The two photos above are meant to make you laugh, as well as demonstrate a ritual both my boys, Braden and Conor, and I share whenever we take a swim out of our kayaks. The picture of Conor is from about seven or eight years ago, when he “beatered” (the techno/tribal term for screwing up a run through a set of rapids) and swam. I think the meaning of “swam” is self-evident. 🙂 You have to drink a booty beer — whose contents vary depending on your age. In that picture, Conor is drinking a Pepsi.
Some people think that rituals like this are silly. Well, sorta. This one has spread across the whitewater community, and it IS pretty funny, being at the take-out, drinking a beer from your wetsuit booty. But they also serve as a reason to trigger a laughing catharsis, especially if you’ve just had a bad swim. Everyone’s laughing, maybe a little at you, but mostly with you, because everyone knows that we’re all just in between swims.
And swimming in whitewater is NEVER really recommended, and you can drown. It doesn’t matter how bad you swim, though — you drink your beer like the rest of us. Why? We want you to both be healed, and remember — so you don’t fuck up again. We want you alive, and here.
I’ve been writing a lot about trauma lately, and its effects on social organizations, and self-similarly, individuals, mostly because it is extremely poorly understood by most organizational experts. As income gaps increase, and retrograde authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, these trends, for the most part, negatively affect people’s ability to continue on a path of personal growth (which then feeds directly into societal development, or really, rather, devolutionary empathetic revanchism). There are the immediate effects on the individual exposed to traumatic circumstance — flight, fright, and fight. But there are larger consequences.
The thing that is important to remember is that understanding these three things in the context of the larger meta-narratives of society are key. We can’t do larger scale strategizing toward fixing the desperate problems we have without accounting for their effects.
I remain a big fan of sweeping efforts that have been proven to work on aggregate societal development. One can read a book like Andersen’s and Bjorkman’s The Nordic Secret for a developed historical perspective of how the Scandinavian countries evolved from their peasant, agrarian states to the sophisticated social democracies they are today.
Yet understanding contemporary trauma is still vitally important. At some level, the Nordic countries started from a historic tabula rasa for their time. That is not what we are facing today. Our biggest problem is evolutionary backsliding, and a decline of empathetic development from a previous higher level. The rate of such backsliding has never been experienced in human society before — largely because the communication media to cause it did not exist. Before the Gutenberg press, you couldn’t even get ideas out there out all that weren’t wrapped in long, culturally grounded stories.
It was with this in mind I came across an amazing piece on Tortoise, a new web publication focused on larger, ‘slow’ stories. The piece in particular, Destroyer of Worlds, profiles the founding of 8chan, described in the piece as one of the darkest corners of the Internet.
From Nicky Woolf, former Guardian reporter who wrote the piece:
The content on 8chan is among the most offensive, violent and bigoted on the web. It became a sump for the most racist and misogynist of users – especially on the /pol/ board, where the most far-right political viewpoints collected. But in evaluating its behaviour, it is probably helpful to think of a chan site not as a collection of individual people but as some kind of many-headed trickster-god; a psychotic consciousness in its own right.
Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan, is profiled. A victim of a horrible degenerative disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, known colloquially as ‘brittle bone disease’, he had broken his bones 120 times by the time he was 19 years old. His life had been confined to a wheelchair, which mean endless pain and boredom. As a result, he turned to the virtual world of computers as his primary connective outlet.
How this all works is a striking example of low-empathy, high emotional affect communication enabling v-Meme concentration. It IS a consciousness in its own right — and an anti-empathetic consciousness at that. Temporary boards, with anonymous commenting, allowed more and more extreme behavior designed to shock, which then attracted more psychopaths and empathy-disordered individuals. For those unfamiliar with the terminology used on this blog, think a mix of defective Tribalism and collapsed egocentric Authoritarianism. The end result was a stew that launched multiple mass murders, an example of what others have called the ‘funnel effect’ (notably Kenneth Stern in his book on the militia movement called A Force Upon the Plain.) What that means is you start out with a couple thousand kooks who ascribe to a reasonably extreme ideology, and then distill down different levels of kook-dom, until finally a mass murderer pops out of the end of the funnel.
Fredrick originally paints himself as a radical free speech activist — some higher moral principle governs his actions. But the deeper reality is he was a deep eugenics advocate. His pain was so great, especially during his teenage years — there’s no discussion of it, but his parents, who weren’t well off to begin with — assigned him in his motorized wheelchair to foster care at the age of 14. I don’t know the sequence of actions that led to that, but it couldn’t have been good, or decent. Why eugenics? He, like far too many in the U.S., entertained illusions of a Nazi super-race that would sweep the land, getting rid of people like him. They would be the ones to exterminate him, and put him out of his misery.
The author, Nicky Woolf, used the term psychotic to describe the festering stew. And while I can kind of see some of that 8chan type of behavior, the reality is that much of it is really psychopathic, empathy disordered relational disruption. What is also interesting is that with all psychopathy, there follows a predictable path for communities that have been infected with some certain critical mass. Initially, a community may start out with a mix of normal folks and psychopaths. If you believe Bill Eddy, founder of the High Conflict Institute, that ration of normal to high-conflict seems to be around 10:1. These numbers only make sense in relationship to ordinary communities. The Internet allows an entire population, existing out on the tails of every distribution imaginable, to find each other.
And over time, while the empathy disordered/relational disruptors may have a field day, if there is enough people in the community, those people (call them trolls, or whatever) become more and more isolated. Normal people just check out. But in somewhat rare circumstances, enabled by the Internet, they find enough of their own kind, where their strange, circuitous gaslighting logic makes sense enough to people there, the whole community converts over to a vampire colony. Everyone is nuts, but everyone thinks the same way, so it doesn’t matter.
And it’s not limited to contemporary societies, though it could also be argued that contemporary infrastructure facilitates it. Farley Mowat wrote about a very similar parallel situation in his unbelievably tragic books, People of the Deer, and The Desperate People, where one clan of a tribe mastered their emotional circumstances caused by their trauma, while one didn’t. In the end, though, the larger trauma — their loss of a primary food resource — won out, and those communities were both destroyed. So much for genetic evolutionary reasoning in these circumstances.
The short version of Fredrick’s story is he founded 8chan, made money, bailed to the Philippines, and got married. Love healed him, I think, or at least some version of healthy attachment, and now he no longer dreams of Final Solutions as a release from his pain. But others are still locked in their crazy worlds, connected to enough disordered grounding to maintain their delirious worldview. Pizzagate and Gamergate both started with 8chan, or other simulacra chan sites, as well as other terribly sad crimes, such as the New Zealand mosque mass murder.
Nicky Woolf gets what happened — and he’d get this blog as well. His words:
It is the structure of a chan site itself that radicalises people. “The other anonymous users are guiding what’s socially acceptable, and the more and more you post on there you’re being affected by what’s acceptable and that changes you. Maybe you start posting Nazi memes as a joke… but you start to absorb those beliefs as your own, eventually,” Brennan says. “Anonymity makes people reveal themselves, but because there are other anonymous users – not just one person in a black box – it also changes what they reveal.”
What’s he saying is simple — take collapsed egocentricism, and delete all the cultural sidebars, dial in some intense, isolated sexual self-pleasuring, add in the ability of people thinly naturally distributed as far as the crazy, but with the connective ability of the Internet, and this is what you get.
If there’s a larger point in all this, is that we can learn from these environments, by understanding a.) how trauma drives the people into these situations, where they find disturbing connection that their brains desperately need, and b.) by understanding the contrast between them and more healthy Internet bulletin boards. Internet BBs are less-than up to the par of empathetic workspaces. Authority-driven in nature, they don’t convey irony, a raised eyebrow, or a subtle smile. But they can be made worse.
If there’s an upshot to all this, it’s that these things exist because of emergent dynamics. And it helps to understand them. Trauma, and trauma recovery are key to battling their anti-empathetic dynamics.
And then, finally, never stop being kind, even if you can’t connect. One never knows the point of bifurcation into madness.