I first considered reading Kill All Normies about six months ago, when I discovered the existence of Zero Books and excitedly added about ten titles to my basket on their website before getting cold feet.
Zero Books appear pretty freakin’ clever and I – with my low low ego – panicked and felt that any book by this intellectual liberal publisher would be too difficult for me to understand and thus any book of theirs I bought would make me feel like a massive dumbdumb. I bought nothing, none, due to my low self esteem. Then, many months later, I suddenly started reading about Kill All Normies in the national press on a daily basis and thought fuck it: I am as clever as the average journalist, I just went to a worse university than them due to a lack of middle class socio-cultural privilege: if a journalist (eweee) can read Kill All Normies, SO CAN I! So I did, and I found it a fascinating – though in parts painfully bleak – read.
The reason why Angela Nagle’s book (which I suppose would be classified as like digital sociology maybe?) was in the news was because of its in-depth exploration of online misogynist cults, including “incels”, the self-defined moniker used by the misogynist terrorist who murdered lots of people in Toronto with a truck a few weeks ago1. All of the lefty newspapers I read cited Nagle’s 2017 book as the key text on understanding “incels” (“involuntary celibates”) and the terrifying number of related right wing online communities. Despite my initial fear that I’d be left drowning in a fancypants intellectual milieu (the kind of people who think Pret A Manger is low rent!), luckily, it turns out that Kill All Normies is a dense and informative book, but pointedly readable. This non-fiction, analytical, text offers a concise exploration of the rise of the alt-right, the shift from digital to real-world power and, I suppose, offers a bleak blueprint for the future, though one that has – thankfully – been (at least temporarily) proven wrong by the Irish referendum result that was announced the day I was typing this.
When did the alt-right begin to become powerful? What drew young people towards the intolerant, the traditional, the economic right? Nagle argues – and does so with power – that the reason why is because the alt-right managed to capture the transgressive end of the zeitgeist, and in a society encouraged to see the countercultural as attractive, young people (mostly men) found themselves drawn into online communities where it was OK to joke about race, gender, sexuality, violence, paedophilia, etc, in a manner that was no longer acceptable in public. By defining what it was they were opposed to – identity politics and “political correctness” – the alt-right were able to co-opt the spaces and the mindsets of young people whose instinct to “kick against the system” had been historically thought to push them leftwards, instead dragging the weak into the awfulness of the right.
Nagle focuses on 4chan as a significant boiling pot of hatred. With broad societal trends towards tolerance, with hate speech criminalised – AS IT FUCKING SHOULD BE – the general spaces within public society for being offensive were minimised. 4chan is an online like messaging board or something – if you ever see screengrabs of it, it looks like something from the early internet, just with gifs in. This, apparently, is part of its appeal, this simplicity and “retro” design. Almost all users are fully anonymised, and thus able to give consequence-free (for themselves) access to their “darkest” thoughts. As well as discussions of video games and films, there are also message boards offering “pick up artist” tips, boards where the “incels” hatefully complain about women they hate but still think should fuck them, as well as many more niche groups that are sometimes more, sometimes less, ridiculous. All of it, though, is nasty. There is a tone of entitlement and self-importance that is a classic tenet of right wing thought: every individual is more important than all the other individuals put together, that kinda bullshit. When “kicking against the system” reinforces traditional modes of thought – i.e. what dickheads mean by “free speech” – there is a clear conflation of rebellion with right wing ideas, which seems bizarre as a standalone sentence, but is argued very convincingly in the book.
Donald Trump’s victory (and Brexit) are considered to be the crowning achievements of the alt-right, manoeuvring conversations back towards ideas and topics that had been considered inappropriate for decades. By sliding the acceptable discourse rightwards – for example, hard right politicians in the UK regularly on television – there is less of a swing to get people to vote for awful people, when they’re not the most awful people on show. Donald Trump was unpolished, arrogant, unprepared, but that was much more attractive to many Americans than Hillary Clinton’s decades of experience and – in particular – the press’ insistence that she was owed the win. Here, for Brexit, the people leading the Remain campaign were smarmy, Oxbridgey career politicany, moneyed white men in suits: it was not hard for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to seem more “down to Earth” than the frankly robotic polish of Osborne, Clegg, Cameron etc.
The right stole transgression and counter culture out of the left’s lap, and – Nagle posits – this is something almost irrevocable, at this stage. With the left continuing to care about identity politics and being “good”, the right is able to monopolise on both being casual and “sensible”. The right tells people it doesn’t matter what they think or say or feel, the left tells people that it does. I think, as a whingey liberal, that this does matter, tbh: I think the movement towards greater compassion that we’ve witnessed in the world over the last few years has been important and valuable. The right attracts dickheads by telling them that they can be dickheads, fuck anyone who tells them otherwise. This is kinda what we’ve done on the left, however being black, being gay, being trans, being working class, whatever, doesn’t actively hurt anyone, while being a dickhead is a choice and one that DOESN’T need to be respected. Pricks.
But, while children continue to be taught the importance of the self and of property/ownership/money/getting to be selfish, i.e. the bedrock of the capitalist system innit, the inevitability of the power of the right is confirmed. “Why is it OK for people to be black when it’s not OK for me to be racist?” is basically how these people think. Me typing “they are dickheads” is apparently part of the problem, but fuck it: they are.
A great read, whatever your politics. It’s good to learn, like.
1. I do not know the name of this terrorist, and nor am I going to look it up and add it here. He was a terrorist and a misogynist so no, I will not help to give him some kind of digital footprint. ↩