‘Kill All Normies’ skewers online identity politics

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies derives its title from a slogan originated on 4Chan that labels anyone who has made a life outside their mother’s basement as a “normal fag” or “normie.” The book, published in June by Zero Books, applies a much needed critical lens to internet culture and the way identity politics have shaped the alt-right as well as the nebulous online left.

Ideology notwithstanding, those two camps — the alt-right and what Nagle calls “Tumblr liberals” — actually have a lot in common, particularly when it comes to their online cultural practices. Nagle describes one of these common practices as a preoccupation with the “aesthetics of transgression,” wherein whether something appears transgressive is more important than the actual politics behind said “transgression.”  These groups also share a reliance on identity politics and a passion for hounding and abasing those who deviate from the party line.

In chapter five, “From Tumblr to the Campus Wars: Creating Scarcity in an Online Economy of Virtue,” Nagle lists numerous recently invented “gender identities,” such as “Cassflux” (defined as a fluctuating indifference to your gender), “Daimogender” (a gender closely related to demons and the supernatural), and “Genderdale” (a gender that is hard to describe). On the liberal left, one of the ways identity politics manifests itself is through the invention of this ever-expanding  list of gender categories.

Though this a recent trend, Nagle locates Judith Butler as the theorist primarily responsible for the spread of the idea that gender is an identity. Nagle references the 1998 Left Conservativism conference, organized by Butler herself, as one of the first manifestations of the ongoing battle between between what she calls the “materialist left” and the “liberal left.” The conference took aim at leftists who criticized the postmodernist rhetoric that had begun to take over in academia, painting them as “conservative” in an effort to “expel certain people and thoughts,” Nagle explains. Today, similar efforts to “expel certain people and thoughts” have expanded their reach through social media. Indeed, any objection to the postmodern identity politics embraced by Tumblr liberals results in an online mob baying for the blood of the apostate.

In the same chapter, Nagle looks at the practice of no-platforming. One example she references is a petition demanding a talk by Germaine Greer, called “Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century,” that was scheduled to take place at Cardiff University in 2015, be cancelled. The prominent feminist was accused of “trans-exclusionary views,” presumably on account of comments made in a 2009 column, calling the idea that a man could become a woman a “delusion.” Nagle writes, “As far as this new generation of campus “progressives”  was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right.” And not only did students try to silence and smear Greer, but they went after her defenders as well, tarring anyone who did not support the attack as “transphobic.” Nagle criticizes the efforts of so-called progressives to no-platform Greer and many others as attacks on free speech and on critical thought, which  filter out from academic institutions into wider society, and even influence public policy.

Mobbing those who don’t toe the line, attempting to destroy their reputations and lives, is sadistic, but also functions as a way to define the boundary between an in-group and an out-group, allowing the in-group to police, test, and demand loyalty. Almost any event can be made use of, opportunistically, to redefine that dividing line, to test loyalty, or to start a witch-hunt — nothing is beyond the bounds of exploitation. Even the most personal of tragedies can be used to draw a line in the sand or deploy the thought-police.

On January 14th, one day after writer and Goldsmiths lecturer Mark Fisher took his own life, British blogger Zoe Stavri tweeted:

“Just because Mark Fisher is dead, doesn’t make him right about ‘sour-faced identitarians.’ If only left misogyny would die with him.”

This grave dancing was deserved, apparently, on account of Fisher’s 2013 essay, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” which criticized the identitarian politics Nagle calls “economies of virtue.” The article was called “pathetic” by queer theorist Sara Ahmed, and Ray Filar, a genderqueer performer and friend of Ahmed’s (who joined in with the celebrations of Fisher’s suicide on Twitter, retweeting Stavri’s classless tweet) dismissed Fisher’s critiques of the kind of mobbing and witch-hunts that take place online as not being “intersectional” enough.

Kill All Normies’ concluding chapter deals with Fisher’s suicide and the response to his essay, in which he argued that the identity politics adopted by the liberal left had “convert[ed] the suffering of particular groups — the more ‘marginal’ the better — into academic capital.” Fisher pointed out that, while in theory this group “claim[s] to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour.”

The pile on against Fisher grew throughout 2013, as numerous leftist white men denounced him in order to signal their own virtuousness, often willfully misinterpreting his arguments. Joining the mob was not only fun, it was strategic and opportunistic. As Fisher himself pointed out, it was a surefire way those men could avoid becoming targets themselves. Vice writer Sam Kriss, for example, called Fisher’s essay “nonsense,” though admitted his own condemnation was “mostly written because everyone else was doing one.” Kriss distorted Fisher’s arguments in order to justify the sadistic pleasure so many seemed to gain from attacking the piece, implying Fisher felt “women and members of ethnic and sexual minorities who belong to the tendency he identifies are somehow unnatural and monstrous.”

Nagle writes:

“The deluge of personal and vindictive mass abuse experienced by Fisher for years afterwards, involving baseless accusations of misogyny, racism, transphobia, etc., became typical for anyone who dared touch any of the Tumblr left’s key sensitivities, perhaps especially from a left perspective…

…The strangest feature of this online ‘call-out culture’ was this mixture of performative vulnerability, self-righteous wokeness and bullying. The online dynamics of this call-out culture were brilliantly described by Fisher as, ‘driven by a priests desire to ex-communicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.’ I would add to this that the key driving force behind it is about creating scarcity in an environment in which virtue is the currency that can make or break the career or social success of an online user in this milieu, the counterforce of which was the anonymous underworld from which the right-wing trolling cultures emerged.”

When Stavri was criticized for her callous tweet, she attempted to excuse herself  by explaining that she must have posted it because she was on new mental health medication. (Of course, Fisher’s thoroughly documented mental health issues were never so sympathetically taken into account by the mob who came after him for writing the Vampire Castle piece.) Stavri’s response fits rather perfectly within what Nagle describes as, “a culture of fragility and victimhood, mixed with a vicious culture of group attacks, group shaming, and attempts to destroy the reputations and lives of others’ [that] has been coined as ‘crybullying.’”

The reception to Kill All Normies amongst the groups that the book scrutinizes has been surprising. Leading far-right figure Richard Spence tweeted that he thought Nagle “understands the Alt-Right (and Alt-Lite) much, much better than most.” Queer theorist Lisa Duggan called Kill All Normiesan extremely important book” (an unexpected comment, considering she herself is one of those responsible for germinating “Tumblr Liberalism”).

One weakness in Kill All Normies is that the analysis of male supremacy amongst the alt-right takes a back seat to the analysis of their white supremacy, but given that male supremacy is not confined to the alt-right, it’s clear why that decision was made.

The chapter that most directly addresses male supremacy is “Entering The Manosphere,” wherein Nagle describes the emergence of MRAs online. Roosh V, owner of MRA site Return of the Kings, proposes a strategy of “aggressive, manipulative, social-Darwinist-tinged approach to coaxing women to have sex,” called for rape to be legalized, and stated he would not go down on a woman for “quasi-political reasons.” Another group, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), advocates male separatism, telling men to avoid romantic relationships with women in “protest against a culture destroyed by feminism.” (If only!) Even more amusing  are the Proud Boys who have a policy of “no wanks.” (The Proud Boys reject pornography and masturbation, believing it to have weakened men, “making them lazier and more stupid.”)

What unites these men’s rights groups with the alt-right is that they believe white, straight, males have been left behind and now exist at the bottom of the social and sexual hierarchy. They believe that while the world once belonged (rightfully) to them, now women, people of colour, and sexual minorities rule. Indeed, their insult of choice, “cuck,” is acute projection — they feel usurped and humiliated by these groups, and believe they have been robbed of the privilege they are entitled to. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the phenomena of what 4chaners refer to as “incels” (men who conceive of themselves as “involuntary celibates”), lamenting that women refuse sex with them, rendering them modern victims of their self-conceived “sexual hierarchy”.

When Nagle writes of “online culture wars,” we must recognize that the main battle is over truth. While Nagle does not explore the feminist dimension of these online street fights, specifically, the implications are evident. Both the alt-right and the anti-materialist, regressive left believe that prostitution is not about women’s position under patriarchy as a resource for men, but sexual liberation and the free market. Both consider the sex trade to be a situation where women come out on top — with autonomy, empowered through profit and/or sexual freedom. Rather than overturning the system of prostitution, both groups believe we need to offer more rights to pimps and johns, in order to allow prostituted women to benefit from an unregulated free market. (So far, so Marxist!) Most significantly for feminism, both these tendencies wish to block certain feminist analysis and activism — specifically, the kind that challenges the system of patriarchy at its root.

Kill All Normies is the first book to skewer the relations of online behaviour, illustrating the way in which social justice warriors and the alt-right sustain one another. The real world effects of online politics are laid bare. What is left for readers to do is to overcome the navel-gazing of identity politics and oppose political sadism from both the right and the left.

By recognizing the negative impact of identity politics on the left, books like Kill All Normies help us move closer to an honest discussion that opens the possibility of a return to a systemic analysis, instead of one rooted in abstract identity and reliant on performativity. Nagel’s efforts, her endurance in observing the pond life of the internet so closely, and the work she has done in recording and delineating it for the rest of us should be greatly appreciated.

Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.