It’s the age old conundrum of the internet: How do you tell if someone is sincerely terrible, or if they are just trolling?
Or as Socrates would’ve put it: ‘Is this knob saying stuff because he is actually a knob? Or is he just saying it to troll people and get attention? Is the latter a knobbish enough act so as to by itself make the former true?’
Perhaps Shakespeare said it best: ‘Beware the man who doth acteth the cockwomble, for the cockwomble too long acted doth become the cockwomble being.’
To wit: This bloke, Jesse Kelly, a right-wing radio host in the Texas area, as well as a contributor to The Federalist and NRATV (‘America’s Most Patriotic Team on a Mission to Take Back The Truth’). He tweeted something over the weekend that got a lot of people in a tizzy. Kelly was apparently at his son’s Lego robotics tournament—a science/engineering competition which involves real programming of autonomous robots—when he decided to tweet a thread commenting on the event that very much played up certain throwback, red-blooded, anti-book-learnin’ masculine tropes.
You get the gist. It went on like that for a little while.
The thread went viral and naturally, as I said, some people were—understandably—displeased. A wave of retorts followed the thread, some from some quite big names.
As is the case with any story of online significance, Buzzfeed picked it up and ran a short story on it. The Houston Chronicle ran a follow-up piece on Kelly after the flare-up in which Kelly was quoted as saying that he was, ‘not sorry even a little bit.’ He also said:
I’ll probably do it again. I think it’s hilarious, as does everyone with a sense of humor.
Every easily offended person out there has tried to attack me for various reasons.
Everyone with a sense of humour thought it was hilarious. Everyone. Remember that, because this is the litmus test from now on. If you ever need to know whether someone has had their humour gland surgically removed, use Kelly’s Twitter thread. Print it out, carry it around with you. If you’re ever on a Tinder date and you’re not sure about the person, boom, there you go: Show them the printout, and unless they collapse into hysterics fuhgeddaboudit. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate quality material like ‘Ha! Nerds. Sport. Amirite?’ is not worth your time. Down your drink and get outta there.
And, I mean, it was quite obvious from reading Kelly’s original thread that he was joking, though the quality of the jokes may well be up for debate.
When it comes to outrageous statements designed to provoke a reaction, intention is obviously important. Sometimes there is a very fine line between satire and sincerity. When Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver fame) wrote his satirical essay ‘A Modest Proposal’ in 1729, describing in it his solution to the woes of the impoverished Irish—sell your children as food to wealthy aristocrats—the reaction ran the gamut from outrage from people taking it at face value to equally straight-faced responses knowingly riffing on the idea. Swift’s essay was a very sincere-seeming bit of outrageous satire. The point of good satire is to speak truth to power, to mock the powerful, to highlight some hypocrisy or injustice using dark humour to drive the barb even deeper. Swift was using the blackest of humours—poor people should sell their children to rich cannibals to temporarily alleviate their financial woes—to shine a light on the criminal material gulf between the classes. His scenario seems so cartoonishly monstrous yet if instead of recoiling from it in terror we engage with it seriously we can hopefully start to see how it could easily be a logical endpoint of the more banal horror that we accept as normal. The economic injustices of Swift’s time—and ours—are crimes against humanity. They are avoidable, and they are monstrous. Yet we accept them as normal just because they are commonplace and they have crept up on us. Satire like Swift’s focuses the spotlight on the present moment by leaping ahead a few steps into an extrapolatable future. The intention is moral scrutiny. It’s a noble effort.
Just like Swift’s essay, Jesse Kelly’s statements were designed to provoke a reaction. They succeeded, and he reacted with appropriate glee. His timeline is full of him retweeting his critics, and his original thread is also filled with people laughing at the robotics tournament in line with his mockery of it. But whereas Swift wanted to shine a spotlight on economic injustice, what was the intention here? The trouble with the internet, and Twitter especially, is that in creating this points-scoring game for attention it has created a system that selects for and rewards outrageous statements. Complex pictures are flattened and nuance is scrubbed away, with often the pronouncements with tragically loose connections to reality getting the furthest reach. It’s quite tragic when you consider that one of the main contemporary platforms for discussing politics and morals and other such famously complex issues limits the discussions to quanta of 280 characters. But I digress a bit, as clearly Jesse Kelly wasn’t really discussing anything complex. He was just playing up age-old toxic stereotypes for laughs, but he was doing so in outrageous form that Twitter encourages. Judging by his career choices he makes a living working for toxic outlets in general. Even if he could reasonably claim to have been ‘just joking’ and not actually believing what he said—not that he is doing the latter at all—it would make little difference. He was just continuing the proud tradition of saying unimaginative cockwomblish things for cheap laughs and attention. Intention is important, but it isn’t everything. Of crucial importance is also what you actually put out into the world. Andrew Gillum said it best in his race against Ron DeSantis. In a statement that will go down as one of the most clever and well put of recent years, Mr. Gillum said: ‘Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.’ It doesn’t even matter whether Kelly really is a bit of a knobhead; he’s certainly doing at the very least a very good, long impression of one, judging by all the info out there.
Now, I followed this saga quite closely over the weekend. I’m still following it now. I’ve just written I-don’t-wanna-know-how-many words about it here. Why? I guess it annoyed me. The whole sequence. The fact that this dude put out such an arse-backwards, cliched toxic masculinity take; and that when people rightfully called him out on it he gleefully revelled in all the ‘outrage’ and ‘hurt feelings’ he caused amongst the easily offended liberals. Doesn’t it just leave a bad taste in your mouth? Who knows if he said it with the intention of causing such blow back because that’s what he lives for, or if he started to pretend that that’s what he always wanted to happen after it started happening. It’s all just so meaningless and empty. Such a tragic endpoint to the very essence of our humanity. Communication. Discourse. Dialogue. It’s what dragged us out of the quagmire, raised us up and connected us so that we could build everything. Say what you want about humans—and we are a foul pestilence upon the face of this good green Earth—but we are a miracle too. A filthy, profane miracle, but a miracle at that. And communication makes us that miracle. At first we signalled, then we grunted, then we sent smoke signals, then the letter, then a telegraph and a phone call. Now the whole hive is interconnected, an infinitely complex matrix of nodes and neurons, one part capable of communicating instantaneously with every other part. It’s dizzying, the scale of the achievement. And yet it’s all so nauseatingly banal. A playground of adolescent boys scaled to planet-spanning proportions. ‘Look at the nerd, haha! I was only joking, and now you’re all upset, haha!’ We were born to talk, our fate woven into the fabric that connects us all. And this is the picture that emerges in the tapestry as we’re sent spinning eternally into the void, the oceans boiling and the sky choking with ash, the message spelled out in continent-sized filigree: ‘Lol. Triggered libs.’ That’s what will echo out into the universe. Long after the last remnant of our species has coughed its final breath and the Sun has swallowed up our home. That’ll be our contribution to the grand play. It’s goddamn exhausting. It’s like my Charlie Puth odyssey all over again. And yet I can’t look away. Excuse me, I’m gonna go run through a field of wildflowers or some shit.