Let's say that tomorrow you are elected Secret Ruler of the USA, a position that gives you total power over the government, economy, and the culture at large -- everything that hippies refer to as "the system." Now, your first job is to not get beheaded by rioting peasants, which means your first job is really to maintain "stability" (i.e., "keeping things mostly the way they are").
Immediately you'll find that you're facing a never-ending stream of protests from disgruntled groups who say they're being treated unfairly or otherwise getting left out -- this group over here is upset that somebody got abused by the police; this other bunch is demanding better wages or something. How do you handle it? Sure, you could crush their movements with an iron fist, using violence to kill, intimidate or arrest their most vocal members. But that can backfire, often turning them into martyrs and proving them right in the process -- you've seen Star Wars; somebody always finds the exhaust port.
No, what you need is to get the majority on your side, against those vocal complainers. Fortunately for you, the "system" comes with a number of refined and subtle processes designed to make sure the complaints of the few get ignored by the many. First, all you have to do is ...
This might literally be the oldest trick in the book. I'm thinking powerful people have been doing this to protesters and activists since the days when getting gored by a mammoth was a leading cause of death. It plays out like this:
A) A certain group has a complaint -- they're being discriminated against, had their benefits cut, whatever -- but they are not the majority.
B) Because the majority is not affected, they are largely ignorant and uninterested in what is going on with the complainers. The news media does not cover their issue, because it's bad for ratings.
C) To get the majority's attention, the group with the complaint will gather in large numbers to chant and block traffic, etc. This forces the media to cover the demonstration (since huge, loud groups of people make for good photos and video) and cover the issue in the process (since part of covering the protest involves explaining what is being protested). In America we've seen this tactic used by everyone from impoverished war veterans, to women seeking the right to vote, to the protests about police violence you're seeing all over the news right now.
"Can you do that again? My lens cover was on."
D) To counter this, all you need to do is simply wait for a member of the activist group -- any member -- to commit a crime. Then the media will focus on the crime, because riots and broken glass make for even more exciting photos and videos than the demonstrations. The majority -- who fears crime and instability above all else -- will then hopefully associate the movement with violence from then on.
Parasol violence is the most destabilizing kind.
E) You, in your quest to keep the system from changing, can now reframe the issue not as oppressors vs. the oppressed but as citizens vs. criminals -- supporting their cause means supporting violence. The TV will be full of images of burning convenience stores and looted storefronts, at which point the majority will then smirkingly say, "I would never protest government oppression by mindlessly destroying someone's private property!"
"I mean, why can't they protest within the law? You know, like Martin Luther King? That's why he was universally respected in his day!"
"And let's face it, the fact that they're resorting to violence and petty destruction of property proves that they're really just criminals looking for an excuse to misbehave!"
Now, keep in mind, not even the people repeating this will actually believe it -- America's pop culture and actual history are both full of heroes who broke the law and destroyed shit when the system failed them (you know Batman ain't got no permit to fly that plane). To this day we applaud when oppressed peoples in other countries do it. So when someone says we should ignore a movement because they're a bunch of "thugs" and their bleeding heart friend points out that the same could be said of the Founding Fathers, they'll shift gears immediately. "Are you honestlycomparing the protesters in Ferguson with brave imprisoned heroes like Thomas Paine? He campaigned for freedom!"
In other words, they'll quickly admit that the legality of the tactics actually doesn't have any impact on whether or not the cause is just -- disabled veterans and Neo-Nazis alike have gotten tossed in jail for protests that turned ugly. Unruly members don't automatically make a cause wrong any more than they automatically make it right. Everyone will agree this is true and logical, but then five minutes later they will again dismiss an entire cause the moment they see a single burning police car. The success rate of this technique is very high -- today, the only thing most people in China remember about the Tiananmen Square massacre is that it restored stability and order.
And created Human Frogger.
"But since the USA was built on a revolution, won't most people automatically side with the underdog group, even if they step out of line?" This is certainly a danger, which is why the next step is ...
Last year a billionaire investor said criticism of the rich today is equivalent to the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust. He's not having a stroke; he's under the influence of one of the most powerful techniques the system has in its arsenal. To get the majority to ignore complaints by any disadvantaged group, you simply insist that disadvantaged group has the real power and that the powerful majority is thus the underdog. It usually involves the following steps:
A) Find an example of a successful member of the disadvantaged group and exaggerate their power.
B) Say or do outrageous things until the victim lashes out, then accuse them of censorship/oppression.
C) Accuse the victim of enjoying their victimization and/or doing what they do purely for publicity. Insist they were asking for it and were the real driving force behind the harassment all along.
I'll give you a couple of real-world examples, and trust me: Once you get the hang of it, you'll start to see this everywhere.
Or just randomly browse to literally any political blog. Or any website, really.
Let's say your country has a rapidly worsening poverty problem, and the impoverished are getting noisy. A) requires you to insist that those at the very bottom -- the ones depending on government assistance to buy food -- are actually rich. This would seem like an impossible if not ridiculous task, but all it takes is a Photoshopped image showing a massive food stamp balance on a receipt from a liquor store, and the majority will share it on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times. Or, find a video of a beggar who is caught driving a luxury car, and it will be blasted from the headlines as a typical example of a poor person. Next comes B): The moment anyone calls bullshit, cry censorshipby insisting you're a martyr of "Political Correctness." And then we get to C), in which you say that the activists supporting the victims of your attack are only in it for the money or attention.
That's all there is to it. Three simple steps -- exaggerate the victim's power to get the public on your side, get the victim to lash out so you can claim victimhood yourself, insist all of their complaints are disingenuous. Boom. Done.
Time to sit back and put your feet up, preferably on the back of a disenfranchised scapegoat.
And just to be clear, the narrative being put forth above -- that everyone claiming to be poor is secretly rich -- is once more not something that anyone actually believes. Offer anyone saying it the chance to live in the public housing projects or trailer parks where these secretly rich welfare queens dwell and all you'll see is a cloud of dust and a tiny silhouette sprinting off into the horizon. But you don't need the majority to actually believe it, only to "believe" it.
That's why this works with any group, no matter how laughably the balance of power is tilted in their favor. The petroleum industry is making $200 billion a year in profits. If you want to portray them as the gritty, oppressed underdog, just A) talk about how these poor guys are constantly getting bullied by the vicious and hugely powerful environmental lobby ...
... and, seriously, don't be afraid of using words like "bullied," even when talking about what is literally one of the most wealthy and powerful groups in all of human history. Actual quote: "But if anyone was being bullied here, it was Chevron ... it is almost impossible for an oil company to get a fair hearing in a world brainwashed by environmentalist propaganda." Of course, that bit about not getting a "fair hearing" covers B), the accusation of censorship and cry of victimhood. Then, C) you talk about how environmentalists are only in it for the money (in this case, Al Gore), and there you go -- soon you'll have common folks looking at rising gas prices and saying, "Thanks a lot,Greenpeace."
Luckily for Chevron, their position was so just it required only 60 law firms to defend.
And while just mentioning this makes me tired all over, the whole GamerGate thing last year was actually a textbook example. The guy behind it needed to rally an overwhelming male majorityagainst an unknown, amateur female game developer, so he A) literally claimed she was being worshiped as a "false idol" that needed to be brought down, then for good measure the harassersinsisted she was secretly a powerful agent for a U.S. government propaganda operation. Then, B) when the resulting harassment got bad enough that she had to get a fucking restraining order, theycalled it censorship. And of course, C) when she received donations from sympathetic supporters, they declared that this proved she was only in it for the money.
Ten years earlier, they did it to another female developer named Kathy Sierra, following the exact same template. The playbook never changes because it never stops working -- in three simple steps you can get mobs to bully anyone on your behalf, all while claiming heroic victim status. After all, what tactic is off the table when you're taking on an unstoppable giant who is trying to bully you and silence criticism for fame and profit?
One advantage you have in your role as Secret Ruler is that your citizens are drowning in information. They have shit flying in from all directions, lots of voices demanding their attention or action on a daily basis. These well-meaning people each have lots of problems in their own lives, so they have to choose carefully when deciding what "issues" to worry about and which ones to ignore. Most of them will make this decision very quickly, based on whatever information is most readily available to them. Your job, then, is to make sure that they are exposed only to the most ridiculous or obnoxious examples of the issue or group you want to make go away.
Which is to say, you'll probably want to turn to cable news.
In the interest of balance (since I mentioned GamerGate above) let me pick a recent example where this was used against men's rights activists. There was a minor furor on the Internet when the movieMad Max: Fury Road debuted, resulting in headlines like "Mad Max: Fury Road draws the ire of men's rights activists," with the articles talking about how the "the community" of men's rights types was up in arms over the film and organizing a boycott due to the fact that it contained some supposedly feminist messages among the constant stream of deformed people getting obliterated in car crashes (hint: Mad Max is actually not the main character).
I laughed when I saw those headlines and retweeted the articles. Ha, these MRA dipshits will get mad about anything! But a few days later, a slight amount of digging revealed that, despite the fact that those headlines implied a massive nationwide movement, the "boycott" was actually one single crazy person complaining about the movie in a blog post at a fringe men's rights website. The guy is not prominent in the movement in any way -- he spends his time posting YouTube videos that struggle to surpass 2,000 views. So why did the blogosphere trumpet his ramblings as if he was the most prominent spokesperson for the movement? Because he made the movement look ridiculous.
Which should sound awfully familiar to any of the millions of Christians in this country
who are stuck answering for these 39 assholes.
See, by highlighting the silliest of complaints from a group, you inoculate the audience against any real complaints that might come along later, creating a knee-jerk dismissal any time, say, a male reasonably complains about how even men get screwed by gender roles or when another has a legitimately fucking horrible story to tell. "Ha," the people will say, "these are the same guys who cried over Mad Max having a female hero!" No, they're not, unless we're literally talking about Aaron Clarey. "Who?" Exactly.
Likewise, there are lots of groups out there looking out for the welfare of animals, but I bet the only one you can name is PETA, because they're the ones doing stupid shit like insisting people call fish "sea kittens" and staging naked protests that convey no useful information whatsoever. This way, when anyone challenges actual horrific practices in big-money industries (like factory farming or pet stores selling animals from cruel puppy mills) you'll roll your eyes and say, "It's probably those PETA freaks, at it again!"
"Was meat not enough? Are they trying to ruin nudity now, too?"
Because they're ridiculous, they get all the coverage and become the face of the movement. And, as a result, no meaningful change will occur.
Once again I don't need to go on and on about why this is illogical -- the existence of a frivolous complaint doesn't automatically mean there are no more serious ones to be found in that direction. A person dying from cancer can still complain about their favorite TV show getting canceled; that doesn't mean that their cancer must not be a big deal and that it can safely go untreated.
Also, notice how we're always making it personal -- as demonstrated above, you don't talk about global warming, you talk about Al Gore. You don't talk about systemic racism, you talk about Al Sharpton's unpaid taxes. Don't talk about income inequality, talk about how Occupy Wall Street kids all have iPhones.
Now, part of your problem is that these activist groups will often appeal to the majority's sympathy, and that's a powerful thing considering most of us like to think of ourselves as nice, sympathetic people.
As we mentioned above, the average person has only so much room in their brain and time in their day to devote to "issues" they need to worry about. Sympathy requires energy, and we have a finite amount to spend. Well, there is a subtle way that you can actually use this to your advantage, by implying that in fact there is only so much sympathy in the world and that paying attention to this one complaint somehow means subtracting attention from another. This lets you play two groups of victims against one another, as they fight for their share.
The beauty of this one is that even well-meaning people fall for it -- it's why the infamous false rape story in Rolling Stone became such an explosive issue for both "sides." Any talk of men getting screwed over by false rape accusations (like this guy who spent five years in jail before being exonerated) must mean you're neglecting rape victims or being a "rape apologist." Why can't we be sympathetic to rape victims and men who've been falsely accused? Because there is only so much sympathy to go around, dammit!
See, that means we must focus only on the more serious of the two problems, and collectively rape victims are more numerous and have it much worse than falsely accused rapists. Expressing concern for the latter must surely be the result of an ulterior motive! The idea that in reality they both have a common enemy -- that is, a culture that has no fucking idea how to deal with sexual assault -- is swept aside. You know, kind of like how the poor racist in the trailer park and the poor black dude in the inner city would never consider that they're both getting railroaded by the same economic system, just in different ways. "What?" each of them will say, "You're comparing my suffering withhis?"
If you can just convince them it's a competition, they'll spend all their energy hating each other and none of it trying to fix the system. The guy in the trailer park doesn't blame the bankers for the economy, he blames minorities and immigrants. Only one of us can be the true victim here, dammit!
"I can't help but feel like this is a hollow victory."
What this also does is it lets the majority dismiss a group's complaint by insisting it's really because they're so much more worried about some other problem. If low-income Americans complain about high unemployment and stagnant wages, then you talk about how much worse off the poor are in Europe and how much less workers are getting paid in China. If Western feminists complain about pay gaps or abortion rights, you point out how much worse women have it in other countries (sample quote: "Visit the homepage of the National Organization For Women, the largest feminist group in America, and the top issue is abortion. [...] Meanwhile, in the Middle East, women are fighting for the right to attend school, to vote, avoid forced marriage, and even the simple ability to drive a car."). Do you see the trick? "We shouldn't do anything about your problem when these other people have it so much worse. Also, we're not going to do anything about their problems, either." The result: Nothing changes.
Or, even weirder, you can get people to refuse sympathy for a cause by instead giving it to one that doesn't actually exist -- usually by targeting a version that existed in the past. Talk about how "real" feminism was women back in the day fighting for the right to vote, but insist this "new" feminism is all about trivial bullshit (see, because that means that you'd totally have been on feminism's side back then). Or, while deriding every single African American activist or cause, insist that you'd have been marching right alongside MLK if you'd been around in the 1960s. You know, back when the movement was respectable. "And after all, how can these people make such a big deal out of incarceration rates and substandard schools when they used to get lynched? So I'm gonna sit this one out, but if you ever find a time machine, I'll be there for ya, buddy!"
"You're receiving anti-Semitic threats? Pfft. Call me if you go back to being pursued by a pharaoh."
Logically, of course, you could use this same reasoning to dismiss literally any complaint made by anyone on Earth, ever, as long as they're not the one single person who is suffering the most ("Well Iknow a guy who got his dick caught in a coffee grinder twice, and he didn't miss work!"). But it works because your audience wants a reason to dismiss these issues and this is a way to let them do it while still feeling like they're good people. "It's not that I lack sympathy! I just save it for things I can't actually do anything about."
This is the "love it or leave it" fallacy, and boy does it work. As the Secret Ruler in charge of making sure no meaningful change ever happens, this is your trump card.
Remember, humans are naturally risk-averse -- people will stay in bad jobs and relationships and keep destructive habits, for fear that trying to fix the bad shit will result in losing everything. This is why people are afraid to take anti-depression meds ("Sure, it might make the depression go away, but what if I also lose the cool, edgy parts of my personality?"). So in order to tap into that fear, all you have to do is portray any criticism of the current system as an attack on everything we hold dear:
"You're criticizing police for excessive use of force? Well let's see how you like it when the cops don't show up at all!"
"You say you want to cut the size of government? Then why don't you see what it's like to live in Somalia, where they have no government!"
"You've got problems with the current economic system? Then you must be a communist!"
"Oh, you're worried about pollution? Then you must want a world without electricity!"
"Oh, there's a bug in your soup? I guess you'd rather starve?"
It's a pretty simple trick -- just ignore every possibility that involves simply improving the current system and imply that in order to reap its benefits we must accept every single aspect of the status quo, including the parts that grind people into hamburger. It won't matter that you can't actually spell out why improvements are impossible, since the fear centers of the brain are inherently irrational. "Gay marriage proponents secretly want to destroy all marriage? Sure, makes sense to me!"
And now you can see how this can be combined with the techniques above. Violence during the protests just proves that what these people really want is the destruction of civilized society! And you, the powerful majority, are actually the brave last line of defense of all that is good against the massive hordes of irrational freaks! And so on.
Remember, this is what the people want to believe (or "believe"). That's why, in the real world, it doesn't take a Secret Ruler to put all of this in motion. With just a little nudge, the people -- even the good people -- will do it themselves. Just look around.
David Wong is a NYT bestselling author, and his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound,iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first five chapters for free by clicking below: