Twitter’s Yoel Roth and the one meme that splits every tribe.
Yoel Roth is a human scissor. Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety is a walking, talking, tweeting meme who violently triggers different people in radically different ways. Everyone has to pick a side on the question of whether this man is a hero of the republic whose life is being cruelly imperiled by a fascist oligarch, or a pedo-enabling, police state collaborator who has spent the past seven years silencing his political enemies.
Choose wisely, because whatever side you pick, those who picked the other one will judge you – even if they’re your fellow travelers on every other hot-button issue but this one. Roth has become death, destroyer of worlds.
But hey, many such cases, right? Social media is famously good at regularly presenting us with these tribal forks in the road, where we must pause a moment and decide if we’ll continue on with our present company, or strike out in a different direction with a handful of more like-minded souls.
Crucially, what increasingly has the final word in deciding which path we take is not ideology, class, ethnicity, or religion, but something far baser and more primal: teh sexytime.
One of the things I learned in my decade of grad school studying religion is that who you eat with and who you sleep with are two highly charged dividing lines that show up in almost all human cultures. Right now, we’re in the midst of a massive, internet-mediated upheaval over the latter line, and it will get worse before it gets better.
A report from the field
For reasons I’m not entirely clear on, I happen to be someone who often finds himself in wildly different social circles by way of Facebook groups, email lists, and IRL gatherings. And when I say “wildly different,” I mean woke media and academic types, so-called TERFs and third-wave feminists, anarchists, MAGA, new right, tradcaths, rationalists, postrats, classical liberals, and more. If you have thoughts on some fringe, then I’ve probably been in their group chat or at their event at some point in the past two years. (Except tankies – I draw the line there.)
Why it is that I somehow end up circulating in all these niches is a weird topic for another day, but the point of this piece is not to brag about my network, but to report on a phenomenon I’ve observed at work in many of these groups: people are turning on each other over sex.
Honestly, I’ll just go ahead and say it: ‘ladypenis is not actually real’ is a profoundly weird confession for a group to come together over.
This is so wild to me that it has taken me a long time to really come around to admitting that right now in 2022, every group everywhere on the political and social map seems to be crisscrossed by the same set of unstable fault lines around sex and related issues of gender, porn, prostitution, stripping, drag, and the rest of the rainbow.
I’ve seen groups on the left and the right turn on each other over the exact same handful of issues – mostly around porn and sex, especially with regard to minors.
That infamous New York Post story on the high school “porn literacy” class? I’ve found Jacobin types and Reason types on both sides of the following question: is that class an appropriate, mature society’s response to the present ubiquity of smartphone porn, or is it an offense against man and God that should probably see some folks go to prison?
Feelings about sex are a spectrum
I wish I could give more color on the various lefty and righty versions of the Big Sex Split I’ve seen play out over and over again in the past two or three years, but I can’t because I wasn’t in those venues to report on them and those aren’t my stories to tell. But you’ve all seen this kind of thing by now, no doubt, so you know how it goes.
What I can do, however, is characterize the way I’ve seen this split play out more generally – and especially on what’s now being called “the new right.” (I guess I’m now on the new right? I know a lot of people who are in that category, myself included now, but none of us seem to know what “the new right” is.)
By way of setting this up, take a moment read this thread from confirmed new-righter and Twitter personality Indian Bronson:
At the time his thread went up, I did not share Bronson’s perspective on the importance of sexual mores as the dividing line in the West right now. But now I think he’s onto something, though I wouldn’t put it quite the way he put it here. (Actually, this post is my attempt at putting it in my own words.)
In my experience, which as I said above is quite varied, I’ve seen the reactions to what we might call “pride-coded,” sexualized practices involving kids fall along the following spectrum:
It’s compulsory. To not involve your kids in this is to teach them to hate.
It’s good, actually.
Eh, it’s fine. Whatever. Why do you care?
It’s gross, but people should be able to decide for their own kids.
It’s gross, and theoretically, we’d like it to stop, but we don’t see a viable strategy for shutting it down that doesn’t also violate other principles we care about. So, what can you do?
It’s gross, and we will stop it ASAP by any means necessary, leaving no power or capability or method on the table out of some misguided commitment to principle. The only principle at work here is: you don’t get to do whatever the hell this is.
In my time in varied lefty and righty circles, I have absolutely seen all six of these points of view articulated and affirmed about spectacles exactly like the one in that tweet. I’ve even seen #6 crop up in extremely woke circles around straight-coded sexualized practices involving kids (child beauty pageants, purity balls, conversion therapy).
My thesis is that where you fall on the above spectrum of sex reactions is now far more important for sorting you into a tribe than any other issue in any other sphere (politics, economics, religion, etc.). People are asking if we're post-liberal, but the sex controversies have me wondering if we're not almost post-ideological. In the age of outrage, we're all the way back to drawing our primary identity lines around animal basics.
Take this quiz!
So where exactly do you fall? I’ve found that you can take any sexy or sexualized practice, event, or spectacle, run it through the above sex reaction spectrum, and which bucket you end up in will determine who your people are and which members of your own scene you’re willing to tolerate vs. which members you want to purge.
Here’s a sample list of scissors to run through the above list and see where you land:
Drag Queen Story Hour
Drag Brunch for kids
Kids putting dollar bills into strippers’ thongs, doing pole dancing with strippers, or some other sex-work-related activity
School books that present sex work to kids as just another kind of work
Pride parades with kink on full display and kids present and even participating
Child beauty pageants
Evangelical purity balls
Gay conversion therapy
Porn use by teens (especially 16 and up, since 16 is where I’ve seen some lefties drawing the porn age line lately)
(I threw a few right-wing ones there just to mix it up. But you get the idea.)
For any given scene you’re in, no matter what it’s nominally centered on or what its professed norms and commitments are, you can reliably toss out one of the items in the list above and watch people turn on each other like Greek gods over a golden apple.
You know I’m telling the truth because you’ve seen it too, haven’t you?
Indeed, nowadays whenever I find someone I really vibe with, I’m always mildly terrified I’m going to find out they’re on a part of the sex-reactions spectrum on one of these issues that I simply cannot tolerate, or that I’m on a part of it they can’t tolerate. Even more terrifying for me as a parent is the thought that one or more of my kids will end up on the opposite side of some scissor from me.
These splits are happening so often that I now believe there is no existing coalition, polity, scene, or tribe of any size or level of diversity that has not or will not eventually shatter into subgroups based on the spectrum.
Feminists have split over whether biological sex matters for women’s oppression.
New Atheists have split over biological sex’s reality.
Christians have long been divided into “affirming” and non-affirming camps on gay marriage.
Classical liberals are often bitterly divided over whether restrictions on internet porn are an unacceptable infringement on liberty (resulting from a '80s-style “moral panic”) or regrettably necessary to the continued functioning of civilization.
The evangelical right is split over whether DQSH should be permitted by law on pluralist grounds or should be outlawed on “holy crap, David French, are you for real with this?!” grounds.
Whenever I find myself in a new scene, I immediately start trying to sniff out where on the spectrum different clusters of members fall, because those are the splinter groups that will form when the whole thing inevitably blows up over some sex scissor.
One of the more bizarre effects of this shattering and fracturing is how these schisms bring former enemies together into social formations that are so surreal they have to be experienced IRL to be believed.
You can walk into some “based” or “new right” events nowadays and encounter an incredible variety of ethnicities, religions, classes, and economic ideologies, but they’re all united in the following, deeply held conviction: there is absolutely no such thing as “ladypenis,” and if you’re telling kids there is then you should definitely not be allowed to do that and you should probably also be on some kind of watch list.
Honestly, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “ladypenis is not actually real” is a profoundly weird confession for a group to come together over. It’s pretty gonzo, right? Yet here we are… and, honestly, here I am. I fit right in.
You can feel the weirdness, too, when you’re at some gathering and you’re like, “wow look this crowd… surely there has to be something that brings these folks together besides their willingness to publicly confess that ladypenis is a lie?” But right now, in 2022, that’s often enough.
A ray of hope?
The irony of Yoel-Roth-as-internet-scissor is that he was ultimately thrown into the gaping maw of the very outrage machine that had paid his bills for the past seven years. It’s like watching the lion tamer in the carnival suddenly get eaten by his own beast.
I note the irony, but I don’t find it amusing. That beast is coming for all of us, eventually. As long as the social graph is powered by advertising, it will continue to rage, and all of us will eventually run into one of two camps: “it is compulsory” or “it is illegal.” The center cannot hold, and if you think it can… well, have you seen the center, lately?
If there’s a ray of hope out there, I look for it in Musk’s subscription model. I think Musk correctly apprehends a dynamic I’ve covered in detail in my newsletter: the social media advertising machine feeds on engagement, and the best way to drum up engagement is to stimulate outrage. If he can move the revenue base away from the spiritually corrosive ad model to a model where users are paying for the value they get from the network, he has a shot at actually turning Twitter into a net benefit for society.
Obviously, the incumbent class of successful outrage merchants hate this plan and have pilloried it since it was announced. That’s a good, crowd-sourced signal that what he’s doing might work. Because in any world where being a human scissor is a losing strategy, they’ll all fade back into well-deserved obscurity.