Liars Seize Upon Rolling Stone Cover To Score Points On Their Opponents
I falsely accused someone of being vaguely pro-terrorist! What’s my prize?
If you haven’t read Janet Reitman’s excellent piece in the Rolling Stone where she pieces together the story of how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who seemed to be a totally normal teenager with normal teenage concerns, got entranced by the arguments of violent Islamic radicals and decided to bomb the Boston marathon, I highly recommend it. Reitman wrote a marvelous book about the history of Scientology and so she’s really in her wheelhouse here on the subject of religious fanaticism, power, and violence. Good stuff.
The accompanying cover illustrates the themes of the story perfectly:
The image is of a young, handsome man who has his generation’s aesthetics down cold with his pitch-perfect Instagram-filtered selfie. He looks so normal, so much like any kid his age. And yet, as the caption says, he’s a monster. Sometimes the monster is the guy next door, the charming and handsome kid from your class that everyone likes. The point couldn’t be more crystal clear, which is that you can’t tell just by looking at someone—or even knowing them—what’s going on in their heads. They might seem perfectly normal, but inside, their ability to feel basic human compassion is being warped by a radical, nationalistic, right wing, fundamentalist ideology.
On a related note, my Twitter feed this morning was swarmed by another, usually less violent, breed of people whose ability to perceive the common humanity of all has been slowly destroyed by radical, nationalistic propaganda: The all-American right wing nut.
Apparently, a lot of people reject Reitman’s thesis that the monster sometimes comes with an attractive face. They prefer a more Disney-fied version of the world, where the bad guys always have warts on their noses and wear black hats, and the good guys are always handsome and wear white hats. Anyone who dares point out that the world doesn’t actually work that way—and that you can’t tell by looking at someone what kind of rot is going on inside—will be summarily accused of being the worst person alive, a non-person really, a supporter of terrorism, etc.
I get that some more well-meaning people are upset by the Rolling Stone cover, though they are equally wrong and their arguments are surprisingly weak. Like I said on Sulia, they are engaging in old-fashioned rationalization. The cover is upsetting; it’s meant to be upsetting to realize that we can’t just tell who the bad guys are by looking at them. Instead of letting that percolate for a moment and cause some self-reflection about how we unfairly judge on appearances, a lot of people just get angry instead and start casting around for excuses why it’s the fault of Rolling Stone, and not their own hostility towards self-reflection, that is the problem here. If you want to know more about the psychological process of rationalization, which is something we all do (though frankly, not to the level of people looking for any reason but themselves that this image unsettles them), I recommend the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
Rationalization happens, but what I’m seeing above is a different thing entirely: Conservatives disingenuously pretending that I said I support terrorism, the bombing, or that I’m just a generally evil person. They’re doing it for no other reason than to score points. I mean, I suppose some of them may have convinced themselves that I, Reitman, or the Rolling Stone is actually pro-terrorism. After all, conservatives are in the habit of supporting people who commit senseless violence for ideological reasons all the time, from the Iraq War to George Zimmerman. So maybe, since they do it, they imagine that other, less warped people do it, too. But I promise, we don’t! I’m against senseless violence in all its forms. And unlike anyone who supported the Iraq War, I can say that without being a liar.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on. They’re doing this to score points. It’s a big game of “gotcha”, where they pretend that they “caught” a liberal supposedly supporting terrorism—which of course, absolutely did not happen—and they feel that even though they are definitely cheating at their imaginary game by lying, they still get the “points”. Who awards the points and what they’re good for is hard to determine. Do they get to turn in the points for fabulous prizes? Collect 50 false accusations of supporting terrorism, and get an oversized teddy bear for your lovely date? Who the fuck knows?
I do know this, however: The day you seize on an pretense, no matter how transparently awful, to falsely accuse someone of being somehow in favor of terrorism when you know goddamn well they are not, you are giving away any claim to having a basic sense of decency. I never stop being amazed at the depths to which right wingers in this country will sink, honestly, though it sure does get my “block” button on Twitter a workout.
However, that cover came out when there wasn’t a lull in the news cycle that conservatives could exploit to insinuate that the “liberal media” secretly supports Islamic terrorism. So it wasn’t turned into a manufactured controversy that some well-meaning but extremely dim people have been swept up into. Something to think about.
Of course, since the people freaking out over this are deep in a rationalization spiral, they are swiftly trying to come up with Reasons that this isn’t the same. Because the possibility that their knee-jerk response to be mad at Rolling Stone for making them sad about the sad thing was inappropriate cannot be entertained. Reasons, reasons, reasons will be generated endlessly for why their knee-jerk reaction is the correct one.