Dear Fuck-Up: My Close Friend Is Being Radicalized On the Internet and I Don’t Know What to Do

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Dear Fuck-Up,

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My friend was always very liberal. She has a degree in women’s studies and loves Gloria Steinem. She has a copy of Malcolm X’s biography on her shelf and went to the women’s march.

But a few months before we went into quarantine, my friend confessed in a hushed tone that she had been watching videos by Meghan Murphy, noted Canadian trans exclusionary feminist activist. She confided that she agreed with a lot of the things Murphy said, namely that gender fluidity erased the struggle of women. I surprised myself at the time by reacting calmly, challenging some of her assumptions, and in response to a lot of her “I just don’t understand how...” statements, loaned her some books that could maybe answer some of her questions.

Now, in the wake of the BLM protests she’s started posting from the notes app—screeds about how she shouldn’t be bullied into posting pro BLM memes and where were all these protesters when girls were being genitally mutilated.

What scares me is not just her bad takes, but the new language she’s using, talking about how “the left” can’t hear new ideas and how they own the media and use cancel culture to bully others out of posting. She used the word “heterodox” in an email to our reading group along with a 45-minute video about BLM of Meghan Murphy interviewing a guy who is famous for testifying in congress with Candace Owens about reparations. I feel like she’s spending quarantine on YouTube being inducted into the alt-right.

Overreaction? If not, how do I help my friend out of this rabbit hole when any criticism I give her is seen as an attempt to cancel her?

Sincerely,

Do I Have to Watch the Video


Dear Video,

Not for the first time, I’m very sad I ditched proper smoking for a Juul. Please imagine that rather than charging my nicotine-delivery device via USB port, I am lighting up an American Spirit while I type the words “Meghan Murphy…haven’t heard that name in years.”

She is a vile woman, and I’m sorry your friend finds anything in Murphy’s worldview agreeable. It’s always a shock to discover that someone you assumed had good character is in fact interested in making life harder for already vulnerable people. You aren’t overreacting about this, and I do think we have an obligation to intervene when our friends begin to mentally and morally curdle in front of our eyes. I know some people assert that the right thing to do is immediately and forcefully disavow anyone in your life who starts spouting hateful ideologies, but I’ve always struggled to understand how that helps. If you stop talking to her, others will be there to fill the void, which is basically how radicalization works. Of course, there is surely a point of no return—beyond which your friend may, I don’t know, develop a British accent and start seeing an Adam’s apple on every female celebrity—but since this is a relatively new development I think you bear some responsibility here in not letting this go unchecked.

In terms of what to say that might return your friend to her senses, well, I’m on less solid ground here. As you pointed out, the logic by which any disagreement only proves that she is speaking a dangerous and necessary truth is almost elegant in its impenetrability. It’s also fairly pointless to try knocking down transphobic talking points one by one, for the simple reason that they are largely insane. Transphobes have a way of shriveling and disfiguring our better instincts, like curiosity or the desire to be vulnerable with each other, and turning them into something deeply ugly, like nosiness or the need to always be a victim.

I mean, these are women who will say with a straight face that men are transitioning in order to gain entry to women’s spaces and rape us. Imagine that! These are self-styled “feminists” who believe that rape is something men need a years-long con to pull off. They are among the least curious people on the planet—sure that the beginning and end of what it can mean to be a woman is contained within the boundaries of a body exactly like theirs—who are nonetheless obsessed with knowing the precise details of a stranger’s genitals.

Of course, bigotry always functions as an invitation to itself, so it’s not surprising that your friend has begun to explore other ways of being awful. The sneering malice of the transphobe is rarely satisfied with one target. And while this way of thinking is inwardly permission granting, it is outwardly permission demanding. The question presented to the world time and time again may be worded differently but it always comes down to: Why aren’t we allowed to say this? Why aren’t we allowed to think this way? Why aren’t we alllllllllooooowed?

Constantly whining about what you are and aren’t allowed to do is the preoccupation of children, and besides which, the answer is “you are.” In this world, you are always allowed to be cruel, and you always have been. It is no brave thing to stand with the powerful against those who dare live differently, it’s the easiest and most comfortable choice you can make.

That is the line I would take with your friend, moving forward. If you refuse to agree with what she’s saying she will settle for you being scandalized by it, as that will reinforce her sense of persecution, but you can simply decline. Instead, point out how boring it is to think people should be punished if they don’t conform. How tedious it is to think that the contours of your own thought enclose all that is worth knowing. How embarrassing it is to be cruel.

That may not be enough, and you may not be able to pull your friend back from the brink. I suspect that for a certain type of feminist what this really comes down to is the feeling of a broken promise. They were assured that the fact they make $90,000/year while their male counterpart pulls in six figures would be the political crisis of our time, and they are deeply furious that many of us have different priorities. It is not the illegitimacy of trans and non-binary people’s grievances that truly rankles, but their very urgency. This incites a sense of betrayal—the feeling that you were meant to be taken seriously and attended to and you aren’t anymore—that can be intolerable to some. These sorts of people tend to make tragedies of themselves, and that is a difficult thing to watch.

I hope your friend can be persuaded to see this historical moment for what it really is: a great flourishing of dissent and a yearning to live with dignity. There is truly heterodox thinking happening all around her, but none of it is found on Meghan Murphy’s YouTube channel.

Love,

A Fuck-Up

Brandy Jensen lives in Brooklyn with her two dogs.

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DISCUSSION

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The Holy Hand Grenade

“Instead, point out how boring it is to think people should be punished if they don’t conform. How tedious it is to think that the contours of your own thought enclose all that is worth knowing. How embarrassing it is to be cruel.”

This is brilliant, and also a very tough idea to get across. The other thing I often bring up in such arguments is the zero-sum mentality that if someone gains a right, someone else loses a right. This is an easy crutch people have used against affirmative action, Title IX, etc.