The new ideological fractures

Milo, motivated reasoning, and the left-wing Fox News

How progressive media culture treats Milo is a case study of how the left is approaching the cognitive level of Fox News.

It is a well-documented fact of psychology that if we are emotionally drawn to a certain conclusion, our mind tends to trust whatever looks like supporting evidence, and distrust whatever looks like contradictory evidence. A nice rule of thumb is given by the psychologist Thomas Gilovich. If we emotionally like the implication of something, our brain automatically asks “Can I believe it?” But if we don’t, our brain asks, “Must I believe it?”1 The difference might seem slight, but this asymmetry in how we process information leads to profound social confusion when it plays out iteratively over time. If you think you are above such pedestrian irrationality, you probably are not; this process operates through a system that is not conscious—in fact, it happens before conscious thought even begins. For years, lefties have gawked with amazement at the insistent stupidity of right-wing media bubbles, especially that of Fox News. Today, however, not only the “mainstream left” but even supposedly sophisticated left-wing critics appear increasingly comfortable with a level of cognitive functioning once peculiar to channels such as Fox News. The phenomenon of motivated reasoning explains why even smart people on the left appear to be getting dumber, at the same time they sincerely feel like they are more obviously correct than ever.

This recent Buzzfeed article about Milo is a beautiful case study of how the left is converging to equilibrium with Fox News rationality. I try to avoid writing about one-off media events, but sometimes one encounters such a perfect illustration of a larger phenomenon that it feels worthwhile to drudge through an otherwise insignificant piece of media noise. I’ve seen many articles from lefty outlets over the past few years that have made me think: this is basically Fox News. And I’ve repressed the urge to write about them because you should never give too much energy responding to noise. But this fruit is now so ripe that I feel like I should pluck it, lest someone else does a few weeks from now and I feel ashamed for my laziness.

The basic gist of this recent Buzzfeed article is that it purports to be an exposé on Milo’s hitherto secret white nationalism. It purports to be new proof that Milo is a real racist or fascist, who has been strategically hiding his true, fundamental politics. It does a pretty good job of imparting that feeling, so as a rhetorical effort the author is fairly successful. That is, of course, what the author is being paid to do. So, good work. But for anyone out there who is still interested in making the best possible inferences from the available data, this article does not appear to be anything more than the stoking of lefty cognitive biases. There’s basically nothing objectively significant in the story after you subtract all the rhetorical trappings of the exposé genre. For example, consider the network flowcharts that make it feel as if a secret cabal is being uncovered.

Screenshot from the article Image from the article

One of them (above) is a three-person, linear chain—why is this presented in a network-styled flowchart? It’s not very hard to follow; the network-style graphic is so needless that it’s just one of the many indications the author may be doing something other than trying to aid our understanding.

The main thing I learned from the article is that Milo once wrote a story about the alt right. I never read it, and probably won’t read it now. But one thing I do know is that journalists who write stories regularly contact people who represent the object of the story. That Milo contacted people on the alt right, including proper neo-Nazis such as “Weev,” is utterly unsurprising and uninteresting. The alt right, by most definitions, includes some neo-Nazis. I admit I was surprised that Milo had positive adjectives for Weev, which I find horrifying. But this doesn’t make a story, without a serious accounting of the psychology and sociology at play, which would enable us to make some kind of meaningful and plausible interpretation. That Milo is a secret member of a white nationalist cabal is one possible interpretation, but it just doesn’t hold up.

I know and have worked with people who think Stalin and/or Mao were cool. I think support for Stalin and/or Mao is seriously reprehensible, yet I have some positive adjectives for some people who publicly like these figures. You can genuinely and deeply disagree with the harder edges of someone’s politics, even when they publicly identify with genocidal maniacs, and also have kind words about other aspects of their personality. People on the left do this all the time, don’t we? Either we are as evil as Milo who interacts kindly with the occasional neo-Nazi, or Milo having kind words for a neo-Nazi is not as evil as it seems. Leftists should be able to understand from introspection this psychology; you kind of just see them as dumb on that particular point, but because they are dumb and so fringe you can tolerate their evil tendencies as ridiculous, and appreciate their better aspects in the meantime. I don’t know what Milo really thinks, and as I said, I find it highly troubling to hear him speak kind words of someone who is a neo-Nazi. But if we are being honest and consistent with ourselves, that’s all one can really say from these little data points. Obviously, if Milo said he supports white nationalism or neo-Nazism, I would dislike and disavow Milo. All I am saying is that if kind words for admirers of genocidal maniacs is a yardstick of someone’s politics and character, then the right’s perennial, paranoid condemnation of the entire left as fundamentally murderous would be pretty reasonable. I don’t think that is reasonable. The left is now practicing the same logic, and it’s embarrassing.

Ultimately, I believe people should be judged by what they say in public about what they think and believe. Obviously we can and should make our own wagers about people based on all available information, but this includes making our own wagers about what exactly a Buzzfeed writer is doing when they write an article. If you trust the intentions and intellectual seriousness of a random Buzzfeed writer more than Milo’s repeated public statements disavowing white nationalism, that’s your prerogative, but consider the long-run implications. Once you start taking ideologically stylized recastings of data as more real than the data on which they are based, you are buckling up for a roller-coaster ride to wherever your preferred media wish to take you. This is the threshold at which your gradual departure from reality becomes irreversible and irredeemable, because any new data that could potentially pull you back to Earth can be ideologically recast by your trusted thought-leaders to further your shared drift into outer space.

Let’s consider the other scandalous evidence of Milo’s secret fascist commitments. The article marshals details about racist interns and underlings Milo has worked with. Of course, if you start this article with the moral intuition that Milo is bad, then you will naturally read this data as scandalous evidence that Milo is more sinister than we thought. What you will systematically relegate as insignificant is all of the data that is actually surprisingly exonerating of Milo. All of the racist underlings cited in the article are cited in the context of Milo’s dislike for them (and for their racism), and his trying to distance himself from them. If you’re not already motivated to dislike Milo, this would appear to be evidence that Milo doesn’t seem to have much time for racists.

For a story purporting to expose Milo’s secret white nationalism, it was interesting to learn that Milo’s main collaborator and assistant is apparently not even white. I’m not sure, but in his picture he is not obviously white, and at the very least, he is referred to as having a “brown-sounding name.” If you are not predisposed to hate Milo, this might be a data point suggesting Milo is pretty cool with non-white people. Also, the article mentions that he is married to a black man, which I did not know. Again, maybe I’m crazy, but is this not a pretty hard test disconfirming the hypothesis that Milo is a white nationalist? I’m not saying, as the joke goes, that having a black friend clears you of any racism. But for an article purporting to show something new and deep about Milo’s true white supremacy, the data point of a black husband actually has a lot of leverage, in my view. White supremacists, white nationalists, and anti-black racists generally do not marry black people. It is the real mechanisms of motivated reasoning that make such a notable data point so easy to gloss over as if it’s meaningless (“He probably just married him as a publicity stunt to hide his real hatred for black people,” the rationalizing mind easily convinces itself, insanely).

Also notice the little random tidbits that question Milo’s character in a celebrity-gossip style, with basically no political content whatsoever. The featured quotes that basically just show Milo being mean to an intern, or being selfish with taking credit for joint work. There’s nothing wrong with pointing these things out, but again, as they have nothing to do with the big thesis of the article, they rather indicate what this piece really is: not a deep and significant political exposé, but a commodity for people who already feel that Milo is bad.

Weirdly, the article has a long paragraph on how Milo interacts with a large and diverse audience — a 58-year-old Asian woman, a lesbian from Indiana, and even several accomplished lefties. He interacts a good deal with progressive journalists. The author seems to be so drunk on his own Kool-Aid that he assumes all of this is evidence of what? That fascist white nationalism is spreading to… Asian women and lesbians and the left? To anyone reading this article who is not already frothing with hatred for Milo, this paragraph is a wheelbarrow of pebbles to be placed on the “Milo is not a fascist” side of the scale.

Vox, which I thought was supposed to be higher-brow than Buzzfeed, interprets this all as evidence that “Yiannopoulos’s courting of the mainstream got results.” But an alternative interpretation is that Milo’s essential political content is appealing to a very large number of diverse and even progressive people. Maybe I’m biased, but this alternative interpretation strikes me as significantly more plausible. One reason you might not believe it is if you’re a paid progressive media writer, in which case the prospect of Milo appealing to the left would threaten the security of everything you’ve staked your name on over the past five to ten years. For this reason, the progressive media milieus may be condemned to further Fox-Newsification, even if the individuals involved would rather not pursue such a course.

It seems to me that Milo is primarily committed not to fascism or white nationalism but to transgressing certain norms, norms which are increasingly disliked by a wide and diverse swath of people. Unless of course you started the article wanting to dislike Milo, in which case Milo’s lefty interlocutors are evidence that his conspiracy is even larger than we thought. Worse than celebrity gossip, this is now “Flat Earth”-level cognitive functioning.

The funniest piece of evidence adduced by the author is the password alluding to Kristallnacht. What is a password? It is a secret, which you create specifically to be hard to guess. In other words, it is almost the exact opposite of “what someone believes.” It’s already known that Milo has an extreme taste for aggressive insensitivity. I could not think of something less interesting or indicative of his substantial political beliefs than a computer password. Imagine all the insane inferences someone could make if they went through all your old passwords looking for clues about your character. This degree of reaching is so pathetic that, again, the primary signal it sends to me is that I am reading a hopelessly motivated ideological commodity.

If there is any story here, it is that Milo is less ideologically right-wing, and even more non-ideologically opportunist, than many believe. If the article reveals anything, it is that Milo’s free speech absolutism is actually absolute; he is actively and passionately concerned about keeping in check any racist tendencies of his assistants and collaborators; he has no positive preference for white people, or aversion to non-white people; and his audience and interlocutors are more diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and ideology than many of us previously believed.

These inferences could be wrong. Maybe Milo is a new Hitler with an unprecedented superpower for misdirection. It’s hard to know because reality is hard to know. There is extraordinary uncertainty in the world. What I do know is simply that this article does not increase my estimated probability that Milo is a racist or white nationalist, and I find greatly troubling the chorus of lefty responses treating it as groundbreaking evidence for this inference. Not because Milo matters that much, but as an indicator of the cognitive seriousness of left media culture.

If you read this article and were scandalized by Milo’s secret fascism, it is probably because you opened it with the intention of finding Milo’s secret fascism. As lefty media culture has probably already blasted off into runaway, self-reinforcing irrationality dynamics, I’m sure this post will do nothing to reverse the process, but it helps me stay sane (I think, probably incorrectly).

  1. Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.

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Murphy, Justin. 2017. "Milo, motivated reasoning, and the left-wing Fox News," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2017/10/16/milo-motivated-reasoning/ (October 17, 2017).