiced against them for being staunch. They begin to click and share links that tell them what they want to hear.

That’s where our old pals, the algorithms, come back into play. The algorithm doesn’t have an opinion, it’s literally a maths formula, so it doesn’t get bothered by things such as ‘truth’ or ‘context’. It doesn’t say “Ah Mark, I see you like idiots! Here are some more idiots you may appreciate!” When it makes its recommendations and begins to personally tailor content towards Mark, as he sees it it’s just as reliable as any other...‘scientific-looking thingamajig’...

Mark starts to go down a rabbithole that simultaneously feeds his victimhood and offers him easy ways to rationalise him doing whatever the fuck he wants. Because this is a rabbithole millions of people are going down together at the same time, this isn’t even particularly difficult work for the algorithm. It just sends him down Conspiracy Theory Hole 1(b): COVID is a hoax.

It feels good to feel right and vindicated. It’s literally physically pleasurable, for me when something I predicted would happen turns out that way (such as the outcome of this year’s Super Bowl which, not bragging, I outlined in-depth on a recent edition of Nash before it happened), it’s like a pressure valve is released in my brain. I feel validated, like I’m Neo seeing The Matrix while the rest of the stupid fucking planet is still plugged in. Then I stub my toe trying to get into bed and remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

There’s science behind this sensation that most of us can relate to. When challenged or stressed and feeling like we’ve been wronged, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain causing advanced thought processes like strategy, compassion and trust building fall down. Our instinctive brain, the amygdala, triggers and we go into fight or flight mode, which is why people tend to double down once challenged. Then, if we feel like we’ve been vindicated, adrenaline and dopamine flood our brain instead, making us feel almost invincible. This is the pressure valve, seeing The Matrix release I spoke of.

And that’s what going down a rabbit hole, even one filled with rabbit shit, feels like. We get addicted to that feeling of invincibility incredibly easily because it’s seductive to think we’re superior and smarter than everyone else. So Mark reads posts by so-called doctors who say that COVID isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and lockdowns are harmful. He combines that with a dash of truthful info such as the impact this phase is having on all of our mental health. It’s natural for all of us to look, then, at who’s making these decisions. And, with any government, you’ll find an opposition whose entire purpose is to question and criticise their decisions. So if your goal is to prove “gyms need to be open” and you see the government as responsible for closing them, you’re going to ignore anything that says that that was actually the correct decision and instead fly towards any and all criticism of them that gives you another taste of that sweet, sweet dopamine.

Mark now feels like he’s Indiana Jones having accidentally leaned on a brick on a wall and uncovered secret treasure. And in Mark’s chamber of secrets, i.e. lying on his bed in his jocks, there are people who see the opportunity for power and profit in far right extremist groups. They offer to do the work and research for him and open his eyes to similar miscarriages of justice. All they ask for in exchange is a vote, a donation, his participation in a protest they’re organising. At the protest, Mark meets like-minded people and they all mentally wank each other off. The dopamine rush is now becoming a dopamine addiction and the only way to continue the high is to get others on board, to uncover more ‘issues’ and to get more extreme in how they protest.

And that’s how a nice lad like Mark, who just wanted to go to the gym which is a perfectly fair need to have in any other period of our existence, ends up shooting fireworks at Gardaí in broad daylight on Grafton Street.

So how do we handle the Marks of this world? If we know how this is caused, we can surely figure out how to defeat it.

The first, natural instinct we all have is to shame and punish these people. Let’s challenge that given what we understand. We know that Mark is in fight or flight mode when challenged and has had several hits of dopamine having felt validated on his journey to that point. We know he sees our point of view as naive given he probably once shared it beforehand. So how is he going to feel when we shame him together? Is he more likely to change his mind and go back to his old thought process or is he more likely to double down and think we’re all sheep?

We know the answer to this already in 99% of cases. If it’s someone famous, like Tiger Woods after his affairs were made public and sponsors threatened to pull out putting his fortune in jeopardy, then shame may be enough to pressure them into a public apology and a dose of soul-searching. But even then for every case of that you’ve got a Gina Carrano, who’s walk of atonement from Disney only pushed her into the arms of Ben Shapiro and the extreme Conservative media.

Here’s where it gets complex. Because we all understand this rationally once we step back from the situation. Shaming people is not a reliable motivator for overall global change: it may push an opinion out of public view, but that’ll pop right back up in other, unexpected and more damaging ways. Think Trump being elected or Brexit being passed despite opinion polls showing the exact opposite was likely beforehand. Why do we continue to do this?

Well it’s because - we may not want to admit it - but we’re built the same as Mark. When we see images like the Grafton Street protest, we get triggered, cortisol floods our brain, compassion goes out the window and our amygdala takes the wheel on a hunt for a dopamine hit. We quote-tweet and post statuses shaming these people. We lose track of any sense of time or other plans we may have had and start scrolling, liking, retweeting, finding other opinions like ours in the EXACT same way Mark did when he wanted the gyms re-opened. I did, and do, the same myself.

Even listening to this right now, you may be offended to be compared to Mark. Why is that? Is it because you previously felt superior to him when I made fun of him earlier because YOU understood and HE didn’t? You may be feeling irrationally angry at me and want to switch off or lash out. But is all that, again, not the exact same experience we described earlier?

This is how our brains work within the algorithm. It divides us into completely separate camps where people, who may start out from a reasonable, united standpoint end up yelling at each other over an issue that’s tiny to start with but unravels into something much bigger.

How do we beat the algorithm then? It’s well and good to say disconnect entirely, but doing so during COVID may not be possible for you to maintain your job, your relationship, checking that your family are okay or even having a way to get through 24 whole hours of the day when our potential list of things we can do are severely restricted.

The solution is actually incredibly simple: we talk to each other. We respect each other. We try to see the other person’s side, even if that seems impossible. Instead of seeing Mark as a Nazi, we see him as a guy who just wants to go to the gym and ask what went wrong along the way.

Let’s put it into practise. Your friend says something racist. Do you…

  1. Block them.
  2. Get into a heated argument with them and call them names.
  3. Report them to relevant authorities.
  4. See them as your friend who’s done a bad thing but could be ignorant and try engage them in a discussion to see if educating them can turn them around?

Well what’s the end result we want?

Option A protects us from having to hear this stuff said, but only by them specifically. We can’t realistically block every racist thing from being said. It doesn’t change anything, our now former friend may not even realise why they were blocked to begin with, so it’s achieved nothing.

Do we want to feel superior and get a lot of likes or pats on the back from like-minded people for how ‘we told them’? That’s really all option B achieves. They’re still racist and they just think we’re stupid now too, and now we’ve triggered them and sent them down a rabbithole to go talk with other racists about how we’re actually stupid. Congratulations, in your battle against racism you’ve actually pushed someone closer to being a Nazi. Hope those likes were worth it.

Sure we can report them, and maybe they will be punished. In certain circumstances, such as in a workplace, this is the right call. But it removes any control or influence from your hands and instead entrusts it on a system that may not be just or fair. Ask someone who’s experienced racism how fair and just they feel the world’s systems are towards them.

Then there’s option D. It’s the most unpleasant and uncomfortable by far. It doesn’t give us the instant relief of blocking them and avoiding the situation, the catharsis of feeding our amygdala and putting them in their place or the sense of justice we may feel in getting them punishment. It goes against all of our brain’s natural reactions and forces US to have to first challenge OUR natural reaction when WE haven’t done anything wrong. And, worst of all, it means we have to try have a respectful conversation with a racist. *GAG*

But the potential end results far supersedes anything that can come from options A-C. By treating our friend as a decent person, even if we’re pretending for the sake of indulging them, we’re far more likely to engage and speak to the side of Mark that’s just upset the gyms are closed. If we can speak to someone at their most reasonable, we can then reason with them! We can educate them as to why their comments may be wrong and hurtful to others.

We may not fully convince them, and the truth of the matter is that we ultimately don’t have the right to dictate what others think (even if it’s abhorrent), but at the very least we can draw a boundary where that person will limit when and where they make and spread those comments. So, at the very least, even if we haven’t stopped racism, we’ve limited its spread.

Compared to the other three potential reactions, is this not the obvious solution?

That’s how we ultimately can beat the algorithm: by doing the exact opposite of what it wants.

Right now the algorithm is working us, not working FOR us: it’s not even who we are that it’s feeding us, it’s the worst of who we are. Things that stop me in the street, when I’m flicking through channels on TV or scrolling on Twitter include: The Jeremy Kyle Show, a public argument between people that I know, two drug addicts punching the head off each other. But that’s who I am or want to be. It is what grabs my attention, though, so it’s what the algorithm tries to convince me the entire world is.

You’d be fair to say that if we change then so will the algorithms. That’s true. But if the algorithm changes to instead feed us a fair, more rational world filled with respectful discourse that leads to more unity...is that not an absolute dream? Remember, the algorithm doesn’t give a fuck what we want, as long as we want more of it. If we all agree to want cute dog pictures, that’s all we’d see. Changing our behaviour gets us all on the same page, this approach allows us to do that and influence others to a point we can all live with.

The battle is won one case at a time, one decision at a time for each of us. Because, when you weigh it all up, just accepting that our friends are Nazis is admitting defeat when we’ve got to share the same planet as them one way or the other. I’d rather choose the other. What one will you choose?

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