A political friend brought my attention to an interesting (and growing) phenomenon in the public sphere: the mining of someone’s distant past for transgressions against current social mandates. Or, more sinisterly, as a means of taking down someone with whom someone disagrees. I won’t recount specific examples here, we’ve all seen them. It’s longest been the case for potential presidents, and it’s increasingly the case for people who aspire to other high offices (Supreme court justice, Senator, Cabinet member, and the like), that any record of a behavior that’s sketchy, or that can be judged as sketchy by today’s standards, even if it was 40 years ago, is a blemish that might be sufficient for some to deem him or her unfit for the office. Or, it might not, depending on that person’s current political leanings (see: the Joy Behar Rule).

But, as the outrage machine becomes more systematized and institutionalized, and as the Internet ages (and etches an ever-greater chunk of each life in stone), it becomes more and more important that people take extra care not to say or do anything that might, at some future date, work against them and their life prospects. The best advice I could offer a kid nowadays is to never put anything on the Internet that might be even slightly embarrassing, ever.

Enter the thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. The relevant parallel: “it suggests people should weigh possible punishment versus reward and as a result accept particular singularitarian ideas or financially support their development.”

Or, if you don’t act in a sufficiently “woke” fashion today and forever after, your future is in peril. While the definition of “woke” is fluid, it already requires proactiveness. It’s not enough to respect and hold positive opinions of all oppressed identity groups and favor progressive policies. One must act to advance those policies and act in support and favor of oppressed identity groups. We see this the re-definition of racism to combine bigotry with power, meaning that in order to be not-racist, you have to act in ways that favor minorities, rather than merely treating everyone equally.

And, if you don’t, if you are aware of the supposed injustices and inequities that “woke” informs in us all and don’t do anything (or enough) about it, ten years from now, you may catch the eye of the scolds, who may choose to pursue your personal destruction because you didn’t do enough in your past to satisfy their agenda.

There are social pressures that we all face every day. Many are positive – being a raging, n-bomb dropping, minority-hating racist is objectively wrong in a society predicated on equality, and those who behave that way face public censure. Unfortunately, some are negative. Voicing political views contrary to the prevailing ones in any gathering is risky, and those who do usually have to tread more carefully than those who repeat the popular consensus. It’s not ideal – it would be a better society if we could have political disagreements without fearing that things turn personal. But, even that dampening of the free exchange of ideas isn’t all that tragic.

What is tragic… nay, what is frightening, is the doctrine that personal destruction is to be inflicted upon anyone unlucky enough to piss off the social justice crowd. The most obvious recent example is the deluge of utterly unwarranted hatred, smears, and assaults upon 16 year old Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High student who got photographed during a confrontation initiated by Native American activist Nathan Phillips, but there are countless others. Context, full stories, anachronism, and even unassailable truth don’t matter to the outrage crowd, and this creates enormous pressure to keep one’s head down, to avoid doing anything that might possibly be force-fit into a social justice transgression peg-hole.

How far are we from widespread homage to Roko’s Basilisk, where people feel that keeping quiet isn’t enough, that they are instead obligated to actually do stuff that goes against their beliefs in order to keep the social justice hounds at bay? We already see pressure on businesses towards “social responsibility,” whatever that happens to mean in a given moment, even when such actions go against their business (i.e. shareholders’) interests.

Does the social justice wolf-pack now require us to act affirmatively to advance their agenda, in word, in deed, and with money, instead of being content that we keep our heads down and mouths shut? If we don’t do enough “good” today, will the hounds take note ten years from now and do as they do?

C.S. Lewis once observed:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Big government is evil, but it is lazy, it moves slowly, and it often sleeps. Even the oppressed in totalitarian societies find respite in simply keeping quiet and occasionally going through the motions. Yes, it sucks, and it’s murderous, but it’s not omnipresent.

A totalitarian society (i.e. the people among whom we live and with whom we interact) wrapped in its own righteousness, on the other hand, has an endless supply of viciousness to go with a bottomless voracity. The outrage machine is inexhaustible, with fresh howlers always ready to fill in for those who might grow weary. It’s greatly magnified by technology, and social media in particular, where being the loudest and most outraged garners the greatest reward. And, that same technology makes us all more vulnerable. Everything we share across social media has the potential to be mined 5, 10, or 20 years from now, should someone decide we need to be knocked down a peg, and the accumulation of Big Data means we can’t even protect ourselves simply by being quiet. Don’t do enough work for the right causes? Guilty!

This is where we are headed: a society where we are all coerced to speak our words, live our lives, and spend our money a certain way, or risk personal and fiscal ruin. Hyperbole? Today perhaps, although there are already many whose lives and prospects are forever damaged merely for offending the wolf-pack’s sensibilities.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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