The white supremacist who targeted two New Zealand mosques in a mass shooting today—resulting in at least 49 deaths of Muslim worshippers, including children—was simply an internet troll with guns. That sounds callous, and it minimizes the nature of this particular evil. Nonetheless, that is the core truth of this attack, and in reality it is the most disturbing trait evil can bear: A joke.
Many outlets have reported—accurately—that the shooter’s manifesto was a mix of true beliefs and “shitposting” (i.e., ironic online inside jokes). But they also report inaccurately that his intention was to confuse people, or make them look like fools. It wasn’t. The real motivation—which he truly might not be all that aware of, himself—is to generate public outrage at the manifesto’s ridiculous claims, which are sometimes juxtaposed directly with honest hate. Our “misplaced” outrage is the sole food for his tightly-knit subculture of hateful, white nationalist internet dweebs, and our anger justifies theirs.
Of course, we’ve always sort of laughed off these online dweebs as impotent, cartoonish losers—Pepes, basically—who resort to anonymous message boards precisely because they’re too insecure or scared of shame to espouse these things in public. Or perhaps because they don’t really believe them at all.
But they do believe them. And today marks what could be a troubling new trend: Pepe got a gun.
These “jokes,” of course, aren’t really jokes. They’re lies in disguise. And the much bigger danger is, whether we even know it or not, we encounter them everywhere today, from internet message boards to popular social media and, most troubling of aall, right-wing mouthpieces and Donald Trump apologists on cable news. There’s no difference between these groups in tone or rhetorical strategy, and the fact that people laugh out loud or in private as they lie to us about such serious—and sometimes deadly—things should alarm us. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do about it other than to abandon these people to themselves. You can’t argue with a joke. You can only laugh at it and move on, even if it’s on you. The problem: The same goes these days for lies—you can’t use truth to argue them.
To see what I mean, let’s look at where the terrorist was coming from.
First, his motivation couldn’t be more clear: The shooter’s 74-page manifesto—the original, published minutes before the attack, has been taken down, and though I won’t link out to it here on principle is accessible elsewhere—makes clear he carried out the attack against Muslims who, in his words, have “invaded” the West. Though the shooter was Australian, he had moved to New Zealand to, in his words, “live temporarily whilst I planned and trained.” Though he specifically targeted these Muslims because they were Muslims, the larger governing factor was that they were—in his mind—Muslim immigrants (though we can say with near certainly many of the victims were in fact born in New Zealand) who had come to what he saw as “his” land—that “land” being a transnational ethnic population of people of European (i.e., white) ethnicity. (However, the shooter himself either isn’t aware of or doesn’t acknowledge his own ironic dimension: Europeans invaded New Zealand.) The target and venue, therefore, by his own admission, were in a sense more broad and abstract than those Muslims in that specific country. His abstract target was non-Europeans generally, and his venue the West at large.
It’s perhaps for this reason that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern in her press conference today—even when directly asked about the subject—wouldn’t mention white supremacy by name. She used her platform to emphasize New Zealand’s solidarity, an effort to keep potential fracture points welded shut, but she also didn’t mention “Muslims,” though they were the specific targets. Again, that might have been strategic, but it wasn’t smart or moral. Leaders, especially Western leaders, must call out white supremacy as a terrorist threat, the same way they call out jihadist (“Islamist”/”Islamic”) terrorists. Ardern, in my view, needed at this specific and urgent time to express her country’s solidarity with its Muslim community, whom no matter what you say about the shooter’s manifesto can, as targeted victims, feel no other way than surges of both anger and vulnerability of their status. Her “all-sides” non-response hurts and angers me, and I can’t imagine how they must feel at this kind of erasure in the face of such acute tragedy.
That said, the terrorist attack was, at its root, part of a joke.
This doesn’t make it any less evil. It makes it more evil: As mentioned above, that joke, at its root, is—by virtue of its irony—actually a lie, which itself is part of an even larger governing system of lies. The attacker is part of this system, which has frighteningly more adherents than you might expect. He dwelt on popular white supremacist/white nationalist online message boards—most specifically 8chan—where he shitposted memes and shared warped visions of how the world should be with other likeminded users.
For those un- or only vaguely familiar, “shitposting” is another term for “trolling.” Basically, these trolls post ironic content intended to either “trigger” unindoctrinated people they converse with directly or who oppose them in general, eliciting outrage and anger because they’re perceived as not cool enough or smart enough to be in on the joke. Shitposting can also take those arguments to an inescapable hall-of-mirrors of irony that frustrates—and, again, angers—the other person or group. In other words, they want you to be mad at their jokes. It’s the only way the joke will work.
But, again, the jokes aren’t jokes. Here’s an example: Take for instance the “okay” sign: Widely understood to at one time have symbolized white supremacy by the “WP” shape the hands make, that symbol has been transformed in white nationalist online subculture to an ironic device. If you get upset by it, you’re ridiculous: There’s no way it means “white power” lol!
Except it does. The problem is that now—and this is worse—white nationalist internet chumps in response to public outrage inverted the meaning. The real symbol of white power is their laughter at our anger and self-righteousness about this silly thing. Our anger, to them, justifies and legitimizes their subculture’s existence and belief system, and their laughter is insider solidarity, renewed.
Let’s look at how the shooter does this.
The shooter’s manifesto is a mix of his real beliefs aimed at a general audience and these ironic inside jokes aimed at his own subculture. For instance, he includes a 4chan (the white nationalist message board) meme known as Navy Seal Copypasta. For those of you who remember Napoleon Dynamite, it’s basically making fun of hyper-masculinity born of deep insecurity as exemplified by Uncle Rico. Here’s a screen shot from the manifesto:
This is beyond doubt a weird thing to include when you’re about to try to kill hundreds of people. But he follows that irony up with this deadly serious passage:
This isn’t just a mix of truth and jokes. It’s a mix of truth and lies.
The shooter also writes he learned about white nationalism from a video game called Spyro: Year of the Dragon. Here’s a picture of Spyro:
This is, obviously, a joke. He adds that the video game Fortnite inspired him to “floss on the corpses,” which is a reference to a dance in that game. (He actually clarifies in the same segment he in fact was not influenced by video games.)
As he embarks on the attack, he says, absurdly, “Subscribe to PewDiePie.” PewDiePie is a guy who has the most popular YouTube channel in the world, and has become a sort of flash-point for a debate about whether he uses white nationalist imagery. Here’s what one of the shooter’s subculture message board colleagues made of that joke, in real time:
And as he shot to death dozens of people—livestreamed on Facebook—the shooter played music: A song known to white nationalist online insiders as “Remove Kebab.” Here’s an online response to that, in real time:
At the time, of course, others were also dyin’.
Perhaps the most widely misunderstood and mis-reported (on both sides) passage is his claim that American conservative troll and Turning Point USA personality Candace Owens “radicalized [him] the most.” Many naive reporters in the press reprinted this as unvarnished fact without understanding the insider context. But right after making that claim, the shooter writes, “The extreme actions [Owens] calls for are too much, even for my tastes.”
Obviously Owens doesn’t advocate for mass slaughter. However, here we see a blur: she has indeed advocated for ethno-nationalism, and not only that, has done so with the same premise the shooter cites multiple—MULTIPLE—times in his manifesto as his own specific motivation: The birth rate of Muslims.
So here we have the truth: Owens does indeed hold the same hateful general ideology as the shooter. And we also have a joke: She herself is seen by this subculture as sort of a tragic joke, and isn’t extreme enough. In order to understand what the shooter means, you also need to understand that both of these things can be true.
This one played out the way he probably wanted it. After all, Owens herself was an object of the troll, and she responded to the shooting with a “triggered” tweet that included “lol.”
BUT again, we now see from Owens the same rhetorical device: A simultaneous laugh and lie. She DID create content espousing her views on Islam. Proof above.
The manifesto also applies the truth/joke technique to Trump. The shooter says he’s inspired by Donald Trump, as Trump symbolizes white unity. But he adds, “as a policy maker and leader? Dear god, no.”
Look, here’s the hard truth: We see this all the time. ALL THE TIME. We see it in shills who take to TV and Twitter to shamelessly shine Trump’s ass, even though they know better. People such as Lindsey Graham, Paul Ryan, Matt Whitaker, Matt Schlapp, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Franklin Graham. Perhaps the most high-profile example outside of Sanders is Kellyanne Conway, who has been repeatedly and credibly alleged to be the source of the material she then goes on-air to call lies—to the faces of people she knows know that she is lying.
This is, in short, trolling. There’s a reason these people make you mad: They want you to be mad. They don’t care whether you’re right about their lies or their true vile beliefs. They know you think they’re vile, so they need to laugh at you to feel better, and your anger at the obvious lies they get away with only serves, in their own view, to legitimize their behavior and justify their continued defense of the otherwise indefensible. For instance, these mainstream conservative voices in the U.S. have called the boiling but rational Democratic outrage at their behavior part of a “mob” mentality. I mean, it’s the governing principle of Owens’ Turning Point USA. They want our anger. It is the only thing they can use to justify their existence.
This maddening rhetoric might be new to us, but it’s not new. Ironic humor has always been a tool of white supremacism. The neo-nazi Daily Stormer style guide explicitly says, “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”
Why? Irony affords a layer of deniability—even if (and especially if) that deniability is clearly also a lie, there’s no way to “prove” it. The frustration this elicits in a rational audience is delicious to the liar cowering behind that irony. For instance, Trump insulates himself from accusations of lying when he says things like, “many people are saying.” It’s why the press rarely calls Trump’s lies “lies,” instead employing terms such as “falsehood” or “misleading statement” or “says without evidence.” Because you can’t prove it. Ha ha!
Trump has also repeatedly called Democrats a “mob.” Yesterday he baldly threatened the opposition with violence in the form of the military and police, apparently anticipating constitutional steps to remove him from office.
It’s not a leap. It’s a straight line. I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that these trolls seem absolutely harmless, hiding behind computer screens. It’s easy to laugh at them, and perhaps we should: They’re mostly just bumbling idiots, cartoons. Except, of course, for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who networked with others in similar online hubs before carrying out his attack. And except, of course, for this latest shitheel.
Pepe has a gun. We can’t laugh anymore.