The real story here isn’t that feminist writer Amanda Marcotte is both-sidesing woke extremism. The story here is that Marcotte is acknowledging woke extremism at all. After years of the left shrugging off this entire topic as some kind of right-wing nonsense, it’s quite a change to hear people of Marcotte’s ilk suddenly just admit there’s a real problem there. Still, there’s a certain tone deafness to her sudden interest in nuance.

In our social media-dominated age, nuance is not allowed, and certainly not when it comes to the woke wars. Either you deny there are bullies who use social justice as a fig leaf, or you agree that everyone is in imminent danger of social ruin for forgetting to indicate their pronouns. There’s no room for the boring truth, which is that both sides sometimes have a point and also that both sides are guilty of wild exaggeration.

It’s probably just wishful thinking, but I’d love it if 2023 became the year that we finally say goodbye to all this. Let this be the year of letting go — both of the pressure to fly into a panic over “cancel culture” or to deny that Twitter is rife with jerks who hide their sadism behind a veneer of social justice. This idiotic merry-go-round exists in large part because social media profits handsomely from fights where nobody wins and everybody is wrong. But collectively, we have the power to disengage, and to deprive the woke wars of their power.

To put it plainly, Marcotte hasn’t made her name synonymous with nuance. So what’s going on here? Has she suddenly become a more reasonable person as she gets older? Maybe but it seems more likely that it’s dawning on people on the left that smug, angry, judgmental progressives (the woke) have increasingly become an embarrassment to all progressives. As one of the people on the right who has been saying as much for the past 6-7 years, I’ll take the win.

Marcotte also points to this Vox article from earlier this month which contains a similar admission that a lot of very online progressives have become insufferable jerks. [emphasis added]

In October, a woman named Daisey Beaton made a huge mistake: She tweeted about her personal life. “my husband and i wake up every morning and bring our coffee out to our garden and sit and talk for hours,” she wrote. “every morning. it never gets old & we never run out of things to talk to. love him so much.”…

Over the next day, Daisey received all kinds of angry replies: “Who has time to sit and talk for hours everyday? Must be nice,” one woman wrote. “What if we weren’t inherently wealthy and have to work and stuff?” replied another. There were plenty more: “I’m happy for you but it’s just smug, self satisfied bragging if it’s true. Your partner is most likely embarrassed by the tweet, or at least should be.” “I wake up at 6am, shower and go to work for a shift that is a minimum of 10 hours long. This is an unattainable goal for most people.” “You haven’t been married long have you.”…

When I posed the question to Twitter — “What was the most chronically online discourse you saw this year?” — the replies were telling: There was “garden coffee lady.” There was someone likening playing fetch with a dog to abuse. There was, somehow, Anne Frank discourse again. There was a spreadsheet of famous authors next to the reasons they were “problematic” (sample: “John Green: ‘harmful depictions of manic episodes,’ William Shakespeare: ‘misogynistic principles enforced in books’”). There was the accusation that the teen actor in a Netflix series was “queerbaiting” because he … acted in the show (he was eventually forced to come out as bisexual in real life)…

If the water was hot two years ago, it’s boiling now. Last month, when a Twitter thread by a woman who sent her neighbors homemade chili went viral, the woman was accused of being a “white savior” and inconsiderate to autistic people (the woman who wrote the thread is autistic). It’s just one example of how high the stakes seem to be for interpersonal encounters that are objectively nobody’s business, and how so often our thirst for drama is really a thirst for punishment.

The thirst for punishment is real and it’s spectacular, especially online. I started writing about “altruistic punishment” online back in January of 2015, nearly 8 years ago (I’ve written about it several times since then). Here’s how I described it at the time.

Novelist Douglas Preston has written an excellent e-book about the topic of altruistic punishment. Preston became interested in the topic after he wrote something about the Amanda Knox case online and became the target of a relentless online mob harassing him for having the wrong opinions.

What Preston discovered is a pocket of social science research which applies to a disturbing percentage of our online interactions. Altruistic punishment, simply put, is the expression of negative emotions toward those who fail to cooperate with the group. It is a pressure tactic designed to whip people into line with the tribe and its goals.

The purpose of altruistic punishment seems to be to fight the tendency to freeload. In a group where cooperation is necessary for survival, there will always be some who coast on the effort of others. Altruistic punishment may have developed as a way to discourage that kind of freeloading. But with the advent of social media, it seems to apply to everything and everyone who fails to get in line with the group’s priorities.

The scary thing about altruistic punishment is that human beings seem wired to take pleasure in it. If you’ve ever wanted the simple answer to why there are so many unpleasant jerks online, it’s because they get a genuine rush out of being unpleasant jerks online. They are convinced they are doing something important, even noble, by punishing the tribe’s detractors…

Altruistic punishment is not a partisan problem. It’s a plague which infects both sides of the aisle. That said, it shouldn’t surprise us that the political party which prizes group solidarity and equality is the one most carried away with this tactic. In fact, one could probably predict that the party who elected a former community organizer as President would be the one struggling with this.

So, yes, I partially agree with Amanda Marcotte that both sides are guilty of altruistic punishment online. But I still maintain one side of the aisle has a much worse habit than the other. And contrary to the claim made in the Vox piece, wokeness has invaded the real world. It’s not just limited to online arguments anymore. In fact, it has become so engrained on the left that their own social and political institutions have largely ceased to function over the past couple of years as a result.

Having Vox and Salon even halfway admit wokeness is a problem seems like a minor Christmas miracle and a win for the people who’ve been banging this particular drum for a very long time.

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