Ill-Conceived Notions

An experiment in digital humanities

1. ContraPoints

Natalie Wynn, known online as ContraPoints, is an ex-philosopher who ‘enjoys mood lighting and set design.’ As a transwoman, she is slowly being recognised by the mainstream as a key figure in lgbt communities, but more so because of her ability to explicate and combat the rhetoric of the far-right. Starting her YouTube channel only 3 years ago, currently with 52 videos, she has over 700,000 subscribers and 38 million views, and for some time has been in the top 20 earners on Patreon – a platform for fans to support creators with monthly donations.

About a year ago, a friend recommended I watch ContraPoints along with a selection of other left-leaning YouTubers, including Shaun, Lindsay Ellis and Philosophy Tube, who are colloquially called LeftTube or BreadTube. The first video of this genre I watched was HBomberguy’s ‘CTRL+ALT+DEL – SLA: 3’, in which he explores the virtues of self-criticism and cultural reflection through a ‘Serious Lore Analysis’ of memes, and in which he literally, and graphically, finds himself reborn through a panel from the webcomic CTRL ALT DEL about miscarriage (entitled ‘Loss‘), which has been a popular meme for over a decade. This was my introduction to the avant-garde amalgam of academic inquiries, philosophical and political scrutiny, and absurd, but somehow relevant, undercurrents to life in the digital age. I watched ContraPoints’ videos on capitalism, the left and the alt-right in rapid succession, and this was the first time I understood or began caring about politics. From there I began my own introspective journey of my position on the political spectrum, my beliefs about gender, race and human rights, and I developed a vocabulary to describe these new ideas. Reading the comment sections, I saw I was not alone in this, as people of all races, genders, ages and ethnicities were experiencing LeftTube content in a similar way.

I chose to study ContraPoints because of the massive growth in her viewership even in the past year, and the fact that she is being most recognised outside these niche communities, for example, through featured pieces from the New Yorker (2018), the Atlantic (2019) and VICE (2019), and because of the impact she had on me personally. She uses extravagant costumes, props and sets, and what some might find distasteful performances, resulting in a balance of satire and serious debate that appeals to an audience with multifarious thoughts and concerns. I was curious about the precise tactics she uses that draws in such a crowd, since at a glance, her content is provocative and lewd, yet a significant portion of her videos have over a million views. In analysing her content, I was careful not to project my personal interpretations of her words, focusing on the literal intentions of her speech, especially when and how she used satire or sarcasm, which is a significant theme of all her videos.

2. Stefan Molyneux

Stefan Molyneux is a contemporary and globally influential philosopher. His YouTube videos include presentations, brief thoughts, political and pop media hot-takes, ads for his podcast and documentaries, pop culture reviews, and interviews with special guests or fans in search of guidance. He hosts a radio show – Free Domain Radio – which, according to the website, offers “powerful ideas to all lovers of personal and political freedom.” His popularity on YouTube has seen a steady increase since its inception in 2006, and he currently has over 900,000 subscribers, with over 281 million views.

My first encounter with Molyneux’s content was not direct, but through a 55 minute video entitled ‘Stefan Molyneux’s Fall of Rome – A Response’, by Shaun (a LeftTuber), who calmly and eloquently explains in detail why Molyneux’s 2.5 hour video on ‘The Truth About The Fall of Rome’ contains very little truth, and is in fact a dangerous source of misinformation. I never watched Molyneux’s video in its entirety, since I first watched some of his shorter videos, like his reviews of Wonder Woman and Star Wars, which detail the evil feminist SJW agenda that is bringing about the end of Western civilisation, and decided from these that this presentation would not be of use to me, and would only be of use to someone needing a source to point to when defending their bigotry. I never developed kind views of Molyneux, but came to understand his appeal, since his promotional videos were friendly and welcoming, and he offers a space for philosophical inquiries that make sense of our existence, in a time where this value is supposedly being lost. He validates the fears of his audience in the face of activists who don’t appreciate the privileges Western civilisation created, and foreigners who do recognise that privilege and want to steal it for themselves. Again, I never developed kind views.

I chose Molyneux because he is one of the most popular independent creators in right-wing circles, whose manner I thought was very inviting, given his eloquence and sincere commitment to truth in each video. Regardless of how ‘true’ his content is, his conviction is assuring and motivating. I believe he is more than just an eccentric character to tune into every now and then, such as Paul Joseph Watson and Sargon of Akkad, two British creators with larger viewerships but far less serious content (in my opinion). That is not to say their real-world influence is negligible, but I believe they are much easier to discredit and ridicule, as many leftist creators frequently do. Molyneux tends to take himself more seriously, and produces longer, more academically-styled material, making it easy to accept as universal, indisputable truth.

During this study, I made every effort to ensure I was approaching his content with an open mind, by considering his content for what it was in itself, rather than what it was to me. I asked myself to specify clearly what each segment was framing, implying or asserting, and what emotion he was assigning to this, rather than guessing at the truth in what he was saying. It would certainly be interesting to see how a fan of Molyneux would execute this analysis, but in my descriptions I stuck closely to the data as it was, since I believe it is crucial to identify how he is using language to offer his truth, so my readers and I can then identify broader tactics of these creators.

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