The Weirdness of Rhetoric, The Rhetoric of Weirdness

Eric Detweiler

Eric Detweiler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches courses including Digital Rhetoric and Writing, Rhetoric and Recorded Sound, Video Games and/as Literature, and Fermentation, Culture, and Writing. He studies rhetorical theory, the history of rhetoric and writing pedagogy, and digital rhetoric. His scholarship has appeared in such journals as Philosophy & Rhetoric, the ADE Bulletin, and enculturation. He also serves as the managing editor for enculturation’s sonic projects section and runs a rhetoric podcast called Rhetoricity.


We begin with a plaything.

Gorgias, one of those sophists linked with the emergence of rhetoric in ancient Greece, is perhaps best remembered among rhetoricians for his Encomium of Helen—that's Helen of Troy, she so often blamed for causing the Trojan War. In the encomium, Gorgias sets out to "refute those who rebuke Helen, a woman about whom there is univocal and unanimous testimony among those who have believed the poets and whose ill-omened name has become a memorial of disaster. I wish, by giving some to logic to language, to free the accused from blame" (1). In short, Gorgias defends and praises a woman who was widely blamed for the violent actions of a host of men.[1] Even in 2017, that would be no small thing: to stand up for such a woman, to listen to her when she stands up for herself, to challenge the idea that she is to blame for the actions of men even when those men worked to cajole and compel if not outright abduct her? Let's take up an encomium of Tarana Burke (Zayid), of Leigh Corfman (Gattis), of Leeann Tweeden, of Jessica Leeds (Twohey and Barbaro), of Michelle Cottle. That is some significant work.

However, Gorgias does not present his encomium as a weighty thing. He takes his task as a rhetor seriously, but concludes by describing the speech as "Helen's encomium and my own paignion," or plaything (20).[2] It's this kind of impertinence that helped get rhetoric its bad name. Lacking the decency of the Socratic philosopher who merely feigns a lack of knowledge for the sake of a truth yet to be revealed, this sophist has the nerve to admit his playfulness without couching it in fifteen layers of irony. You can't trust these rhetors and rhetoricians, always playing at dissoi logoi and so up front about their playful interest in making the weaker argument the stronger.

But seriously, folks, this playfulness is heavy stuff. On one hand, dissoi logoi, the practice of arguing multiple sides of a controversy, can manifest itself in nasty ways. Just ask anyone who’s found themselves the target of the legion of devil’s advocates waiting to pop up on social media, tossing out endless counterfactuals and redirections—"just for the sake of argument," they might say—in response to all manner of claims (Abebe). In its slimier forms, dissoi logoi can devolve into whataboutism, as in the case of rightwing trolls who attempted to deflect blame from failed Republican Senate Candidate Roy Moore's alleged serial pedophilia by asking, "What about Al Franken?", the former Democratic senator accused by multiple adult women of groping them without their consent—and who resigned amid pressure from other Democrats in December 2017. In such cases, dissoi logoi can become less a practice of thoughtfully inhabiting rhetorical positions with which one disagrees and more a way of constantly displacing the terms of an argument, diffusing meaningful action in response to any particular wrong by pointing to the existence of equivalent (and sometimes not-so-equivalent) wrongs elsewhere.

On the other hand, as George A. Kennedy points out, dissoi logoi and related rhetorical practices can work in the service of justice, helping rhetors and rhetoricians generate new arguments to challenge aspects of the status quo once thought inarguable. Writing about the rhetorical practice of "mak[ing] the weaker argument the stronger," Kennedy argues that "the willingness to ask new questions … proved fundamental to … social and political change" (7). After all, arguments for racial equality between black and white Americans were long seen as the "weaker cause" (7).

In raising these issues, I'm engaging longstanding debates about the relative virtues of rhetoric. Is rhetoric inherently bad, philosophy's ignorant and loudmouthed little sibling? Or can rhetoric go either way, turning good or evil depending on the arguments it's forwarding or the moral fiber of those engaging it? Even Plato seems a little unsure on this point, with his Socrates offering divergent perspectives on rhetoric in the Gorgias and the Phaedrus (Sautman). But while these debates extend back to ancient Greece, they are freshly relevant in the twenty-first century. That’s because the question of whether rhetoric's playfulness is good, bad, and/or ambivalent sounds uncannily similar to questions about the emerging norms and idiosyncrasies of how arguments happen online.

On the Internet

In The Ambivalent Internet, folklore scholar Whitney Phillips and communication scholar Ryan M. Milner examine noteworthy moments and trends that reflect and have shaped how people behave and communicate on the internet. Among the cases they foreground: satirical reviews of pens marketed specifically to women, celebrities inviting fans to ask them questions on social media only to find themselves relentlessly critiqued and mocked, and Facebook pages where users post "swooning tribute[s]"—maybe ironic, maybe not—to mass shooters (5). As their book's title suggests, Phillips and Milner frame such internet expression as "ambivalent. Simultaneously antagonistic and social, creative and disruptive, humorous and barbed," the cases on which they focus "are too unwieldy, too variable … to be essentialized as this as opposed to that" (10).

In choosing ambivalence as their "explanatory lens," Phillips and Milner shift away from two other possible descriptors for the cases at which they’re looking: "that they are examples of online trolling or that they are artifacts from the weird internet" (7). They set aside trolling, a term that "tends to imply deliberate, playful subterfuge, and the infliction of emotional distress on unwitting or unwilling audiences" (7), in part because the word "tends to minimize the negative effects of the worst kinds of internet behaviors" by framing such behaviors as having a "playful or at least performative intent ('I'm not a real racist, I just play one on the internet')" (8). They set aside weird internet because of weirdness's relativity: "what might be indescribably weird to one person is just a Tuesday afternoon for another" (9). In short, dubbing an internet artifact "weird" depends on a slew of rhetorical questions with no generalizable answers.

That said, weirdness occupies a distinct place in the history of the internet and the way its discourses—particularly the discourses of social media sites like Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter—have developed. Take, for example, Weird Twitter. A 2013 Buzzfeed article entitled "Weird Twitter: The Oral History" opens as follows:

Here are some attempts to describe "Weird Twitter," gathered from around the internet:

  1. "[An] intentionally wrong style of idiotic comedy"
  2. "A loose group of Twitter users who write in a less accessible form, using sloppy punctuation/spelling/capitalization, poetic experimentation with sentence format, first-person throwaway characters, and other techniques little known to the vast majority of 'serious' Twitter users"
  3. "A Cabal of Diaper-Obsessed Madmen"
  4. "A burgeoning comedy subculture"
  5. "[N]ounal phrases referring to surreal compositions of objects" (Herrman and Notopoulos)

As that collection of descriptions suggests, what if anything constitutes Weird Twitter is unsettled. Its character might be most succinctly captured by this 2012 tweet from Twitter user @regisl: "DESTROY NON-WEIRD TWITTER" ("Weird Twitter"). In addition to its brevity and all-caps intensity, @regisl’s tweet is emblematic in that it defines Weird Twitter via a reference to what it isn't. To paraphrase Gorgias's lost work On the Nonexistent, we might say that even if Weird Twitter exists, nothing can be known about it; even if something can be known about it, that knowledge cannot be communicated to others; even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood. A few examples from accounts that are arguably part of Weird Twitter will probably be more helpful than any generic definition:

your body is a ghost factory that takes one lifetime to produce a ghost— kimmy (@ka_waltz)
Hello sir, I-*briefcase full of jellybeans falls open— (@brendlewhat)
I like my women like I like my mushrooms: dirty, hiding behind tress, pigs want her, gills in secret places, she has her own umbrella&mdash, (@TriciaLockwood)
'Have you tired... not thinking about skeletons?' My therapist asks. I look at her. I look at the skeleton inside her trying to trick me— (@Probgoblin)
I saw an ad on craigslist once that said 'free firewood, u collect it' so i wrote to the guy and said 'bud you just wrote an ad for the woods'— (@fart)
[disassembles a toilet blindfolded like it's an M16] [reassembles it][hits stopwatch, notes time][flushes self down toilet]— @PostCultRev
THERAPIST: if his twitter going away made you happy, why not just leave twitter ME:[mentally drafting a tweet re: this exchange] yea maybe— (@electrolemon)

As those examples suggest, the tweets that may or may not constitute something called "Weird Twitter" are often gently or aggressively self-deprecating, include frequent references to the paranormal, and could be fairly described as absurdist and/or surrealist (see McGinnis; Pilsch). In Buzzfeed's oral history, one interviewee resists the label "Weird Twitter," but admits it's "a lot easier than saying 'surrealist narcissists who hate themselves'" (Herrman and Notopoulos). Given these common features, it's tempting to describe Weird Twitter as a place where the joke is always on the person posting, or at least on an existential predicament that the poster shares with others. While sometimes disturbing, the humor of Weird Twitter can be nice, or at least not actively cruel to most other people, in a way that a lot of humor isn't. In late 2017, television critic Sara Ghaleb tweeted a similar claim about a certain kind of "absurdist humor" often associated with internet culture:

I think a lot about how the rise of absurdist humor is linked to the fact it's not at anyone's expense. No old comedian who hates PC culture has ever made anything as funny as that Cold Pockets meme.— (@SaraGhaleb)

Ghaleb's tweet, which garnered over 15,000 retweets and nearly 50,000 likes in its first three days of existence, included the meme in question: an altered image of a box of Hot Pockets. The product name has been photoshopped to read "Cold Pockets," with the microwavable pie's filling replaced with ice cubes.” Instead, change post-colon phrase to “an altered image of a box of Hot Pockets with the product’s name photoshopped to read “Cold Pockets” and the microwavable pie’s filling replaced with ice cubes.” The visual alterations are purposefully clunky, as is the case with many "dank memes" ("Dank Memes").

But while Ghaleb's tweet does capture the spirit of some current iterations of internet absurdity, her characterization of such humor is by no means universal. As has been documented by those who study and write about internet culture, aspects of this absurdism were spawned in earlier online spaces dedicated to pushing jokes to their cruelest, nastiest extremes (Nagle). Phillips and Milner mention "informal 'grossest of the gross' contests … that permeate the trollspace and other corners of the internet where shocking or scarring one's readers is the desired outcome" (43). Of course, such contests and similar kinds of envelope-pushing were around long before the internet, but "the affordances of digital media" have pushed them "into hyperdrive" (Phillips and Milner 16). In the early days of sites like Something Awful and 4chan, a tremendous amount of energy was focused on creating and circulating the grossest of the gross. Consider Newgrounds, an entertainment website founded in 1995 by Tom Fulp that became a sort of clearinghouse for video games developed using Adobe Flash:

Basically in the year … 1999, if you went into any junior high computer lab, some kid would be playing a pop-up Flash game that they should not have been playing in school…. And that game was hosted on Newgrounds…. The reason Newgrounds got so huge is that it wasn't just Tom’s games. He decided to let strangers submit their Flash games, and then have people vote on their favorites. (“At World’s End”)

Among those favorites: Club A Seal, in which you, the player, club seals; Clubby the Seal, in which you play as a vengeful seal who skins human beings; and Assassin, in which clicking on images of popular celebrities would cause their heads to explode. In an episode of Reply All, a podcast about the internet and internet culture, host PJ Vogt says of these games, "It was really gross. And that was the sort of thing that was happening all the time. You had a bunch of smart weird people who were trying to top each other when it came to creating the darkest, most disturbing kinds of games" ("At World’s End"). Imagine one thousand teenage sophists with one thousand installations of Adobe Flash, but instead of praising Helen, they all created games in which players attacked her in the most gruesome possible ways. "Really gross" starts to feel like a serious understatement. Which brings us to white supremacy.

To those unfamiliar with the vagaries of internet culture and its history, the shift from violent Flash games to white supremacy may seem like a non sequitur. It's not. The connections between sites like 4chan and Reddit, culture-war flashpoints like Gamergate (Hathaway, "What Is Gamergate"; Nagle 19), and the crystallization of the "alt-right"—which is at worst a euphemism for "hipster Nazis" and at best a mishmash of far-right fanboys who are more than willing to welcome white nationalists into their midst—have been mapped out time and again (Bernstein; Nagle; Phillips and Milner 81). But even without reading the array of available books and articles on the topic, it isn't hard to see what Newgrounds circa 1999 and the alt-right circa 2017 have in common. Both embrace shock and awfulness for their own sake. In the case of early-days Newgrounds and Something Awful, that might have meant creating a game, meme, or image that was more violent, more disturbing, more gross than anything anyone else had yet been able or willing to create. In the case of the alt-right, it might mean championing constitutionally dubious notions of "free speech" (Goodwyn). For members of the alt-right, it's not just a matter of protecting others' right to say terrible, stupid, and terribly stupid things in the name of constitutional rights (see Phillips and Milner 183). Rather, the propagation of hateful, offensive speech is often positioned as a good thing in and of itself. Here, there is a clear parallel to internet trolls. As Whitney Phillips notes, "'I did it for the lulz' is the troll's catchall excuse, explanation, and punchline" (27). Phillips offers an extended, nuanced account of what "lulz" means, but for the sake of my argument, I'll just note what she positions as the term's most basic definition: "amusement at other people's distress" (27). While part of the joy of trolling comes from causing others distress, another part comes from getting jokes and references that leave others disoriented. Like elementary schoolers creating a secret language shared only with their closest friends, trolls—including if not especially rightwing trolls—take joy in creating and understanding convoluted, nonsensical inside jokes. That is, they take pride in understanding jokes and references that "normies" do not. In "A Normie's Guide to the Alt-Right," an explicitly antisemitic, pro-Nazi article on the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, white supremacist figurehead Andrew Anglin describes the alt-right as a "serious and idealistic" movement characterized by high levels of irony, humor, and vulgarity.[3] Why this combination? Because, as Anglin believes, we live in an "age of nihilism" in which "absolute idealism must be couched in irony in order to be taken seriously. This is because anyone who attempts to present himself as serious will immediately be viewed as the opposite through the jaded lens of our post-modern milieu." The Huffington Post recently published an excerpt from a Daily Stormer style guide that offers rules for writers publishing under Anglin's name (some of Anglin's pieces are ghostwritten). The guide includes this directive: "The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we're joking or not" (Feinberg). It's a line that squares with statements made by Richard Spencer, one of the white nationalist movement's most visible faces. David Alm, who went to graduate school with Spencer at the University of Chicago, spoke with him by phone for a 2017 piece about his current views and their former friendship. Alm's account of their conversation ends with this exchange: "I asked Richard if it would have made any difference if I had been able to see any of this at Chicago and called him out on it, like when I told him he was alienating our classmates. 'No, I don't think so,' he replied. 'I'd just tell you I was joking.'"

But while Anglin and Spencer seem to position ironic deflection and vulgar humor as superficial strategies that help disguise white supremacist ideology, those strategies are a major part of what helps constitute the movement.[4] As tech writer Park MacDougald puts it, "Right-wing message-board subcultures, with their hatred of 'normies' and 'basic bitches,' are radicalizing—albeit with a much different political valence—a contempt for normality inherited from the champions of Piss Christ," the controversial 1987 photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.

In short, while members of the alt-right might be motivated in part by a genuine, idealistic belief in far-right white supremacist ideology, a major part of the movement's draw is the sense of superiority that comes from getting internet jokes that most people don't. Come for the delusions of grandeur that accompany understanding obscure memes, stay for the delusions of grandeur that come from thinking your race is biologically and/or culturally superior to all others.

To their credit, a lot of members of the alt-right are very good at internet trolling. They know how to track a hashtag, coordinate a harassment campaign while maintaining a sliver of plausible deniability, and make a lot of liberals and leftists angry. And liberals and leftists, even establishment conservatives, should be angry, because here we are watching the spread of fascism on the internet and authoritarianism in US politics.

Unfortunately, anger and outrage are not particularly effective rhetorical strategies when dealing with white supremacists who know their way around Instagram (@_joshdavies). As anyone who has ever uttered the phrase "don’t feed the trolls" knows, expressions of earnest moral indignation, even when merited, can just make things worse. Fortunately, neo-Nazis aren’t the only ones who know how internet humor works.[5]

Let's Get Weird

In October 2017, Twitter suspended Krang T. Nelson. Nelson's pseudonymous Twitter handle is a portmanteau of Krang, an anthropomorphic brain and villainous enemy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Craig T. Nelson, a human actor known for starring in the sitcom Coach, and his account was suspended for tweeting the following: "can't wait for November 4th when millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square" (“Antifa Supersoldier Spectacular"; Nelson). As Nelson knew, no such violence was forthcoming. Rather, he was making a joke in response to the following series of events: Earlier in 2017, communist organizer Bob Avakian had encouraged his compatriots to take to the streets to protest the Trump administration ("Antifa Supersoldier"). This protest was to take place on November 4, roughly marking the one-year anniversary of Trump's election. Through a series of seemingly willful misunderstandings, people on the far right conflated Avakian's group, Refuse Fascism, with Antifa, a loose collection of antifascist groups who often counterprotest at far-right events and are more comfortable with violent tactics than most liberal and leftist protesters. While Antifa was not in fact involved, a rumor spread among the far right that November 4 would be the beginning of an Antifa-led civil war against the right. Nelson's tweet was one of many by left-leaning Twitter users meant to lend satirical credence to the misplaced fears of the far right. As another example, consider this tweet from @richard_kyanka: “ANTIFA SUPERSOLDIER UPDATE: my cumbersome mech suit is too large to fit through the door to Arby’s” (“Antifa Supersoldier”).

Self-deprecation, surrealism, a nod to Arby's: the tweet bears many of the hallmarks of Weird Twitter. And yet, perhaps strangely, as of December 2017, @richard_kyanka’s Twitter profile featured a link to Something Awful, one of the sites associated with the emergence of the alt-right's aesthetic. Or perhaps not so strangely: in recent years, Something Awful has become something of a leftist hub. For instance, on December 12, 2017, the top link on the site's homepage was to a piece mocking Democrats' lackluster responses to Republican policy initiatives—not because the piece sympathized with Republican policies, but because its author saw Democrats as too willing to compromise and too invested in outmoded forms of legislative decorum with which Republicans have been more than willing to dispense (Farrell).

And so, while white supremacists continue to successfully populate and agitate in online spaces like Reddit and Twitter, the legacy of early internet awfulness has at least bifurcated. Alt-right trolls keep propagating offensiveness for offensiveness's sake, but many who cut their teeth on sites like Something Awful have combined such sites' disturbing sensibilities with radically inclusionary leftist politics. That's not to place these internet figures and movements beyond reproach. The spaces they inhabit and carve out are, as Nelson's tweet suggests, sometimes willing to evoke (if not actually enact) violence in ways more staid leftists and liberals may find objectionable. Moreover, some may see this loose-knit community's politics, which have much more in common with the Democratic Socialists of America than the Democratic Party, as impractical and bigoted (see Phillips and Milner 189-90; the second half of "Zardulu"). The specter of the "Bernie Bro" looms large here (Halper).[6] However, let me emphasize two characteristics of this subset of Twitter users that I am willing to celebrate without equivocation: they are opposed to Nazis, and they make internet content that the alt-right doesn't seem to know what to do with.[7]

In addition to the Antifa supersoldier tweets chronicled above, let me quickly introduce Senator Bob Doomspeak and Milkshake Duck. Doomspeak is a character created by Twitter user Post-Culture Review (@PostCultRev) during the 2016 presidential campaign. Following an initial tweet that simply read “SENATOR DOOMSPEAK 2016,” @PostCultRev issued a series of tweets detailing Doomspeak’s policy positions:


In September 2017, as the Trump Administration ramped up its deportations and anti-immigrant rhetoric, @PostCultRev resurrected the character as a way to fundraise for the National Immigration Law Center:

For every $500 donated to the National Immigration Law Center I'll record 10 min. of a State of the Union Address by Senator Bon Doomspeak— (@PostCultRev)

Milkshake Duck is also a product of 2016. In June of that year, @pixelatedboat tweeted,

The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* we regret to inform you the duck is racist— (@pixelatedboat)

The tweet summarized what had become a common pattern in internet culture: seemingly innocuous internet celebrities or viral ephemera turned out to have unforeseen ideological baggage (e.g., racism). As the website Know Your Meme puts it, "Milkshake Duck is an internet slang term referring to a representation of a viral internet star who is briefly adored by the public prior to the discovery of their distasteful or offensive past" ("Milkshake Duck").

In short, Antifa supersoldiers, Senator Bob Doomspeak, and Milkshake Duck are representative creations of a politically left and socially conscious but relentlessly playful corner of Twitter. This corner is weird, not ambivalent, insofar as it (a) is characterized by relatively nonambivalent political convictions, (b) relies on a convoluted, heavily referential style of internet comedy that requires even experienced Twitter users to work to keep up, and (c) seeks to alienate and frustrate neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. What I'm referring to as "Weird Twitter" might be normal by certain in-group standards (Phillips and Milner 9), but perpetuates weirdness insofar as the disorienting, fluctuating set of characters, references, and jokes that constitute it remain decisively unsettled and are meant to exclude and throw off a group whose internet culture and political ideology is meant to exclude and throw off everyone else: the alt-right.

As Andrew Anglin would have it, the alt-right's appetite for memes is endless. In fact, Pepe, an unassuming cartoon frog who has become, despite the objections of his creator, a symbol of the alt-right, is a paradigmatic case of a viral character getting milkshake ducked (Gault). Borrowing from the playbooks of social movements driven by marginalized groups with actual grievances, the alt-right has gobbled up and synthesized a huge range of once nonfascist and even antifascist memes, references, and terms. For instance, Anglin notes that "shitlord" "was allegedly used initially … as an insult to racists and misogynists. I don't personally remember it as an insult, however, given that it was so quickly taken on by the Alt-Right and used as a term of endearment and pride". Regarding the alt-right's taste for anime, he writes that despite some white supremacists' genuine appreciation for the medium, "It is also used ironically by many … because it is funny to associate hardcore racism and a love for Adolf Hitler with cute cartoons." However, social media posts scattered across the internet suggest an unwillingness or inability to digest memes like Milkshake Duck. For example, former Reddit moderator and self-proclaimed Hitler aficionado Ian Miles Cheong gripes, “The only people using the term 'milkshake duck' belong to the tiny circle jerk of indie game dev[eloper]s and game journalists. It’s a forced meme” (@pixelatedboat, “Oh no”; see also Morris; Williams).

While the alt-right is often more than happy to absorb seemingly neutral internet content as well as the vitriol of earnest liberals and antifascists, memes like Milkshake Duck are harder to swallow because their aesthetic and origins conflict with, or perhaps are too well-matched to, the alt-right’s simultaneously ironic and self-aggrandizing mythology. It is relatively easy to hijack the emotions of the earnest as well as online trends and movements that use technologies like hashtags because both draw on what Jeff Rice, building on the work of Roland Barthes, calls "the notion of 'icity.'" Barthes notes that when aggregated, certain clusters of symbols and objects prime certain audiences to make particular, sometimes stereotypical associations: "Reading an advertisement for a line of Italian Panzani products, Barthes calls such a message 'Italianicity' for the way the ad's display of ingredients (a tomato, pasta, onions, garlic in a string bag among yellow, red, and green colors) produce a sentiment of being Italian even if one does not know how to use the ingredients to make Italian food" (Rice). Rice extends "icity" into the realm of social media, coining the term "outragicity" to name "the digital aggregation of a variety of items that produce the feeling or sentiment of outrage because of the aggregation created (and not necessarily because of what has occurred)." Like hashtags, outragicity gets prompted by and associated with certain patterns of digital events. And because it operates by relatively established cultural logics, the effects of outrage can, like a hashtag, be predicted, aggregated, tracked, and exploited with relative ease (Koebler). The alt-right is very good at both generating and hijacking outrage and hashtags alike. As Whitney Phillips has argued, internet trolls in general are adept at gaming digital and broadcast media coverage, in part because the practices of trolls and the practices of corporate media are not so different: "The primary difference is that, for trolls, exploitation is a leisure activity. For corporate media, it’s a business strategy. Because they don’t have to take censors or advertisers into account, trolls' behaviors are often more conspicuously offensive, and more conspicuously exploitative. But often not by much" (8). All this is not to say that outrage in the face of smug, ironic white supremacy is unwarranted, nor that outrage and hashtags cannot sometimes be productive political tactics for groups other than the alt-right. It is to say that online weirdness, operating in the self-conscious, relatively decentralized, hard-to-follow registers that characterize internet subcultures from the far right to the far left, offers a different, and in some cases more effective and more joyful, way of responding to or circumventing Nazis on the internet.

In a way, this is a suggestion that echoes Jenny Rice’s reflections on how to respond to the humongous archives presented by conspiracy theorists—a group Anglin connects to the alt-right in "A Normie’s Guide." Rice argues, "the most fitting response to archival magnitude may not begin by addressing the claims made from any particular archive of evidence. Instead, a fittingly aesthetic response to such magnitude interrogates the broader frameworks of coherence, asking whether the sense of the whole that is being advocated seems to us (te doxa) to be coherent" (44). My point, which is somewhat different from Rice's, might be put like this: in the face of white supremacist movements born and raised on the internet, the most effective response might not be a mass of outraged counterarguments—however understandable and morally justifiable outrage might be in such a situation—but to be earnestly, carefully, weirdly incoherent rhetors.

Gorgias Again

We end with a plaything.

As some of my earlier statements might have suggested, alt-right fascists like Anglin bear an odd resemblance to traditional interpretations of Socrates (see Sautman). Writing about Plato's Apology, Iakovos Vasiliou argues that Socrates uses a kind of "conditional irony" to open space for dialogue and persuasion. Knowing that many of his listeners "would be shocked" by what he "thinks is the truth," Socrates speaks in a manner that his interlocutors will assume is ironic, even if he's being forthright, because "the ad hominem approach of conditional irony provides a way of potentially moving them more successfully" (Vasiliou 226). Especially if we assume that Plato held a transcendent, idealistic conception of truth at the time of the Apology's writing, some of Anglin's points begin to sound positively neo-Platonic: "in an age of nihilism, absolute idealism must be couched in irony in order to be taken seriously."

Following Matt Sautman's suggestion that "we must consider, as the Sophists did, what other alternatives exist beyond the borders the trolls make readily apparent," I want to end by connecting the playfulness of Gorgias—a playfulness that is knowing but not necessarily ironic—with the aesthetic and ethos of Weird Twitter. In doing so, I am suggesting something other than (1) imitating the detached, ironic superiority of Anglin and Richard Spencer, and (2) performing the earnest, collective, aggregable outrage that the alt-right is practiced at exploiting—though both those options may still have their place. I simply want to suggest that adopting the spirit of Gorgias's paignion in the context of weird internet discourse provides a potentially inventive way to both conceptualize what’s happening on Weird Twitter and craft indirect rejoinders to hipster Nazis.

It is with three such rejoinders that I will end this project. In addition to Gorgias, my most direct influence is the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Launched in 2012, Welcome to Night Vale is, according to its website, "a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small [and fictional] desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events" (WELCOME). Created by Jeffrey Cranor and former Something Awful writer Joseph Fink, Night Vale deploys many of the tropes of Weird Twitter.[8] The podcast’s Twitter account, @NightValeRadio, features posts like

'NATURE FACTS: Nature will kill you and then make new things from you.'— (@NightValeRadio)
Chant softly and carry a weird stick— (@NightValeRadio)
Tired of your computer running slow? Tired of losing files? Tired? Really tired? Exhausted? Desperate for one moment of true rest? Tired?—(@NightValeRadio)

The podcast itself, not to mention Fink’s and Cranor's personal Twitter accounts, often offers surrealist parodies of conservative talking points. For example, the National Rifle Association is regularly mocked via announcements about Night Vale's fictional branch of the organization: "The local chapter of the NRA is selling bumper stickers as part of their fundraising week…. The stickers are made from good, sturdy vinyl, and they read 'Guns Don't Kill People; It's Impossible To Be Killed By A Gun; We Are All Invincible to Bullets And It's a Miracle'" ("Pilot").

While the show’s storylines, jokes, characters, and hiring practices have a progressive bent (Baker-Whitelaw; Wu), the fact that it's set in a world not dissimilar to the stories of H. P. Lovecraft—but without the rampant racism—makes it easier for these aspects of Night Vale to come across as fantastical narrative details rather than what conservatives might see as "social justice warrior" propaganda. And practically speaking, while crowdsourced transcripts of episodes are easy to find online, the fact that digital audio is a relatively difficult medium to index and search (compared to, say, a particular user's Twitter archive) makes these aspects a few degrees harder to pin down. It is with these factors in mind that I offer the following three pieces of weird sophistry, hoping they might offer some incoherent sense of the kinds of discourse explored above.



[1] For more on Helen, see Vitanza 215-16.

[2] As Debra Hawhee notes, this is one of Gorgias’s “most intensely studied lines” (27).

[3] While “normie” sounds like a straightforward derogatory term for “normal person,” for Anglin, it refers specifically to “individuals who have not yet joined the Alt-Right, remaining trapped in the mental-prison of the Jewish system.”

[4] In any case, this isn’t a novel strategy. As Elaine Frantz Parsons shows in Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan developed intentionally ridiculous iconography and language to help deflect earnest public criticism. Parsons writes, “Ku-Klux would deliberately leave clues of their existence and nature, but in an indirect manner intended to be coy,” fostering a “culture of secrecy, indirect speech, and dishonesty” (187). Both Parsons’ historical observations and the rhetorical tactics documented in this article fit with James Chase Sanchez’s claims about the “versatility, polysemic forms, and textual winks of white supremacist rhetoric” (56).

[5] For more on the strangeness and perversions of social media discourse, see Gunn.

[6] This is not the place to relitigate the 2016 Democratic Party, but it’s worth devoting a few lines to the figure of the “Bernie Bro.” It’s a term used to describe white male supporters of Bernie Sanders who, despite their apparent solidarity with feminist and other progressive causes, leveled attacks at Hillary Clinton that were, at least according to critics of Bernie Bros, explicitly or implicitly sexist (Halper; Meyer). Now, it is certainly the case that some of the rhetorical attacks on Clinton made in Sanders’ name relied on sexist tropes, including many iterations of the “Bernie or Hillary?” meme (“Bernie or Hillary?”), and some Sanders supporters were affected by anti-Clinton “Facebook ads and posts generated by Russian operatives” that relied on related tropes (Keating, Schaul, and Shapiro). However, it is also the case that some of the sexist attacks on Clinton ostensibly made by Bernie Bros were made by rightwing politicians and trolls working to foment discord between Sanders and Clinton supporters (Kalper). There are arguments to be made that Sanders paid too little attention to the gendered and racial dimensions of economic inequality, and that his arguments about the shriveling fortunes of the working class sounded a little too much like Trump’s arguments in defense of the white working class (despite the radical differences in Sanders’ and Trump’s policy positions on how to actually address economic inequality). Hillary Clinton certainly fared better with female primary voters, particularly in Southern states, and even more so with black primary voters (CNN). I don’t think these voters were dupes. However, Sanders has high favorability numbers with black voters (Sanders), and it’s easy to overstate the homogeneity of his supporters.

Like Sanders voters, the folks constituting Weird Twitter seem to skew leftist, white, and male—though like determining the true identity of Bernie Bros, determining the demographic makeup of Weird Twitter is made complicated by the incidental and intentional smokescreens and identity play of social media. In short, if you plumb the depths of Weird Twitter, you can find some disturbingly violent, sexually charged tweets about Hillary Clinton. You can find even more disturbingly violent, sexually charged tweets about Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Much of the vitriol directed at Clinton is tied to a deep loathing for the Democratic Party’s relatively centrist strategies and policies. It’s not hard to find, via a quick Twitter search, claims that the Democratic Party is not even center-left, but center-right (@ExistentialEnso). Despite deep-seated policy objections, there is no doubt that some of Weird Twitter’s anti-Clinton vitriol is exacerbated by the fact that Clinton is a woman. Women running for public office face obstacles and backlash that men do not, and Twitter deserves its reputation for being an inhospitable place for women. However, Weird Twitter also includes a number of trans women and black feminists, many of whom affiliate themselves with the generally pro-Sanders Democratic Socialists of America. All this to say that Weird Twitter is by no means ideologically pure or free from highly objectionable content. There have even been times when its dedication to a joke has attracted support from the very alt-right communities Weird Twitter generally combats (Hathaway, “This @dril Joke”). However, neither is it definitively sexist or exclusionary. These issues are complicated and deserving of attention, but beyond the scope of what I can accomplish in this article.

[7] For more on the ethics of social media activism, see Colton, Holmes, and Walwema.

[8] In addition to having roots in the same online communities that gave rise to Weird Twitter, Welcome to Night Vale draws on another weird genealogy: the kinds of “weird tales” popularized by such writers as H.P. Lovecraft—though the show’s creators also decry Lovecraft’s well-documented racism (@happierman; @PlanetofFinks).

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Music Pieces Used

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