The magical thinking of guys who love logic

Why so many men online love to use “logic” to win an argument, and then disappear before they can find out they're wrong.

The magical thinking of guys who love logic

Why so many men online love to use “logic” to win an argument, and then disappear before they can find out they're wrong.

Ian Danskin, who makes videos under the moniker Innuendo Studios, has made a name for himself on the internet for his YouTube series on the techniques and beliefs of the alt-right. His most recent video, “The Card Says Moops,” is worth watching in full, but there was one particular line in it that struck me. Danskin points out that, even when their beliefs skew towards the bizarre and conspiratorial, people on the online right often identify as “rationalists.”

This will be unsurprising to those who often engage with the wider online right, whether it is with someone who identifies as alt-right, libertarian, conservative, as a fan of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” or even “moderate” or “centrist” (turns out a lot of people online are self-identifying as moderate while also believing in conspiracies about “white genocide”). Although their beliefs may not be identical, there are common, distinct patterns in the way they speak (or type) that one can’t help but notice.

Specifically, these guys — and they are usually guys — love using terms like “logic.” They will tell you, over and over, how they love to use logic, and how the people they follow online also use logic. They are also massive fans of declaring that they have “facts,” that their analysis is “unbiased,” that they only use “‘reason” and “logic” and not “emotions” to make decisions. The hosts of the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House even titled their book The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason as a wink and nod to this tendency.

These words are usually used interchangeably and without regard to their proper usage, squished together in a vague Play-Doh ball of smug superiority, to be thrown wherever possible at their “emotional” and “irrational” enemies: feminists, Marxists, liberals, SJWs, and definitely the feminist Marxist liberal SJWs. You could call these men’s way of viewing the world in simple “me smart, you dumb” dichotomies Manichean, or even Derridean, if you really want to upset them by referencing a philosopher that they’ve heard is very bad.

A good illustration of this phenomenon recently appeared in a piece for MEL magazine about an increasingly disturbing trend — women whose once-promising romantic relationships implode after their boyfriends become “redpilled.” For the benefit of the blissfully uninitiated: to be “redpilled” means to internalize a set of misogynistic far-right beliefs popular with certain corners of the internet; the product of a noxious blend of junk science, conspiracy theory, and a pathological fear of social progress.

These men will tell you, over and over, how they love to use logic, and how the people they follow online also use logic. They are also massive fans of declaring that they have “facts” and that their analysis is “unbiased.”

The men interviewed in the piece, once sweet and caring, started changing after going down a rabbit hole of extremist political content on YouTube and involving themselves in radical right-wing online communities. Convinced of their absolute correctness, these men became at first frustrated, then verbally abusive once they realized their female partners did not always agree with their new views. Any dialogue attempted by these men was not made — at least as far as their partners could tell — with the goal of exchanging views and opening themselves to being challenged. Their goal was to assert their beliefs as fact; to teach their partner the truth, as a Christian missionary might put it. Every woman interviewed in the article — including those who were more formally educated than their boyfriends — makes reference to their former partners belittling their intelligence and rationality. These men were certain that they were the smart ones, that they had correctly assessed the “facts” with “logic,” and that if their womenfolk did not accept this without question, they were simply too dumb to understand.

This might not seem surprising at first — when it comes to contentious beliefs, it’s not uncommon for people to act as though their view is the inherently superior one. But what’s remarkable is how ridiculously confident these men became, in a relatively short time, in their unique philosopher-king-like possession of objective truth and superior analysis… all while copying their arguments from an echo-chamber of poorly cited webcam videos and anonymous internet comments.

These magic words do have actual definitions, as it happens, and they’re quite complicated. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a commonly used go-to site for academic summaries of philosophical topics, and it doesn’t even have a single unified article for “logic,” “reason” or “rationality”; instead they have a plethora of articles about all the myriad subtypes and debates around the topic, most of which I suspect would mystify the average self-identified logic fan (although in fairness, they would mystify most of us).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy doesn’t even have a single unified article for “logic,” “reason” or “rationality.”

If you’re looking for a more accessible reference, Wikipedia also breaks these terms down into subtypes. “Logic,” for example, can refer to syllogistic logic, a system in which propositions containing terms with explicit relations to each other can be used to infer a definitively valid conclusion (Socrates is a horse, all horses terrify me, therefore Socrates terrifies me — that sort of thing). Related to this type of logic are other “formal” types such as propositional, mathematical, and computational logics, but it’s rare to come across that particular type of logic online as it relates to real-life political issues; more likely you are talking about some other “informal” logic (to put it in massively oversimplified terms, a system that seeks to adhere to some standard of analysis and argumentation, which is not closed, fixed or prone to definitive conclusions in the way formal logic is).

The boundaries and definitions involved in these terms, and how we come to identify them, are hotly debated. “Rationality” is the quality of “being based on and agreeable to reason,” which is also a colossal can of worms — what is reasonable depending on the question and context, one’s interpretation of the system, one’s values and so on. These battles over definition are not taking place in the same universe as the one in which men throw around these terms online. But for the Logic Guys, the purpose of using these words — the sacred, magic words like “logic,” “objectivity,” “reason,” “rationality,” “fact” — is not to invoke the actual concepts themselves. It’s more a kind of incantation, whereby declaring your argument the single “logical” and “rational” one magically makes it so — and by extension, makes you both smart and correct, regardless of the actual rigor or sources of your beliefs.

For men, especially insecure and socially dislocated men, the idea of “rationality” can be a kind of comfort blanket. Raised from birth with the stereotype that they are more “analytically intelligent” (in contrast to women, who are “emotionally intelligent”), and with pop culture that venerates “logical” characters (on a just barely related note, please enjoy this novelty Leonard Nimoy song), it’s no wonder that many young men see “logic” as a sort of personality trait to achieve — one which automatically imbues all one’s opinions with correctness — rather than a system that one may or may not be following at any one time.

The “redpill” metaphor here is telling, because it implies that obtaining knowledge and arguing well is not a skill that is slowly and indefinitely improved upon, but an achievement to be unlocked in a single moment: once you’ve swallowed the pill, you turn into a smart person, and from then on, all your opinions are correct. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of figures popular in the “redpill” community also hawk nootropic supplements.)

An interesting parallel is the use of the term “the Enlightenment” to refer to an historical period of discovery in philosophy and the sciences — a period that is often referenced by self-identified logic lovers as a sort of single-use power-up by society: first we were all lying around in mud like the serfs in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then we did the Enlightenment (and by “we,” of course, they mean white European men), and then everything was smart until Marxists and feminists and poststructuralists messed it all up.

It’s no wonder that many young men see “logic” as a sort of personality trait to achieve rather than a system that one may or may not be following at any one time.

In reality, “the Enlightenment” was composed of a loose, messy assortment of people with very different ideas (you can even include Marx as an Enlightenment philosopher, if you like ). Rousseau has very little in common with Locke, and outright hated Voltaire. In addition, many Enlightenment philosophers had downright silly views on women, minorities and the like (as Silvia Federici points out in her seminal work Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, many of these brilliant philosophers straight-up believed in executing witches). This does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but it does mean that “philosophy had one good school and then stopped being good in the 19th century” is… not a terribly sophisticated take, but one that seems more based in wanting to find a shortcut to superiority than good-faith inquiry.

A similar line of thinking can be seen in the New Atheist movement, which grew out of a reaction to the dominance of the Christian right during the George W. Bush era, as well as post-9/11 fears of Islamic fundamentalism. While there were genuine concerns to be raised about the impact of religious beliefs on public policy, what could have been a good-natured movement for secularism became a lightning rod for frustrated young men who wanted to insult people who believed in “sky-gods,” to the point where a lot of atheists began to label the movement toxic and tried to distance themselves from it.

Perhaps the nadir of the movement was 2011’s “Elevatorgate,” in which a prominent New Atheist woman mentioned that a man had behaved inappropriately to her at an atheist convention and advised other women to avoid this situation in future, and lots of atheist men promptly lost their shit. An over-the-top reaction to women speaking out against harassment is not unique to this movement; for every article praising #MeToo, there seems to be another from a Very Concerned Man who worries that everything is going too far and he’s afraid to even TALK to women now!

But I suspect the reason the reaction to Elevatorgate was so vitriolic was not just about general sexism, but also about the threat it posed to the New Atheist sense of moral superiority. It was much less fun for them to reckon with say, the complex social structures within the skeptic community, and the way that might affect the movement, than it was to make fun of some hick who couldn’t get his head round evolution. Those were the people who had some learning to do — for the New Atheists themselves, there was nothing more to learn. If people from marginalised groups within the movement started speaking about issues which involved listening and learning, or self-reflecting on one’s biases… well, that was unacceptable, since it would require wider reading and understanding of issues that were not immediately accessible or aesthetically pleasing to many New Atheist men.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that a lot of New Atheism devolved into reactionary, antifeminist, and even white supremacist thought, because it was never really about the things it claimed to be about. The dominant affect of New Atheism wasn’t humility, or reflexivity, or curiosity, all the things one truly needs to improve intellectually. It was smugness.

Another common characteristic of these “logickier than thou” movements is a narrow focus on the type of skill that can be classed as “intelligence.” Affinity for things like social interaction, languages, or the arts (or at least certain types of art) often don’t get a look-in. Everything must be reducible to numbers, hence the typical logic lover’s obsession with IQ.

In The Mismeasure of Man, one of the most well-known critiques of intelligence research, Stephen Jay Gould notes the dangers of scientists’ bias toward reification — the desire to find a definitive thing that is intelligence — and quantification, the desire to slap numbers on stuff. While this is understandable to an extent — things and numbers are easy to understand at-a-glance — Gould warns that this has led to bad science and perverse outcomes in the past, and threatens to mislead us into poor understandings of intelligence, at the expense of nuance and complexity. This is all of little concern to the logic lover, who wishes not to understand, but to use again and again their favorite magic words, as a shield against criticism and as a weapon against others.

A good, contemporary example of the logic incantation at work can be found in the career of Ben Shapiro. Shapiro, a popular conservative pundit with half a million Youtube subscribers and 1.86 million Twitter followers, is known for his mantra “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Youtube is full of videos titled things like “BRILLIANT Ben Shapiro DESTROYS college feminist with REASON and INTELLIGENCE.” (The prevalence of the term “destroy” is interesting — if you destroy something, it’s not there to bother you anymore, so you don’t have to worry about it any longer. Hmm.) A New York Times profile called Shapiro “the cool kid’s philosopher.” The right-leaning corners of the internet are full of admiration for just how logical he is.

The logic lover wishes to use again and again their favorite magic words as a shield against criticism and as a weapon against others.

This is a testament to the power of branding, because on closer inspection, Shapiro isn’t a very logical person at all. In Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson laid out in a lengthy takedown how Shapiro’s admittedly sharp law-school skills belie the fact that half the time he speaks, he uses insults rather than arguments, and the other half, the arguments are usually fallacious (if you support a higher tax rate on corporations, “why not make tax rates 100 percent”?) and/or based on heavily ideological and emotional presuppositions.

Shapiro maintains that gay parents shouldn’t adopt children because “a man and a woman do a better job of raising a child than two men or two women,” relying on an old reactionary trope rather than a preponderance of the evidence that shows children adopted by same-sex couples do as well as those adopted by different-sex couples. He insists on misgendering trans people because he believes that pronouns should be used based on a person’s chromosomes, a position that would get you laughed out of a room either of medical professionals or of linguists. His position on the unlawful actions of the Israeli government, as Robinson illustrates in his takedown, seems to be entirely based on a combination of his personal religious beliefs and an insistence that Palestinian Arab civilians are “evil” (a position which has led him to support ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories).

None of this seems like “logic” to me. It seems like a person who has very strongly held presuppositions that they insist on holding onto the way a child holds onto their stuffed animal — stubbornly, and with a comically frowny face you kind of want to tickle under the chin.

“And still the brand endures,” as @dril would put it. According to his supporters, and even many who might not support him, Ben Shapiro loves facts. Why? Well, because he says he loves facts. He’s not basing his assertions on feelings, and we know this because he says that he isn’t. (Of course, to assert this as a positive thing requires the presupposition that feelings are inherently bad and irrelevant to political discourse, which is not necessarily true. But to talk about this would require an in-depth knowledge of epistemology and political philosophy, which is beyond the scope of this piece. Enough of this blabber about “the meaning of knowledge,” please. Just the facts, ma’am. ) By insisting on this interpretation of his own character, over and over, buoyed by the idolatrous support of his loyal fans and the snarky titles of his clickbait videos, Shapiro conjures into being an image of himself as The Rational Man. Say the magic words enough times, and the spell will be cast over your audience.

To be honest, even though I’m not a man, this is a tendency I understand. People want to feel smart. Calling your opinions and feelings “rational,” as opposed to the “irrational” opinions and feelings of others, is a shortcut to boosting your self-esteem. And it’s certainly not as though this tendency is unique to reactionaries; I think we’re all prone to this sometimes. The key is to recognize this for what it is — nothing more than a bias that we must overcome, in order to clearly identify how exactly we came to a viewpoint, and whether it truly holds up to scrutiny. This is important for any recent convert, whether it’s to the Intellectual Dark Web, or communism, or Crossfit. We must not mistake our imagined transfiguration from Regular Person to Omniscient Wizard for reality.

Calling your opinions and feelings “rational,” as opposed to the “irrational” opinions and feelings of others, is a shortcut to boosting your self-esteem.

This is my attempt to break the spell, I guess. Repeat after me: calling something logic doesn’t make it so. Calling someone rational doesn’t make it so. Opinions from Youtube men are not facts. Getting mad about philosophers you haven’t read isn’t reason. Insulting your girlfriend because she questions your sudden political shift isn’t logic. For a group of people who claim to hate the supposed redefinition of words when it comes to gender and race; for a group of people who are very mad about the postmodern tendency to say nothing means anything (or at least this is an aspect of postmodernism they seem to have gleaned from their favorite subreddits), the new young reactionaries are remarkably devil-may-care about certain words when they seem to lend credibility and strength to their opinions.

By repeating the magic words, they avoid having to deal with a gruesome fact, one that really doesn’t care about their feelings: that they are just a person on a computer with an opinion, talking to other people on computers with opinions. I don’t know what the future holds for these guys. But I do wish they’d stop playing with their magic wands.

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Aisling McCrea is a freelance writer, researcher, and graduate student with a background in law and international relations. She last wrote for The Outline about how debate is very stupid.