Ill-Conceived Notions

An experiment in digital humanities

If ‘Setting the scene‘ defined how we should interpret the scene overall, this category explains how we understand the actors within it. These are the farmers and livestock, Muslims and Christians, Mandela and South Africans, incels and Jordan Peterson fans, and people who interact with or are affected by these groups. Molyneux tends to use a dichotomy of ‘good guys and bad guys’, framing strained relationships, noble actors, and villains that must be challenged. ContraPoints, 30 Ill-Conceived Notions of Digital Humans conversely, frames complicated characters, who are not inherently evil, and who potentially can be sympathised with.

In ‘Crusades’ it’s easy to think that the names mentioned are the characters, such as Roman Emperors and Christian martyrs, but these represent historical facts more so than characters. The real characters that Molyneux portrays here are Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Westerners, and named countries and states in ancient Europe. We understand Muslims to be, in this narrative, invaders, conquerors, an authoritative force that “was spreading” (19:55), that Europe must “repel” (4:33), lest they bring about the collapse of civilisation. There are some distinctions made between Christians and Europeans, since he opens the video with a list of faiths that struggled against Islam in the Middle East that are distinct from Christian capitals (2:34), but ultimately both are framed as victims whose strength and endurance protected the interests of modern civilisation.

A method distinct to ContraPoints is the use of acted characters, who portray the perspective of antagonists in the discussion. In ‘Incels’ and ‘Peterson’, we see Lady Foppington, an “18th century sexual deviant” (‘Peterson’ 0:53) who offers perspectives of early modernists (12:26) on subjects such as social hierarchies and phrenology to frame logical justifications for bigotry, and Abigail, a radical feminist whose interests are defending the sanctity of womanhood from transwomen, which ContraPoints satirises to emphasise her disregard of criticisms on her expereience of gender. These characters are interacted with directly, and ContraPoints frames them as intruders to her creative space (literally barging into her room) with whom she has a strained relationship: in response to Foppington’s intrusion she resigns “I need new roommates” in ‘Peterson’ (23:28), and orders Abigail to “leave my f**khole out of this” in ‘Incels’ (19:28) when Abigail interrupts to insist ContraPoints will never be a real woman. Even her portrayal of Peterson could be considered a theatrically-made character, when she stages a conversation with a dummy who responds with robot noises. Despite this dehumanising satire, ContraPoints frames Peterson in these scenes as a role model with valid criticisms of leftist circles, while also highlighting rhetorics she is concerned put marginalised groups at risks, which she urges him to reflect upon. ContraPoints maintains points of an ‘us vs them’ dichotomy, but the audience is offered enough nuance in each perspective to at least consider the validity of their causes.

A central character illustrated by both creators is that of the audience. They are actively and regularly identified as being a part of each inquiry, through phrases like “unfortunately, we have to talk about [“truth, reason, power”]” in ‘Peterson’ (1:14), explaining “the choice of vocabulary tells us how incels think of women” in ‘Incels’ (3:07), “let’s look at some of the facts about this” in ‘Mandela’ (0:54), explaining “when we become afraid of death…we become controllable” in ‘Enslavement’ (0:46), and “let’s dig back into history” in ‘Crusades’ (0:53). There are some instances where assumptions are made about the audience’s demographics or beliefs, such as Molyneux’s image of a US flag while he emphasises the relevance of the content “in your country, your tax farm”, since Molyneux is himself Canadian, but targeting the content primarily at viewers from the US. ContraPoints begins the investigation of meaning behind Peterson’s language by stating “we all know what Marxism is” (11:03), before going on to define Marxism, albeit concisely, without offering any material to confirm that this is a commonly accepted meaning because it is assumed the audience will have at least a rudimentary appreciation for the theory which she can validate here.

Audiences also have perspectives projected to them, such as when Molyneux asserts “whatever beefs you have with your political regime, you can hardly hold children accountable” in Mandela (2:10) inviting the audience to consider the savagery of Mandela’s involvement in terrorism, and when ContraPoints explains “you can justify your belief by pointing to the shape of a skull” to frame the scientific process of justifying bigotry in ‘Incels’ (6:28). Appropriate responses are also guided by using language that can invoke a certain response, or validating assumed skepticism or preconceptions the audience may have. ContraPoints directly acknowledges potential sources of trauma for incels – “A lot of you are lonely. You’ve been bullied and neglected. You feel left behind by society” (30:45). Not only does this address a subset of her audience, but it frames incels in a new light to the non-incels watching, as their existence is not simply a threat to society or point of ridicule, but one of deep-rooted anxiety from genuine problems in modern society, which can be sympathised with. Interestingly, Molyneux’s equivalent instances appear to further alienate his audiences from rational inquiries of systemic issues, by invoking fear, urgency and sympathy for innocents, such as the ‘Crusades’ plea: “And if there is to be a civilisation in the future, in other words if we’re going to keep what largely white Western European Christians have developed” (30:05). This secures the group identity of loosely defined “white Western European Christians” who Molyneux validates as sophisticated and morally superior in comparison to ‘the Muslims’, and who must band together to eradicate the threat posed to them.

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