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Avoid Borg Brain

In America the Israel-Hamas war is a media event, which these days means it is a progressive crusade. And we have a script for those.

Park MacDougald
November 09, 2023
Oct. 30, 2023

Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Image

Oct. 30, 2023

Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Image

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One of the remarkable things about watching “the discourse” around the Israel-Hamas war evolve in real time is observing how similar this issue is to … every other issue over the past half-decade. I’m talking about Americans here, and the way we “discuss” current events. In real life, of course, there’s a real war going on, with real bombs, bullets, artillery shells, tunnel networks, and people, thousands of whom are now really kidnapped, wounded, or dead. There are also real histories and motives on both sides of the war, some noble, some ugly, but few exhausted by the categories—colonialism, racism, the binary of oppressor and oppressed—through which allegedly enlightened Americans make sense of the world.

All of that, however, is happening in the Middle East. Here in the United States, the war is a media event, which these days means it is a progressive crusade. And we now have a script for those, familiar from previous crusades against “police brutality,” “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” “the gender binary,” “COVID disinformation,” and the like. This script resembles what we used to call argument, in that strong factual claims are made that in turn imply some urgent course of moral action. But as anyone who attempts to engage with these claims will soon discover, they have nothing to do with argument in any traditional sense. They are instead examples of what Jacob Siegel has described as the latest “new truth”—moral commandments backed by emotional blackmail.

For instance, take the claim: America is helping Israel commit a genocide, just like Nazi Germany did, therefore you must support an immediate cease-fire, or else you are a Nazi genocidaire. Seems simple enough. But if you ask in what sense Israel’s war in Gaza constitutes a genocide, defined as the “systematic and widespread extermination or attempted extermination of a national, racial, religious, or ethnic group,” it turns out there is no answer. Or rather, the answer is that you are a bad person for quibbling over definitions in the midst of a moral emergency.

But wait, you might say, if there is no genocide, wouldn’t that imply that there is no moral emergency—certainly none greater than Pakistan’s plan to expel 1.7 million Afghans at the start of winter, leading to certain death for many, or Azerbaijan ethnically cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of more than 120,000 Armenians, or the deaths of as many as 600,000 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray war, all of which are also happening now and none of which anyone cares about—or at least that the moral questions involved are more complicated than whether you support or oppose Nazis?

In an argument, that would be a valid point.

Except you are not having an argument; you are walking into a trap. The point is not to convince you, a person earnestly trying to make sense of the world, that the claims are correct. The point is to isolate you and your messy humanness. To convince those around you and your interlocutor—friends, colleagues, parents, children, employers, spouses—that the only reason someone would disagree with the claim that a genocide is happening is if they disagree with the moral claim that genocide is bad. You may think you are questioning the facts, but what you are actually doing is outing yourself as a genocidaire—and, maybe worse, as a human being.

These new crusades are a product of social media. They operate through viral memes, images, and emotional cues filtered deliberately through TikTok and Reddit, which provide the nodes in the network—formerly known as “people”—with narratives for how other nodes “like them” should interpret the firehose of information they consume daily through their smartphones. To consider the outward formulations of this process as “ideas” is, in a sense, a category error. These campaigns are instead more like software updates, which is how hundreds of thousands of college students who a month ago could not have located Israel on a map became, overnight, experts on Israeli “apartheid” and “occupation.” The signal went out, and the nodes fell in line.

Instead of human matter, their brains are filled with magnetic poetry words whose valences can be changed in 60 minutes via social media. Nothing refers to anything real. The concept of real is actually controlled by a higher narrative function (HNF), whose location outside themselves brings them peace. Then they give each other little dopamine hits for rapid narrative alignment (RNF). Heavier-seeming words—“genocide,” “Mossad,” “trans suicide,” “ACAB”—give heavier hits.

What’s missing is any internal logic, or personal or historical engagement. All the intermediate structures and steps are missing. There are simply predetermined triggers for preexisting emotions. Indeed, whether or not the latest software update is “true” is beside the point; to reject it would mean to fritz out. Well, that or escape the network and become human—which most nodes consider too hard, too alienating, too rooted in the body and other gross things.

Humans think. They argue, pore over ideas, go back and forth, consider alternatives, entertain doubts, change their minds. They get things wrong, sometimes embarrassingly so. But most of us are not, or were not until recently, computers, mouthing half-understood viral jargon to signal allegiance to some Borg-like collective intelligence. And you shouldn’t either, if you want to continue to be a person.

Park MacDougald is senior writer of The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon newsletter.