It’s All True

original artist unknown, reprinted by Business Insider


“Don’t write about crazy people if you want to say something true.”

That’s what my creative writing professor told me 38 years ago after I had turned in some Southern Gothic, A Rose for Emily-esque short story, and he was totally right. He was right because it’s next to impossible for a non-crazy person to truly get inside the head of a crazy person, and even if you can it’s even more impossible to relate those motivations to an audience of non-crazy people. Unless you’re William Faulkner – and I am not William Faulkner – it becomes a Cartoon exercise, like a comic book portrayal of a villain, a depiction of an interpretation, a non-crazy lens on what crazy IS. All of which can be very entertaining, like Hannibal Lecter or The Joker, but isn’t TRUE.


So that was my first thought about Justin Mohn, the 32-year-old in Levittown, Pennsylvania who murdered his father, cut off his head, and made a YouTube video showing off his trophy and saying he did it because his father, who worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers, was part of the “Biden regime” and was a “traitor to his country”.

Don’t write about a crazy person.


My second thought was after reading some tweets about all this from dependable lefties like Josh Marshall (who I like, btw), writing about Mohn’s “political motivation” here and how this was the real story.

No, no, no. This is a terrible story about a crazy person, and it just as easily could have been the other side’s politics or any other ideology that made him snap. There is no political motivation here!


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Comments

  1. …but maybe in 50 years my children will remember this lesson like I remember my father’s. And that would be a reward beyond measure.

    This. It cuts so deep.

    I’m reminded of that Andrew Garfield movie where he’s a medic soldier in WWII and he saves all of those lives. Foolish? Yes. Heroic? Yes. It’s all true.

    Do we have less room for fun these days? I just can’t get over the old notion that building wider lane highways actually increases traffic.

    See you all at Office Hours! :heart:

  2. Once we began looking at people on the other side of the political spectrum as “evil” instead of misguided, these things were going to start to happen.

    I repeat myself more and more these days but this clip really shows our transformation as a society. Watch the respect these two men give one another! How the conversation stays focused on the facts. Nobody is questioning the others motives etc.

    Fast forward to now:

    It’s good to take a step back, maybe we are… Nevermind,I was going to post a clip of Dean Phillips talking to people standing in line for Trump rally here and later commenting on what warm friendly people they were, but it seems those clips, which I know I saw a week or so ago, have been scrubbed off of all Google searches.

    That speaks volumes about how we have gotten here!!!

  3. There is a characteristic of Ben’s (and other Pack members) that is worth taking note. He (they) strategize solutions to a problem by asking “what can I do” and not by identifying what other should do. Highly focused on the controllable while acknowledging the uncontrollable. It’s a personality trait I’ve become more sensitive to (and am working to master) as my kids get older. This is b/c I’ve realized that as a parent my job isn’t to solve their problems but to help them build tools so they may independently solve their own problems.

    Focusing on the controllable is maybe the most important step to dealing with complex problems.

    As I read the conclusion to this note, what came through loud and clear (to me). Was Ben saying “Here’s a problem, and here is what I can do about it”. I’m guessing the deeper lesson for the Hunt kids (and myself) to learn was best memorialized by the King of Pop himself. From Man in the Mirror: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a (dramatic pause for effect), change!”.

  4. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

    It is all true that the overheated rhetoric of the right is counterproductive, and the coarsening of our political discourse is a sad reminder that history is cyclical, but I think the overheated rhetoric of the left about defunding the police, destroying the prison capitalist white supremacist state is even worse. I also think it is more widespread in our institutions and thus a greater danger.

  5. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    but I think the overheated rhetoric of the left about … is even worse.

    Sorry, my dude, but no.

    It is not about who is weaponizing more or who is worse. It’s about ceasing and desisting the weaponizing of language.

    You are simply auto-tuning to what You need to be true.

  6. Ben. Consider that twitter/x encourages fighting words! I know this isn’t some revolutionary thing to say but, I am experiencing it myself for the first time. It’s one thing to hear it, it’s another to feel it working on you.

    I don’t know what Twitter was like before Elon got ahold of it. I’ll say as a Free Speech Guy, I probably wouldn’t have even considered using it if Elon hadn’t turned it into X as in my mind Twitter was just the place where you go to find and create reasons to cancel people (possibly yourself). But Elon is also a Free Speech Guy (tm?) so I figured I’d try it (after getting banned from reddit for trolling on r/nfl).

    Of course there is The Algorithm. It’s doing a pretty good job of showing me things that I’m interested in. But I happen to know from other contexts that the silicon valley overlords learned long ago that negative emotions - hatred, anger, disgust, despair, and so on - are the strongest drivers of engagement. Accordingly, X is not just showing people things I disagree with. That I can tolerate. It’s showing me the stupidest things I have ever read in my life. I’m literally staring into space while not on the app, ruminating on what a terrible state the world must be in for there to be people who are not only so stupid and dumb to think that, but even stupider and dumber to say it publicly.

    Up to this point, this is all just Someone is Wrong on the Internet. The problem is when I go to engage myself. This is where the character limit becomes a problem. You are trying to defeat this idiot/asshole with words, and unless you pay for premium, you can only use a few at a time, and it’s cumbersome to talk at length about anything. But remember that you are also emotionally attached to this word competition because you are angry, or have some other negative emotion going on. Also you know that your words will receive a public score by the audience in the form of likes and engagement., in addition to possibly recruiting people to your side. Therefore you have strong emotional incentives to be persuasive. You really want to dunk on these assholes and then have everybody lift you up on their shoulders cheering.

    But since you are forced into concision, you have to pack the most effect into the small number of words. The resulting set of options for persuasion encourages you and everyone else involved to be more argumentative and devolve into bad faith/trolling.

    1. To avoid oversimplification that concision encourages, you can choose your words precisely or be very dense. Too much of your argument will depend on implicit concepts / definitions / information that the reader will not readily understand. It will generate responses that anger and annoy you because they seem stupid (“Did you even read what I wrote?” “Where did I say that?”), and you will respond to them as such. Or people simply won’t understand what you mean, and you won’t get likes/engagement. You are disappointed and then choose other options for persuasion from the below.

    2. Accept the imprecision that concision encourages. But then, at some point, it will appear to others, sometimes correctly, that YOU are Someone Who is Wrong on the Internet. You’ll get attacked fairly and unfairly, you’ll feel embarrassed or at risk of being embarrassed, making you feel defensive and making you want to dunk on your attackers even harder.

    3. If you can’t improve your argument, you can improve its impact with snark, since brevity is the soul of wit. But this actually involves weakening your argument in favor of being funny, so this encourages others to argue with you, especially because it embarrasses them.

    4. Tribalizing. If being persuasive is hard, then just only deal with people who are easy to persuade! Block, mute, the “show me less of this” option, say things that you know will get people who agree with you to praise you, generally curate so that The Algorithm exposes you less to people you disagree with. But this tends to create bigger, angrier mobs to fight with each other when they eventually do clash, which is inevitable at some point you will be exposed to something outside the chamber that gives you a negative emotion, either on your own feed, or someone else in your echo chamber is talking about it. And you give less benefit of the doubt people outside your echo chamber. It also encourages people to assign beliefs to people in the other tribe that they may not actually hold, simply by virtue of the appearance that all people in that tribe hold a certain set of beliefs, and pressures people within that tribe not to voice dissent on pain of being kicked out, which encourages dumb things within a tribe to go unchallenged and then attacked all the more viciously when others tribes hear of it.

    5. Insincere trolling. You purposely make bad arguments that you know will drive engagement. You give the appearance of not really caring and just wanting to rile people up, but you are only half joking. Actually you take some sick pleasure in the reward of covertly agreeing in part with what just generated a good audience score.

    6. Outright bad faith. You’re frustrated with the inability to persuade but want to win so badly that you don’t care if your argument is bad. Ad hominem, straw man, insults, derision, appeals to emotion/authority, insults, derision, cancelling people, all while you are cheered on by your tribe.

    And so the result of this is a hyperefficient process for driving people towards the worst, dumbest, most bad faith and least edifying version of a discussion for everyone involved. What you’re left with is wanting to fight for the sake of fighting, unless you make serious efforts not to go down that road.

  7. Glad to read that you’ll stop using the BITFD acronym, it always made me cringe a little whenever you used the crude tag line. I recall a friend of mine using the BITFD phrase in the runup to the 2016 election, you can guess who he supported. He was a nice guy so I don’t think he meant it literally, just that he was tired of the political status quo and wanted to try something different. Now the fire is lit, so I try to pause and choose my words carefully so I don’t add more kindling.

  8. Twitter has been extremely toxic for years now—I was on it a lot for about a week in 2020 and I had to get off it. I could literally feel my mental health declining.

    I think social media in general is a big reason,but not the only one, for why we find ourself in this mess. For me the answer has been what Paul B said above, control the controllable for me the answer is to stay off it. My wife has a FB account and she tells me when people’s birthdays are and stuff so I can wish them a Happy Birthday.

    I have a business account that I can only post stuff the firm puts together for me to post

  9. Love the note Ben. Incongruous thoughts that aren’t easily assimilated into our models is a spice of life.

    It seems I’ve found myself in a pretty contrarian position these days in feeling the need to offer a defense of social media. Above all else it is a very easy story and so it makes me quite suspicious that perhaps it is not all that close to some hypothetical base layer of true understanding. The impact and value of a tool is determined according to how it is used. Humans still get to choose! And training! Think of what that word means now in a post-LLM world! Maybe we forget sometimes that we have the ability to learn from mistakes and to pass that learning on.

    So why not place the blame on ourselves for failure to train and discipline ourselves and, more importantly our children, towards effective and responsible use of a new tool rather than blame the tool itself?

    I certainly did not figure out how to use the tool that is Twitter immediately and that it took some growing pains. As it should be! But now I believe there are really obvious ways to utilize twitter effectively, plus even moreso I don’t know any other way to get the signal that it provides. Here are a few basic guidelines that come to mind for use of the tool if you want to avoid perceiving it as inherently toxic or evil:

    • rarely, if ever, post or comment on anything and ruthlessly avoid the temptation to care about followers. If you already have a following that is important to you…sorry lol.
    • recognize people who create rage engagements for you and unfollow them. You can find reasonable (i.e. clear eyed/full hearted) people who disagree with your models to try to avoid echo chambers, but excise those rage engagements.
    • Stick to tweets of your follow list and curate it for good people, interesting ideas, and fun memes.
    • Generally avoid reading comments. But if you do, learn to understand that they are quite likely either to be bots or to represent extremes of the beautifully wide distribution that is humanity and can be safely considered to be relatively meaningless.

    Social media correlates with much that is troubling, but we have an n of 1 to look at and it is a very clean and easily packaged narrative with clearly autotunable political incentives. I sort of refuse to see the ability to connect with other humans across time and space as an inherently bad thing. I have long had this suspicion that our kids will show us the way in this regard, but certain dominoes need to fall first before we will be ready. Nothing works as it should when the foundation is crumbling.

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