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Osama bin Laden's TikTok popularity is based on childish notions of evil
Bad people can argue their case too
So yet another TikTok controversy, followed up by more calls to ban it. And I’ll note that while it’s an overclaim to say the trend was all widespread agreement with Osama bin Laden, a lot of it was, at minimum, a positive re-evaluation. In response to the trend The Guardian, which had originally published the 2002 letter, took it down (although this only triggered a “Streisand effect” of more virality). Some were quick to accuse TikTok of promoting the whole thing. While the company cracked down on the trend and banned a bunch of the videos, it wasn’t before #lettertoamerica gained over 10 million views on the platform, and a lot of commentators and TikTok criticizers shared the videos. Personally, I’m not going to pretend I have some special insight into TikTok’s operation and how closely, if at all, the Chinese Communist Party is influencing its content (there was an entire congressional hearing about this with TikTok’s CEO that shed more heat than light).
Obviously there are other reasons for the sudden attention to Bin Laden’s old writing, since the Middle East is in the news again in a way it hasn’t been since the Bush administration. What interests me about all this is, if we put aside any sort of accused “civilizational info-warfare” from the CCP, and even if we put aside the specific world events in Israel and Gaza that brought renewed visibility to the letter, I think the TikTok reactions of “whoa reading this is world changing to me” would still be the expected result of sharing that letter. Because most people, especially if they’re younger (and TikTok is most popular among those far younger than I), don’t understand simple but uncomfortable truths about what motivates evil.
Essentially, what appears to be so shocking to TikTokers is that Bin Laden offered justifications at all. That he painted himself as the good guy, that he thought he was morally justified, and that he had reasons for doing what he did. As one member of the trend said:
This letter is so well-written and so reasonably structured in argument. Like, you gotta present your findings, you gotta, you know, state your cause, all that. Like everything he said was valid.
And yes, a lot were sympathetic to the actual arguments he’s making, since at least some of Bin Laden’s critiques of America come from the political left rather than the political right. But realistically, do they actually agree with Bin Laden’s claim in the letter that “AIDs is an American satanic invention” or that 9/11 was justified because gambling is legal in America? I suspect not.
I think a major part of their shock is because bad guys, we are told endlessly by our media, are just that—bad. Unashamedly so, and therefore they never present “reasonably structured” arguments. No bad person could write a grammatically correct sentence, nor argue for their beliefs. In fact, throughout history, all bad guys have been distinguished by their illiteracy, their mustaches, and their dark clothing. That’s why in World War II movies Nazis are always in gray with skull iconography, even though the Nazis wore green too, and US troops often wore gray, and the US used a bunch of skull iconography too. It’s not actually obvious from the ensemble who’s good and who’s bad.
The virality of Bin Laden’s letter reminded me of an essay I wrote last year, sparked by a woman starting a confrontation with me outside a market over my dog (she ended up chasing me in her car as I tried to leave the situation; the police sided with me and said I’d done nothing wrong and gave me their sympathies). In the essay I argued that are two types of evil people: moralists and sadists. Sadists are the classically evil kind of person—they are essentially brutes who get off on causing pain. Often their motives are simple, like low-impulse control or psychosexual motives, they are usually men, and they (generally) can’t accrue that much power in modern society (despite the media stereotype of Hannibal Lector type characters, most actual diagnosed psychopaths clinically have a low IQ and have been in and out of the prison system).
So then what is a moralist? As I described it:
We can pretend to be phrenologists for a moment and imagine that morality is a specific module of the human brain, a self-contained lump of gray matter. A moralist is someone with an overdeveloped moral lobe. And having such an overdeveloped sense of morality is pretty much the only way you can get on a plane and kill yourself and thousands of other people.
I think moralists are far more to blame for the worst ills of history than psychopaths, as uncomfortable as that is to believe. As I wrote then:
It sounds trite, but somehow it gets forgotten no one willingly wears a sign on their chest saying “I’m evil.” People love to gawk over the fact that Hitler loved dogs and was a vegetarian, indeed, he would pester his dinner companions with pictures of animal slaughter to dissuade them from eating meat, arguing that it was needless suffering. To this day, the animal cruelty laws in Germany are the same laws the Nazis originally passed. This is not some contradictory aspect of Hitler and the Nazis. It’s the other way around—Hitler’s strong sense of morality was the cause of the evil he sowed, and his beliefs about killing the “bad guys” and not eating meat were, from his perspective, never in contradiction. In fact, they stemmed from the exact same aspect of his psychology. All the Nazi higher-ups were evil racists, but I think most were evil racists not because they were sadists, but because they were moralists looking for someone to blame, and, having settled upon a group of people they thought were the baddies, did unimaginably horrible things to them. And I’m willing to say the exact same things about the terrorists who so defined my childhood, the people who flew planes into the Twin Towers. They too thought they were doing good. They were moralists.
Bin Laden’s letter is a masterclass in moralism. He stands on a soapbox and wags his finger about our lack of manners and principles:
What we call you to thirdly is to take an honest stance with yourselves—and I doubt you will do so—to discover that you are a nation without principles or manners, and that the values and principles to you are something which you merely demand from others, not that which you yourself must adhere to.
But guess what? Hitler (failed artist) had “reasonably structured” arguments; so did Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz (originally destined to be a priest); so did Pol Pot (violinist, theater geek); so did Stalin (another trainee priest). These people became such horrible perversions because moralists are uniquely susceptible to something that resembles a sort of demonic possession. Their moralism gets twisted in on itself, a blackened old root of a thing, but immensely powerful, powerful enough to turn the world around them to ash. Evil is just good, corrupted.
How slippery this fact is, how easy it is to forget, leads to many of the great recurring troubles of humanity. Even those supposedly intelligent can rarely hold onto it for long, for its truth is not the domain of intelligence, but wisdom. Like all great truths it is easy to say but strangely hard to remember day-to-day (call such things “mental model phobic,” if you prefer).
Consider the New Atheists, from Bertrand Russell onwards. There’s a reason Richard Dawkins named religion “the root of all evil.” He and the other New Atheists thought so many of history’s ills could be uniquely blamed on the specifics of religion (and certainly some of that is true, in its specifics); but a lot of the terrible things done in religion’s name were due to its mere dominance as a moral system for thousands of years. Thus the contemporary confusion of the New Atheists, who suddenly feel that religion substitutes are proliferating, particularly political ideologies they are opposed to, and they are occasionally appalled or self-reflective about it. See, e.g., Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent public conversion to Christianity. The declaration of which starts:
In 2002, I discovered a 1927 lecture by Bertrand Russell entitled “Why I am Not a Christian.” It did not cross my mind, as I read it, that one day, nearly a century after he delivered it to the South London branch of the National Secular Society, I would be compelled to write an essay with precisely the opposite title.
But this contemporary confusion and, in some cases, backtracking, is easy to explain if your worldview is closer to “moralism is the root of all evil” instead of “religion is the root of all evil.”
It’s exactly the slipperiness of the idea that makes me skeptical of modern secular religion replacements (be they political, or be they philosophical, like utilitarianism). These are alternatives to humanism, attempts to transform it into something with more strident beliefs. Yet in its fundamental nature, humanism is closer to agnosticism than anything else. Not in content, I mean, but in style. Humanism is agnostic in manner because it is a willingness to paint in grays, a willingness to tolerate differences, a distrust of the specificities of totalitarian moralities. Therefore it focuses on structuring society to be more about non-interference than anything else. That’s why it’s grounded in things like equality under the law, spurring a rising economic tides to lift all boats, avoiding theocracies (which come in many forms), avoiding individuals accruing too much power, etc. It prefers instead to drill down on pragmatic improvements and feel its way forward uneasily. Its nature of governance is less about absolutes than it is about uncertainty—uncertainty exactly what the best outcome should be, uncertainty about how to achieve it, and uncertainty about who is best fit to lead. Modern western democracy has the inherent waffling and skepticism of agnosticism, not the clear confidence of theism/atheism. To steal from Keats, our success lies in a kind of negative capability. Beware those who seek to replace it with anything else.