Former Proud Boys Shocked To Find Hate Group They Joined So Full Of Hate
If you've lived in the United States for the last five years, you probably know about the Proud Boys. You probably know what they stand for, some of what they've done, and what it is they're into. You probably it's a violent hate group that claims to simply be a "drinking club for men."
Thus, it beggars belief that anyone could possibly join up without knowing what it is they were getting into. But that is what three men who spoke to USA Today reporter Will Carless say, in an article titled "They joined the Wisconsin Proud Boys looking for brotherhood. They found racism, bullying and antisemitism."
Well, perhaps they should have Googled! Of course, these men say they actually had heard all of those things about the Proud Boys, but thought the media was just lying, what with its videos and direct quotes.
At least two of them say they were recruited from Telegram to join the Wisconsin Proud Boys chatroom, which suggests they were probably not on there exchanging muffin recipes. And they weren't.
[Daniel] Berry and the other recruit – both white, middle-aged conservatives – said they hoped the chatroom would be a place to discuss issues such a border security and gun rights.
Berry said he was looking for somewhere he could be himself: a safe space to discuss conservative and libertarian politics outside the confines of his home, where his views often clashed with those of his left-leaning wife.
None of the prospective members trusted the news media, which they said falsely painted the Proud Boys as extremists and white supremacists.
Berry said media portrayals of the group reminded him of his experience in college, where professors and fellow students scorned him for being in the military. Berry's time in the Army didn't match their stereotypes, he said, and he didn't think they'd ring true for the Proud Boys, either.
The first chatroom they were invited into seemed relatively mild, but after attending a meet and greet with the Wisconsin Proud Boys, they were allowed into the next phase chatroom. Things got ... well, even worse than "the media" had been saying!
The second chatroom was swamped with every type of shocking content imaginable, the men said, and participants posted photos and videos of people getting killed and seriously injured. Users swapped the most explicit pornography they could find, often featuring people defecating. The images flowed in a septic tide of racist, antisemitic and homophobic banter.
One of the men who spoke with USA TODAY described the content: "Videos of Muslims being set on fire or blown up? Check. Memes intended to laugh at Holocaust-era Jews? Check. Pictures of women being raped? Check. Memes poking fun at raped women? Check. I could go on, but you get the point."
And yet, these men still did not quite see a problem, noting that they were relatively used to racist and homophobic comments. Berry said he was told it was a form of hazing, to ensure members weren't offended by those things.
But also it was for NXIVM cult-like purposes, so that the leaders could blackmail recruits.
The recruits were told they would be kicked out if they took screenshots of the chatrooms. Berry and the others said they learned that the group's leaders stored screenshots and videos that they could use against the men.
Berry said he stuck it out in the chatroom for weeks. He acknowledged that he engaged in racist and homophobic conversations, figuring they would eventually subside to reveal the brotherhood he had been searching for.
The men also describe being encouraged to bully another "recruit," whom they suspect was brought into the chatroom for that explicit purpose, until he left, and to then continue bullying him. (He ended up in the hospital with a heart problem.) Still that was not the final straw. The final straw for Berry was, he says, another meme making fun of rape victims.
Berry filmed a short video detailing his experience, explaining that after he left the military with significant health problems and PTSD, he missed the camaraderie he had felt while enlisted, and was looking for something to approximate that.
I will say this. This guy seems like he might have some issues. I don't believe he was a good guy -- and to his credit, neither does he — but it seems fairly clear he was bringing some baggage to the Proud Boy Telegram chatroom table. He's basically saying, "I was lonely and joined a hate group because I thought they'd be my friends." That's not just having bad politics. Although he does have bad politics.
I'm not saying, "Hey, let's feel really bad for this guy who joined a hate group and was clearly okay with about 80 percent of what they were into." But we should be more aware of the role loneliness plays in radicalization.
On the internet, on social media, we're technically interacting with people all the time, and that sates some people's general social needs. But it can also be isolating, and when that becomes the primary way you interact with people outside your immediate family and social circle, other people seem less real, making it easier to hate them, to create ridiculous theories about who they are, and to see them as your enemy. It's not even unique to right-wing politics. There are all kinds of people who define themselves by who they hate, who get a sense of self-worth and protection from feeling like they are part of a group.
Socialization has more than one definition. It's certainly easy to believe all of this radicalization, all of these conspiracy theories, all of this hate has bubbled up because the people taking part are authentically bad people revealing their authentically bad selves. But it's also possible some part of it stems from the fact that it's just easier to say cruel or crazy things on the internet, at least at first, than it is to say it to someone's face, especially when you are getting a heaping ton of social validation for it. And the more you do it on the internet, the easier it gets to take that act on the road.
While I'm probably much more open to the idea that people can and do change than is currently fashionable, I don't necessarily believe that simply having more in-person social interaction is going to change anyone who has already been fully radicalized. I do, however, think it can be a something of a prophylactic against getting radicalized in the first place. I don't really have a good answer for how to encourage more of it, especially while we're still not entirely out of the woods yet with COVID. But it's worth considering what those answers could be, especially for young people.
Ponder that, in your OPEN THREAD!
[USA Today (archived)]
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse