When the Red Pillers—online communities of far-right, anti-feminist men—need to back up their misogynist and racist claims, they look to Ovid, Euripides, or the Stoics. On Reddit and other troll-favorite websites, so called pick-up artists use Ovid’s Ars Amatoria as a dating manual to justify ignoring women’s boundaries and incels quote Epictetus. They appropriate classic texts to lend weight to their arguments and ignore glaring contradictions to fabricate a cohesive transhistorical “white” identity and claim the universality of their bigoted views.
Dr. Donna Zuckerberg’s book Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age traces the application—and misapplication—of classical authors and texts in online communities that see feminism as a threat. I spoke with Zuckerberg about the contested place of the classics in academia, Socrates as the OG troll, and the power of rage.
How widespread is the ideology of the Red Pill?
There are several writers and speakers who are not necessarily part of the Red Pill but have sort of marketed themselves, pitched themselves, packaged themselves in a way that has inferred that the Red Pill will be their audience. Part of how that dynamic works is that there can sometimes be a little bit of a disconnect between the precise content of what the thinker is saying and what their audience hears and interprets it as. And it can be really beneficial to the speaker because it gives them huge plausible deniability.
But if you are cultivating an audience of out and proud sexists, then you don’t actually need to be saying anything that is quite as explicitly sexist as the material that appeared on [the “men’s” website] Return of Kings. Pretty recently there was an article on The Daily Stormer that said that Tucker Carlson basically says all the same things that they do, just in a less obvious way. That gives you a sense of how these dark corners of the Internet and more mainstream media and thinkers have a feedback loop where they amplify each other.
Return of Kings was the source of a lot of the content that I analyze in the book, and anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with [the website’s] articles or writers will immediately appreciate what a victory it is that the site has become too unprofitable and draining for Roosh V to maintain. But it’s important to realize how widespread and normalized the ideas on Red Pill blogs have become. Jordan Peterson is now spreading many of the same basic concepts that you can find in articles on Return of Kings, although of course he expresses them in a much more refined and intellectual-seeming way. There’s significant overlap between his audience and the Red Pill community. So reading sites like Return of Kings—or analyses of those sites, like my book or David Futrelle’s amazing site We Hunted the Mammoth—can really shed light on why Peterson’s ideas are such a short hop away from vicious misogyny and racism.
In your book, you identify this persistent fear of the false rape allegation and trace it back to these classical texts. Did you notice any of those threads during Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings?
One of the tropes I’ve seen on Twitter and in conservative media about Christine Blasey-Ford is this speculation that [it’s possible that] when she and Brett Kavanaugh were in high school, she was not as cool as he was and that he [may have] rejected her. So, [maybe] this false allegation she’s making against him now is some kind of decades-long revenge scheme. And this seems wildly improbable to a large number of Americans, but it fits very well within a very old trope that goes back to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament, but also to the work of Euripides. This idea that women make false accusations for revenge is a very old idea.
They are coming to this text for a reason, but the reason is that they want to use dead white guys to valorize some idea of whiteness and reinforce their already held beliefs about white people and men being superior.
What do you think about the growing movement of students who are questioning the place of the classics and the Western canon at their institutions?
It’s an incredibly healthy movement, and it’s great and necessary that they are challenging our ideas of why it’s important to teach and study the classics. That process of challenging and asking those questions is something that every generation should do. As soon as we start studying the classics because that’s what people have always done, they stop being meaningful. But with that said, there are some assumptions that are being made by some of the activists that I’m really worried about.
For instance, I heard that one of the signs in the Reedies Against Racism protest of the humanities core class [read] “Classics Is White Supremacy,” or something very, very close to that. That is such a challenging statement, and in some ways, it’s that kind of claim that is really mobilizing the members of the alt-right and the Red Pill to want to defend Western civilization. They see themselves as the protectors of the Western canon against the politically correct social justice warriors who want to erase classical knowledge. So if the campus activists are making claims like “classics is white supremacy,” then, on the one hand, they’re sort of playing into the alt-right’s hand. Because that’s also what the alt-right thinks. They also think that the classics are white supremacy; they just think that’s a good thing because they are white supremacists. The reason they value the classics is the same reason why some campus activists are so wary of it. And both of those groups, then, are kind of shutting out the possibility for socially progressive and inclusive classics.
You talk about a kind of futility in trying to engage with Red Pillers around the classics because they don’t actually care about what is true or correct. What you do you make of the contradiction that these men are so fascinated by these texts about logic and philosophy but ultimately don’t really seem to care about logic?
In some ways, the way that they study the classics is very performative. [They study with] the assertion of caring about Western civilization and classical learning [and consider that] more important than actually studying in any kind of depth or detail. Saying “I practice stoic philosophy” is more likely to win you likes among that crowd than actually studying stoic philosophy and being willing to discuss its complexity and all the debate that scholars and philosophers have had about the finer details of the philosophy. Because if you try to bring that in, then you just become a gatekeeper who’s waving their credentials around and trying to substitute having a PhD for actually understanding the text.
In their communities, not having professionally studied or studied in an academic setting is seen as a bonus. Or maybe, to be more precise, having studied in a professional setting is a detriment because then you’ve been “indoctrinated” into leftist academia. So they’re really looking for self-taught types to come to the text theoretically without any preconceived notions about them. Although of course that isn’t true. They are coming to the texts with all kinds of preconceived notions. They’re just not the preconceived notions that people who have spent a lot of time studying ancient Greek and Roman would.
Is there a way in which their unacademic approach is meant to reinforce the naturalness or universal quality of these texts? Like, anyone can understand that women are bad, even if you didn’t go to college. Is it something like that?
Yes, that’s exactly right. They prize this fantasy—because it really is a fantasy—of unmediated contact with ancient literature. It’s just you reading the text, and anything that scholars have said and done around the text is not just worthless background noise, it’s actively detrimental to understanding the text because scholars have agendas. They are coming to this text for a reason, but the reason is that they want to use dead white guys to valorize some idea of whiteness and reinforce their already held beliefs about white people and men being superior. And then they find those ideas in the text, and they say, “Well, look, the ancient Romans saw the same thing that I do. Therefore, I must be right.”
Do you think there are rhetorical tactics that can be used to engage productively with these misinterpretations or misapplications of these texts?
I guess it depends on what you mean by productive. It’s very possible to debate the meaning or value of the ancient world with a Red Pill writer and have both sides feel like they won. Because you and the Red Pill writer are writing for very different audiences. You’ll both feel like the other side is making tons of pointless non sequiturs and sort of self-owns. Because when somebody who you’re debating says, “Well, I haven’t studied this,” that seems like a self-own to an academic. But as I just explained, it’s actually a rhetorical tactic for them. It’s a rhetorical tactic, of course, that goes back to Socrates in Plato’s Apology, where he basically says, “Well, you know, I’m not a fancy orator; I just speak my mind.” And there’s a really interesting sort of thread running through some Red Pill sites where they see Socrates play the sort of uber-troll, the original troll.
The knowledge of material that we’re so distant from is incredibly multivalent. It’s tolerant of many different interpretations, even interpretations that seem to be in direct opposition to each other. Like Socrates is the OG troll for them, but Socrates is also [widely considered] this intellectually curious progressive.
I was really intrigued by your descriptions of the Red Pill interest in Stoicism, especially in connection to their goal of being unemotional or able to overcome emotions in their pursuit of rationality.
The rise of people like Jordan Peterson means that you’re going to see Stoicism come into vogue again among Red Pill types. [It will also become more popular] as a backlash to the embrace of feminist anger that we’re seeing these days. All these books [about women’s rage] have come out recently: Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. [We’re seeing] the idea that women’s anger is publicly powerful and is something that we should speak to, understand, harness, and cultivate. You’re going to see a backlash to that where these men are going to insist that they are not angry, [that] they are totally calm and rational.
There’s this incredible paradox where women’s rage is something that we really seek to understand but also pick apart to discuss its rational value. All the writers I just mentioned are incredible writers who are making really complex and interesting arguments about the value and meaning of female anger. Whereas, Red Pill Stoicism claims to be rational, but is really angry. It’s rationality is the very thin ice above the surface of a freezing pond of all kinds of emotions, but especially rage—and [it’s an] entitled rage where they feel very authorized to their anger. Whereas women tend to feel that they need to justify it.
If you reach a point in reading what people write on the Red Pill or in talking to them and [find yourself] saying, “But that doesn’t make any sense; there’s no logic there,” then, in a way, you’ve already lost. Because the point is not for everything to hang together logically and to be totally immune to criticism. The point is to make people feel something—to make their audience feel validated and justified and scared and angry—and [get] any reaction [out of] them.
In a way, I’m playing into their hands, right? They provoked a reaction from me. They like to talk about living rent free in heads, that by thinking about them and worrying about them and what they’re saying, we’ve ensured their victory and their place in discourse.
It’s troubling for sure, but if you don’t take the time to understand what they’re doing and how it works, it can be very hard to see [what] those ideas [look like when they] become more diffused and less obviously offensive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.