by John Durham Peters
Today's alt-right trolls have hijacked the Cynical tradition. Rather than shaming power, they shield it.
Diogenes the Cynic lived naked on the beach, his only shelter a tub. His minimalist life only added to his reputation for wisdom, and many sought him out. One day Alexander the Great came to pay him homage. Standing over him, the world-conqueror asked if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes replied: Yes there is. Stop blocking the sun.
This was the first of many times Diogenes egged Alexander on. Diogenes would goad and diss him, playing him like an instrument, pushing him until he was on the verge of flipping out, but then walk him back. Diogenes and Alexander were playing “chicken” to see who would lose their cool first, and Diogenes never lost.
Diogenes put himself in harm’s way to expose the violence of power and teach the powerful a lesson, and Alexander kept coming back for more. He knew he was within his rights to kill Diogenes for his lèse-majesté, but Diogenes would remind him that no one else would tell him the truth, and Alexander would back off.
Though in ordinary speech “cynicism” has come to mean disillusionment with lofty ideals, the original Cynical tradition was anything but nihilistic. In his lectures on the ancient Greek notion of parrhesia—free or fearless speech—at Berkeley in 1983, Michel Foucault treated Diogenes as a source of the critical tradition of speaking truth to power. By putting himself at risk of wrath and injury, Diogenes exposed the abusiveness and insincerity of the rulers. Socrates tried to get people to see that they were ignorant of their own ignorance, but Diogenes went for the jugular: pride. The Socratic dialogue showed people they were dumb; the Cynical dialogue showed them they were blind.
Foucault called these games “provocative dialogues.” The gamble was that wit and courage could defeat arms and rage.
Diogenes made a nice role model for Foucault and others. He was cool, aloof, and self-contained. He did what he wanted and didn’t owe anybody anything. He broke all the rules in public and lived a life of social transgression calculated to shame the powerful. He met his needs simply. When he wasn’t stark naked, you could imagine him looking good in a turtleneck, shades, and a shaved head.
Alexander, the king of the world, admired Diogenes for his freedom. Alexander was free to do what he wanted within the limits of other people’s gold and cooperation—meaning that Alexander was profoundly dependent on cajoling, flattery and coercion. In other words, not very free.
Embarrassing the Strong
The kinds of provocations that Diogenes engaged in have long played a role in struggles of the weak against the strong. Jesus of Nazareth refused to answer his accusers and engaged in enough provocative public behavior, sarcastic metaphors, and contempt of ruling authority to invite some scholars to see him as a kind of Cynic. (His enduring image as a man with long hair, a beard, and flowing robes has the look of a Cynic.) Francis of Assisi once crashed his own birthday party disguised as a beggar to see how his professedly Christian friends would treat a stranger in need.
The “Yankee Diogenes” Henry David Thoreau made a show of going to jail to protest US imperialism in Mexico and was annoyed when a well-meaning person paid the poll-tax to bail him out. Gandhi led his followers into confrontations where he knew they would be beaten up, and he made sure reporters were on hand to witness and publicize the abuse.
Unions have practiced work-to-rule tactics to make corporate regulations look ridiculous by doing nothing not specified in the books. At Selma and elsewhere, African-Americans and their allies marched into the dogs, guns, and firehoses of Southern law. They provoked white supremacy to show its ugly face. When Martin Luther King Jr, who learned a lot about provocative dialogues from Thoreau and Gandhi, was jailed in Birmingham, the first thing he wanted to know was whether the protests had been covered in the national news.
In this light, the Cynical tradition looks like a formidable tool against injustice. The core Cynical tactic is the delegitimization of power through public embarrassment. If the powerful show themselves incapable of embarrassment, that has usually only served as further proof of their moral failing. But Cynical provocation, I fear, has been hijacked. Today, the tactics that Diogenes, Gandhi, and King used have been taken over by trolls.
Triggering the Libtards
The alt-right has stolen a page from Diogenes’ book. The Essential TRS Troll Guide is written in a bro-ish slang that treats driving “senile old liberal cat ladies into apoplexy” as a kind of massive multiplayer video game; it directs the would-be provocateur not to show emotion, not to rise to the bait. The aim is to goad someone else into getting upset, an act known as “triggering.” In a comic-vulgar kind of sociology of the internet, the guide anatomizes different types of targets and notes the forums that offer a “target-rich environment” of “libtards.” The troll, like a drone operator, does his damage behind the safety of the screen. They get hot, but he stays cool.
The first and most obvious context for the hijacking is technological. It is so much easier to see and share the comic and exasperated results of goading when everyone is armed with a video camera. Gandhi and King relied on sympathetic reporters and editors who worked at trusted news agencies; trolls rely on viral video to stir outrage and lulz and have little interest in context, explanation, or getting their story into establishment media. The Cynical dialogue of provocation is in shambles today in part because it has become so promiscuous in its creation, editing, and dissemination.
But the proliferation of digital outlets does not explain the whole story. Alt-right cynicism is unhinged from an interactive relationship with the target. Diogenes, Gandhi, and King put their bodies on the line: they interacted with their adversaries in the dangerous meatspace of physical presence where face, name, person, and even address are mutually known. You don’t need to doxx someone you are talking to in the flesh.
Sure, most Cynics couldn’t resist a bit of teasing, but the best practitioners used it as a means to midwife the truth, not as an end in itself. Diogenes’ goading of Alexander was not simply hostile; it aimed to help him find a truth that he couldn’t on his own. The lulz-boys have little interest in such mutual discovery. Trolling tactics lack the dialogical bond of questioner and answerer that goes back to Socrates. King, as a hard-headed activist, wanted Bull Connor to stop the violence, but as a Christian, he would have welcomed a penitent Connor into the fold as a brother. A troll, in contrast, relates to his victim as a Pac-Man to a Power Pellet or a windshield to a bug splat.
The Shameless Sovereign
Many would-be Diogenes today do not seek to embarrass those who command armies or police forces but rather those in institutions of higher learning. The alt-right likes nothing better than a sputtering professor. Look online: never before have you been able to watch so many people losing their cool. There are compilations of all kinds of people losing their “sh*t” as YouTube decorously calls it. There is plenty of provocation; not a lot of walking back or revelation of truth.
By standing for reasonable debate, academics are painted as hypocrites who refuse “free speech” if they do not accept the forum-upstaging antics of their foes. The alt-right, who believes in no such thing, can make the liberal call for civil discussion look like the rankest hypocrisy. Cynics might strategically conceal what they believe for temporary effect, but trolls seem to believe in nothing but lulz. They recast what reason does—winnowing wheat from chaff—as an act of censorship. If the act of judgment, the very basis of rationality, is said to be oppression, no wonder liberals keep losing it!
To be a game, the participants have to agree on the frame that “this is play.” The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once made this point brilliantly. Hazing rituals, he said, were governed by the frame “is this play?” Trolls like to claim the prerogative to define an interaction as play when their conduct makes that frame completely unclear. Bateson called situations where the frame and the content clash “double binds.” Though nobody today thinks that they cause schizophrenia (Bateson did), they are still maddening in the deepest way.
Double binds are a recipe for paralysis. When a troll bites, he always claims it is a play bite, even if the victim bleeds. But trolls rarely get bitten themselves. It would be nice to see one put his body on the line for once. My imagination is battening on the schadenfreude of seeing a little scuffing up, but that is not very nice: to be true to the Cynical tradition, I should step back and see my urge to violence as itself the problem. In the economy of the troll world, however, such lofty refusal to fight back just offers another opportunity for attack. A double bind indeed!
Today we have a troll-in-chief, a provocateur without a dialogical relationship to hold him in check, a master of the immobilizing double bind. Mr. Trump, prone to rage in the West Wing like a mad Renaissance king and breaking all the china in international relations, has no capacity for shame and no ability to contain his wrath. A showboat without a cause, he would have fired Diogenes.
Trump’s shamelessness, as many have pointed out, is part of his magical power. Mere mortals are felled right and left for lesser transgressions than the ones he commits daily. In a society of shame, sovereign is he who defies that logic. The sovereign names the exception. Trump and his trolls name what they do as play but they are always changing the framing. Is that lean-in handshake affectionate or hostile? Is the next tweet going to be redescribed in a subsequent tweet as a joke? Should we be scared spitless or is old Donald just being an idiot again? He is an absolute master at metacommunicative messing.
The Cynics sought to expose the power of the sovereign. They took on empires—of Alexander, the Brits, whiteness. They risked everything in a game that could turn lethal at any moment. Today’s trolls hijack the posture and the provocation of the Cynic to reinforce power—their own.
Cynicism, the unique property of the outsider, turns rank once it enters the gates of power. Instead of stunning power into self-reflection, today’s cynicism shields power. Instead of the truth-seeking stuntsmanship of the self-risking Cynic, we have the collapse of the Cynical tradition into paralysis on the one hand and sovereign self-satisfaction on the other. I’d love to see Diogenes take on Trump and show him who’s boss. He’d find a way.
John Durham Peters is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English & Film and Media Studies at Yale.