New Age wisdom, or Nazi meme?
What follows is a rough recap of a talk I gave at a small Austrian burner event in September 2020. As the first half of a 90-minutes workshop, its goal was mainly to provide a most basic input/impulse for a group discussion. I state this mostly to excuse the sloppiness of arguments, hypotheses and historical/sociological accounts (and the bad English).
Hi, I'm plom. Welcome to my workshop on …
Hippie culture gateways to harmful ideas, and how to deal with them
My inspiration for this workshop is a growing frustration with my happy hippie burner bubble harboring anti-vaccination talk, Corona denial, and conspiracy theories full of antisemitic dog-whistling. I know that we currently live in crazy times, what with the pandemic and all; and the phenomena I just mentioned pop up all around us now, in all kinds of subcultures, and are certainly not isolated to this specific bubble. But I think that each scene that is affected has to take responsibility for its part in the matter, and do some introspection on how it enables these things.
When I say "hippie bubble" or "burner bubble", I actually want to talk about a whole spectrum of scenes and subcultures that are more or less strongly connected: adherents to New Age beliefs, bohemian drop-outs from society, psychedelic artists, hedonist anarchists, and people who embrace a decidedly green or ecological lifestyle "in harmony with nature". There are some ideas widely shared in this spectrum, such as a self-image as being tolerant of weirdness, as being anti-authoritarian, or as working towards a better world – be it in a materialist, or a spiritual way.
I also see some shared thought patterns that I believe are responsible for a lot of beauty and good – yet at the same time exert a magnetism towards destructive ideologies.
For this magnetism towards the destructive, we can find many examples. Just look at the "classical" hippie culture in the sense of the Anglo-American youth counter-cultures of the 1960s: Despite clichéd images of smiling Woodstock hippies, it also attracted a character like Charles Manson, who knew all too well how to ride and manipulate the hippie zeitgeist into indoctrination for murder and the prophecy of an apocalyptic race war. Or think of the death cults the New Age movement gave birth to, such as Heaven's Gate.
If we turn our eye to the German-speaking regions here, we find various hippie traditions closely mirrored (or rather shared) by right-wing or even neonazi subcultures focused on environmentalism, occultism, and communalism: Settler movements such as the Neo-Artamans set up intentional communities in the countryside for living in tune with nature and independent of urban civilization, and organic farms to participate in the eco/"Bio" and vegan food market; and they try to build a non-Christian spiritual connection to nature and the past – though all with a "völkisch" bent of "blood and soil" ideology. "Alternative" healers such as Ryke Geerd Hamer, founder of the Neue Germanische Medizin, come up with questionable spiritual healing practices, positioned as opposites to a "jewish school medicine". And the history of the German post-war peace movement and environmentalist movement features right-wing and völkisch activists such as Herbert Gruhl and Baldur Springmann, who co-founded the German Green Party before becoming intellectual forefathers to Germany's New Right.
One creepy thing about these right-wing mirrors of hippiedom is that they are not necessarily acts of tactical appropriation. It's not that some nazis looked at hippie culture and concluded: "Let's copy that, it will make it easier for us to be mistaken as harmless." Instead, they rather authentically continue right-wing traditions that simply share many ideas and roots with hippie culture, while reaching back much further into the past than just the 1960s. In fact, many of these right-wing traditions saw an early peak in classical Nazi culture from the 1920s on, and left strong traces even into the Third Reich – despite the Third Reich seeming like the antithesis to what hippie culture claims to stand for.
- Consider for example green lifestyles and environmentalist politics: Animal welfare was a favorite issue of several important Nazis, including Hermann Goering and famous vegetarian Hitler. The Third Reich installed not just strict animal welfare laws, but also took an interest in environmental conservationism, all in the spirit of protecting a völkisch landscape as found in the idea of the Germanic forest (which was to be "restored", if necessary, to the expulsion or murder of non-Aryan inhabitants in the conquered lands of the East).
- Another element of classical Nazi culture is often played up in a rather sensationalist way, but nevertheless deserves attention in this specific context: Nazi interest in occultism and ancient or distant religiosity. High-ranking Nazis like Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler were obsessed with astrology and realizing their own ideas of ancient paganism. Himmler was deep into eastern mysticism and Yoga, and allegedly never left the house without carrying a small copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him. The more fanciful aspects of Nazi racism, all that talk about the Aryan master race etc., draw inspiration from 19th-century occultism, particularly the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky – which influenced the proto-nazi mysticism of Ariosophy (as practiced by the infamous Thule Society) as well as Rudolf Steiner's more benign Anthroposophy, which still holds a strong cultural influence at least in German-speaking countries.
- What may be most surprising about the Third Reich is that it also featured a kind of sexual revolution, in the sense of liberalizing laws about marriage and divorce, celebrating the human sex drive and (Aryan) fertility and (strong, "healthy") body (consider all that nudity in Nazi art from Leni Riefenstahl to Arno Breker), defending promiscuity against a fertility-stifling conservatism, even promoting pre-marital sex via its youth organizations – all as long as it was happening in accordance with racial purity and narrow ideas of the proper (hetero-)sexuality.
One might argue that these elements, while mirrored in hippie culture, should be seen as only marginal to National Socialism. But their appearance there at least proves them to be compatible with the fiercest ideologies of authoritarianism and anti-humanism. And in my opinion one can go one step further even – and see Nazi culture as a kind of dark mirror universe episode of what various elements of hippie culture can turn to, if only pushed to their most destructive extremes.
Gateways to danger and their historical background
But what precisely are these elements of hippie culture that can turn dangerous? To give a short preview, I think they may be summed up as:
- firstly, a romanticism for the supposedly "natural", or "ancient", or "primitive"
- secondly, a romanticism for the sentimental, subjective, the irrational, the apolitical
- and thirdly, a passionate anti-establishmentarianism, a mistrust against "the mainstream" and "the powers that be"
But before I delve into these three patterns, I think a short historical excursus is warranted:
A lot of what we find in hippie culture, including most of the aforementioned patterns, can be traced back to a broader historical background, to at least a few centuries ago – namely to when what may be labeled a trend towards modernity, or modernism, shook Europe in the 18th and 19th century: a cultural earthquake that involves the philosophies of the Enlightenment, and of secularism; the mission of abandoning old mysticisms and superstitions in favor of a rationalist and materialist approach to science and society; revolutions in technology and wide-scale industrialization, and a movement of economic power from the agriculture of the countryside into the factories of the city; also an overturning of old social orders and hierarchies in favor of the politics of Liberalism and Capitalism.
As with any cultural/political/economic upheaval, this one too came with a lot of friction and discontent. Obviously the old elites of church and aristocracy saw reasons to be unhappy about this questioning of their legitimacy and authority. But also the peasantry, supposedly "liberated" from feudal oppression, experienced these developments as not all that much of an improvement relative to what they had before: being driven from the land that had fed them, with its fresh air and pockets of autonomy even under feudalism, into becoming wage labour cogs between the toxic fumes of the new urban factories.
This spectrum of discontent bred various reactions. The peasants turned workers became the urban proletariat and started organizing under the banners of the workers' movement, Marxism and Socialism. This materialist and revolutionary reaction was very much in agreement with most tenets of the modernist upheaval, especially the ideas of social progress through science and technology and ruthless questioning of old authorities. For the workers' movement, all this was a good start – but needed to pushed even further than just Liberalism and Capitalism to emancipate society.
There was, however, also an opposite reaction – one of a more sentimental and conservative bent, popular especially among those connected to the old power structures, or later to the newer ones questioned by the workers' movement (i.e. the bourgeoisie): a broad skepticism against modernity and all its ideas and promises, its urbanism and machinery and rationalism and grand narratives of social progress, etc. We can find it first under labels such as Romanticism or Biedermeier, where the opposites of what was seen as modern were idealized: country and village life, the feudal and medieval past, individual personal sentiment rather than broad social projects.
We find here enterprises such as the Brothers Grimm collecting fairy tales to preserve an idea of the collective imagination of a disappearing peasantry; and a growing interest in local history and archaeology, with aristocrats erecting fake medieval ruins in their gardens as mementos to a mythical past. We also find back-to-nature or living-in-harmony-with-nature movements, such as nature hiking clubs (prominent especially into the early 20th century, such as with the "Wandervögel"), or Naturism (= nudism), or modern vegetarianism. And we find an idealization of the formerly disparaged "primitive" peoples and victims of Western colonialism, such as Native Americans, as moral examples of a good life uncorrupted by modernity – like in the works of Karl May.
Romanticism for the Natural, the Ancient, the Primitive
From this anti-modern tradition we can draw a pretty straight line into one thing we find widely in hippie culture: a romanticism for the "natural" or "primitive" or "ancient" – as opposed to things seen as "artifical", "technological", etc.
And such a bias is not without reason, for there is a lot that can be criticized in modern life, lots of toxicity and terror even. Technology may have improved many things, but it has also brought us the spectre of nuclear war. The horrors of the 20th century have put into question the grand Enlightenment narratives of social progress under the guidance of rationalism.
But a bias against modernity quickly turns into a quest for its opposites, which comes with its own traps – such as defining "nature" or "tradition" as opposites to whatever one abhors about modernity; idealizing them, using them as a canvas for one's own desires or fantasies, which are born out of modern frustrations. This happens, for example, when attributes like innocence, harmony, or peacefulness are projected onto targets such as country life, "primitive" peoples, or animals. It can, for example, lead to a paternalist view of foreign cultures as basically innocent children that need to be kept pure from modern/western influence, and to risky misunderstandings of animal psychology. (It's also a common feature of what is called "cultural appropriation", imposing one's own meanings and purposes on cultural patterns that have quite a different meaning in their original context.)
By itself, this kind of idealization is mostly more of an annoyance than a grave danger. It can become dangerous though when the ideal is treated as morally superior to what we have here and now – by mere virtue of being (more) "natural", or "primitive", or "traditional". This then may lead to habits like disavowing modern medicine in favor of whatever is peddled by some quack as "natural" or "traditional". Or to promoting "traditional" gender roles as being preferable, due to being considered more "natural".
One extreme example of this pattern can be found with the Nazis: They actually were all about living in tune with nature – or rather their ideal of nature. The Nazis treated politics as ecology, realizing "natural" biological hierarchies of race and strength to the detriment of the weak and "inferior" races – for to engage in a different politics would be at odds with the laws of nature. To the Nazis, the "natural" social relation between living beings was that of an eternal struggle for the survival of the fittest – and the task of politics was to create harmony with that natural state, by for example realizing it through war and extermination.
We find a milder form of this when hippies critical of modern medicine promote an approach of "letting nature run its course" – i.e. trusting in the immune system rather than taking pills, or promoting acceptance of certain sufferings or illnesses or causes of death as just the natural state of things, and opposing technological/medicinal interventions against these as artificial disruptions of the cycles or harmonies of life. Some anti-vaxxers for example argue for children getting measles as a healthy, if challenging, experience, which would improve the immune system and build character. This is not far though from the Nazi ecology of strength through destructive challenge, and "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" – which only sounds sane until you risk spreading the disease to people who may be too weak to survive it.
A similar consequence can be found in anarcho-primitivist thinking – the idea that modern civilization as a whole is a curse on humanity, and we would be better off if we returned to the ways of the Stone Age, free from all the alienations modern life bestows upon us. This may sound like a great idea if you're young and healthy and strong, and capable of hunting your own food. But it implies a death sentence to the disabled, the ill, and the old.
The juxtaposition of "good" nature and "bad" modernity gets more extreme in certain environmentalist debates, where nature is treated as something morally separate from civilization or humanity, to be protected against them. This is in opposition to an environmentalist approach that aims to protect the seas, the forests, the animals etc. for the good of human civilization, as its foundation and resource. If one enforces instead a moral separation of nature and humanity, attributing to that arbitrarely separated non-human "nature" a moral value of its own, then minimizing the moral value of humanity in comparison to nature seems to follow quickly. We find this happening in jokes such as sickly planet Earth being told by another planet that humanity be only a disease that it will get rid of; and in hateful speeches calling for the destruction of human civilization in the face of the sufferings it causes on animals; we find it in campaigns to turn the hunting and settling grounds of colonized peoples into human-free wildlife reserves; we find it in animal rights activists equating rape or the Holocaust to factory farming, thereby equating the human victims of these to cows and pigs. A love for "nature" as that which is innocent of being human seems only a small step away from explicitely anti-human sentiment. Not surprisingly, animal welfare activism remains a favorite issue around which neonazis try to rally their way into the German mainstream.
Romanticism for the Sentimental, the Subjective, the Irrational, the Apolitical
Another continuity we find from the anti-modern tradition is a romanticism for the irrational, the subjective, the sentimental over things such as deductive reasoning, social abstraction, and intellectualism. Just think of common hippie values like "follow your heart", of promoting intuition and inspiration over book knowledge, of seeking in psychedelic trips or meditative introspection a truth not to be found via materialist science.
A strong part of this tradition is a skepticism against the ability of abstraction to adequately represent reality, of science to find truth, and of rationalism to act as a guide to a good life. And like every skepticism, this one is sometimes warranted:
The rationalisms espoused by the Enlightenment brought with them projects to turn reality into numbers and mechanistic formulas, for the sake of engineering and manipulating reality like a machine. This objective of making the world controllable occasionally took priority over a curiosity for open-ended, never-ending inquiry – and thus was often satisfied by reducing complexities to simple models, as long as they provided knobs and buttons to steer things into a desired direction. This reductionist approach cuts away subtleties and idiosyncrasies in favor of making things calculable, approachable with simple logic, readable and reproducible by machines. Even when the models of reductionist science grow more sophisticated, and so come closer to representing reality, there always remain parts of life inadequately captured by them – while being more approachable by the irrational lenses of poetry, art, and personal experience.
In the most harmless case, this reductionist ignorance merely leaves certain things untouched, uncontrollable; in the worst case though, reductionist models exert a pressure on reality to conform to them, to get rid of that which does not fit in, because it disturbs the controllability promised by the model; or to deny the pains and frictions caused by exercising the model where it is not adequate. Think of medical practices optimized for the majority of people, yet being forced on special cases that don't fit their narrow understanding of human biology; think of social rules that expect everyone to fit neatly into a specific taxonomy of sex and class and ethnicity, while throwing under the bus any people who transcend these categories.
So yes, there are valid reasons to be skeptical against broad promises of rationalism, abstraction, and materialist science; to maybe sometimes turn to alternate methods of grasping reality, of inquiry, of understanding. On the other hand though, rationalism, even in its most reductionist variants, has a pretty good track record for some tasks: It's good at analyzing large territories of problems, and coming up with technical solutions to them. It's also useful in balancing diverse priorities and perspectives, and to do that in a way that stands up to scrutiny from many sides at once. And most of all maybe, it provides great tools for skeptical and critical inquiry.
This latter capability of rationalism explains some of its unpopularity in certain spheres that have little use for critical faculties. The political education in fascist movements consists mostly of riling up emotions and promoting anti-intellectualism: Burn the books and instead listen to your guts, for that's where truth lies. Meanwhile, religious cults of the New Age variety mesmerize their students with the charisma of the guru, with the trance of chanting and drumming, or by outright drugging them – thereby minimizing the role of their minds' critical faculties while maximing their sentimental suggestibility, and thus their openness to their priests' commands. The funny thing is that these irrationalities are often engineered in a quite rational way: manipulating people through instrumentalist knowledge of their psychology, through a logical understanding of how to make them feel a certain way, how to steer their fears and desires. Sure, you may feel something as truth coming from your heart – but please understand that your heart can be made to lie.
One danger in paradigms of irrationalism is that they match badly with the task of political discussion and negotation. To fairly argue a political question, some attempt at objective comparison and rational criticism is necessary. But you can't fairly argue with someone's feelings, or spiritual experience, or similar motivations. You might encounter defenses like: "You made your points, but I'm not convinced, for I know the truth from my heart, my personal experience, my feelings. It would be improper for you to doubt these, please respect my experience and emotions just as I respect yours. You have your point of view, I have mine – let's tolerate each other!"
Such a deference to the subjective, or emotional, or even spiritual in a political discussion can create a landscape of "personal" truths that all have the same claim to respect, and therefore cannot be compared or ranked to any meaningful consequence. But political discourse and negotation needs some measure of rationality, some attempt at objectivity, so as to put a variety of needs and interpretations into a relation to each other that is more than just indifference, or the absolute authority of a single one of them. There needs to be a common ground of shared criteria and scales for validity and priority, for deduction and reasoning, and thus for making decisions.
Such objectivity is not important in every context or discussion. If people discuss their favorite colour, there is no need for a fair agreement on the best one. Even if people discuss their spiritual experiences as what guides their behaviour, that does not necessarily mean they need to justify it against some political framework. Rational justification becomes important once you make decisions that affect other people: How do we distribute our resources? What rules of conduct do we agree on? How do we raise our children? Any time a community poses questions such as these, it enters the field of politics – and deserves a just framework to evaluate them.
What I have noticed in some hippie circles is a kind of pride in claiming to be above politics, to be "apolitical". Such claims rarely seem justified if one looks closer, for they are usually made when confronted with political questions – i.e. questions about communal decisions, about what ethical standards to share, how to assign authority, what groups to ally with. Often such claims of the apolitical are merely rejections of debating a political topic in a rational way, or under acknowledgment of its relationship to society at large: Political questions are argued, and political answers justified – but by reference to that which cannot be criticized, to spiritual or emotional truth, to a dogma claimed as eternal and mystical, or a morality more ancient or "natural" than the petty and ephemeral questions of the modern everyday world.
I see strong tendencies among hippies to replace explanations of a rational or scientific or impersonal nature with explanations that are mystical, moral, or emotional. We can see this in certain schools of "alternative" healing, where sicknesses are explained not by bio-chemical mechanisms, but rather by astrology, or by the sick person living in disharmony with nature, or carrying with them an unsolved moral question. Such logic quickly leads to victim-blaming: This man died from cancer, despite using an all-powerful traditional and natural remedy? That's probably because he had a strong unconscious death wish. This woman lost her child in pregnancy? That's probably because, in her deepest inner self, she did not really want the child. The same logic is sometimes applied to people suffering under social conditions (such as a class or caste system) – conditions which could be explained by social science as something to be questioned, criticized, and changed. Hippie explanations that aim for the apolitical instead veer into the territory of karmic logic (these persons are born into this miserable social position due to their misdeeds in a previous life), or more generally of a cosmic harmony that expresses itself even in this suffering – and, as cosmic harmony, deserves acceptance, or respect even. The cosmos is just, so is the suffering caused by it – to go against it would be an act of disharmony, of hubris. Once you follow this logic, you're knee-deep in social conservatism.
From anti-establishmentarianism to conspiracy theories
A third element of hippie culture that may turn dangerous is a deep mistrust against what can be considered the "mainstream" authorities, or "the powers that be", or "the Man", "the system", etc. And again I don't want to disparage this skepticism wholesale – quite the opposite: As someone with anarchist sympathies, I'm all for questioning the authorities we can see towering above us.
But I also think that such a mistrust can turn counter-productive. One example: It is sane to not trust everything the government says. The government has lied, and will lie again. But it's dangerous to conclude from this that something be a lie just because the government says it. This tendency can be seen, I think, with many Coronavirus denialists. Among these there are many who have good reason to mistrust the government, and who have seen the government lie in ways that hurt them. From this experience it's a small step to consider something a lie by virtue of it being told by the government. If the government says there is a deadly virus out there, and we have to change our behaviour to counter it, this logic concludes that the opposite is true, that there is no deadly virus, and that we should not let our behaviour be changed.
Mistrust against authorities mostly turns dangerous in combination with misconceptions or ignorance about how power actually works and is distributed in the real world – who is in charge to what degree, what interest groups struggle with each other by what means, what are the mechanics of politics in a given society. The configuration of these things in our current world is rather complex, and rarely fits neatly into models such as a simple hierarchy of evil "them" on top and good "us" on the bottom. But it is such simple models and dualisms that popular thought is driven to again and again.
This finds its most dangerous expression in a tendency to explain politics and the world via conspiracy theories. Just to be clear: Individual conspiracy theories can of course be true. In fact, the world is full of conspiracies. The danger lies in attributing too much power to conspiracies, and in the often pretty simple moral claims that lie at the heart of (even very convoluted) conspiracy theories – namely that there be a small group of evil people that control reality to the detriment of the innocent masses, and that it be these manipulative people primarily that stand between us and a better world; that things would be much better if only we could get rid of these people. The path from this to bloodhirsty scapegoating seems obvious to me.
This sort of world view opposes a systemic, structural understanding of politics: that the game and its rules be the problem, not so much the players. Consider Capitalism: Obviously we have here a hierarchy of exploiters and exploited, of wealthy capitalists on top and poor workers at the bottom. But at least from a Marxist point of view, the problem is not the individual capitalists, or their morality. One could assassinate them all – but if one was to keep the ruleset of Capitalism running, this very ruleset would simply push some formerly exploited workers up into the newly emptied slots formerly inhabited by their old masters, to become the new exploiters. The game of Capitalism forces every participant into a cutthroat competition – either exploit, or be exploited; within the game, this is not so much a question of personal morals, but of necessity, of survival even. The problem is not the players and their morality, but the game and its rules. A conspiracy theory of Capitalism, on the other hand, would argue that the game itself is fine – that our troubles only come from some players cheating, or bending and corrupting its rules in an unfair way.
There is one popular pattern of thinking in conspiracy theories that merits special attention in the context of hippie culture, as it is very much grounded in the anti-modernist tradition that informs much of hippie culture. It is the idea that the cabal of conspirators is made up of people that by their very character or nature represent all the parts of modernity rejected by romanticist, provincial, sentimental etc. thought: a people deeply materialistic (either as greedy Capitalists, or as Marxists promoting a most secular politics), up-rooted/disconnected from nature and its spirits and lands, highly urban (embracing the alienation of city life) and cosmopolitan (rootless travelers without responsibility to any home land), overly intellectual/rationalistic and driven by the head instead of the heart/the guts, artificial or even devious in their demeanour rather than direct and authentic, comfortable and ingrained in – and thereby in control of – all the powerful faceless institutions of modernity such as banks and corporations.
For various historical reasons, such personification of rejected modernity has popularly been projected on one specific minority: jews. Now with hippie culture, one will rarely find explicit talk of jewish conspiracies; but rather often similar patterns in describing the agents responsible for why we can't have nice things – think of the "lizard people", of "globalists", of "the Illuminati", or maybe even "the 1%". Funnily enough though, names of specific jews will pop up sooner or later in such discussions – such as George Soros, or Mark Zuckerberg (remember all the memes about him appearing unnatural and inauthentic in his manners?). More scarily even, classical myths of antisemitism that reach back even into the middle ages find new shape in conspiracy theories popular among New Age people: There is the myth of jews being responsible for the populace' health problems or even the plague by poisoning the wells – which returns nowadays as the secret cabal poisoning us all (to make us infertile or worse) via 5G, or chemtrails, or vaccination. And there's the myth of jews abducting children to harvest their blood for anti-christian rituals – which finds quite a strong echo in the modern QAnon turn of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which (under the hashtag #SaveTheChildren) tells of a secret cabal of the satanistic powerful abducting children to harvest their bodily fluids for the creation of super drug Adrenochrome.
So how do we deal with these tendencies in hippie culture, the romanticism for the natural and primitive, the romanticism for the irrational, and the anti-establishmentarianism?
First I want to reassert that these tendencies are, at their core, not by themselves bad – often, they actually produce lots of good. But they can turn dangerous easily, especially if approached with ignorance about how the very same has happened in the past.
I consider it imperative for us to acknowledge and understand the dangers inherent in these aspects of hippie culture, and to register when we move close to these dangers. We have to carefully observe these tendencies in our own thinking, and that of our peers, and take action early if they move in the direction of harm.
The proper mode of intervention in such a case greatly depends on the situation. The strategies differ, for example, depending on whether we deal with a friend, or with a stranger. It is easier to reach people that we are close with and that trust us – in that case it may be worthwile to talk to them privately about what worries us, so as not to corner them into defensive mechanisms that are triggered in the context of a large audience. We may be tempted to attack their ideas directly – but often it might be more useful to first try to understand what makes them come up with these ideas, what problem bugs them that they try to solve this way, what questions they seek an answer for. The next step might then be to try to offer alternate approaches and answers to these problems and questions, instead of fixating on the wrongness of what they've come up with as solutions. It may be worthwile though to explain why we consider their ideas dangerous, and what harm we see enabled by them.
Our chances to convince a stranger are much smaller, and our energy may be spent better elsewhere. Nevertheless it may be necessary to sometimes challenge strangers' utterance of such ideas – namely in situations where those ideas might spread to others, such as in social settings of discussion. In that case our goal would not be to convince that individual, but rather to make it known to the other listeners that what is said by this person does not go unchallenged, and merits criticism, maybe even intolerance. Whether we attempt this with friendly or aggressive rhetoric should be guided more by what promises acceptance with the other listeners, rather than with the person we argue with.
There are many resources out there on how to win debates, how to convince an audience, etc. We may find guidance there. There are some conversational tactics though that may be especially useful when dealing with the dangerous thought patterns described in this talk:
- When dealing with conspiracy theorists, try not to get entangled into disproving their theories point by point. Unless you are a strongly studied expert in the subject matter, your opponents will always have read much more about the issue than you, and will come up again and again with new claims and sources that to refute individually would take you years of research. Instead of repeating what they say and then focus on its wrongness, you might present counter-narratives grounded in the complexity of the world, or underline the absurdity of their claims by sketching what impossible degrees of conspiratonal organization, discipline, secrecy etc. would be necessary if they were true.
- When dealing with some vision or utopia of how the world should be that strikes you as suspect, question how it would integrate minorities, the queer, the disabled and the sick, the poor. If the utopia does not provide space for these, ask why. If a utopia depends on the absence of certain kinds of people, ask for the plan on how to get rid of them. It's easy to claim that the planet would be better off with a few billion people less – but it's fair to then inquire about a plan for population reduction that does not involve mass murder.
- When dealing with skepticism against "mainstream" science etc., demand that the same measure of skepticism be applied to that which is deemed a valid counter-resource. It's fair to question the neutrality of academia under capitalism and political polarization – but YouTube pundits and New Age peddlers do not live in a bubble of disinterestedness either. Often they are rather quick at promoting products to buy.
Be aware that, while some people may innocently drift into dangerous ideological territory out of naivité, there are bad actors out there who very much know what they are doing – such as neonazis who try to spread antisemitism under the cloak of seemingly harmless hippie language. Be prepared for such people to ruthlessly exploit any weakness they can find in your scenes, and to manipulate and mobilize social pressure against anyone who threatens their mission – including you if you manage to criticize them effectively.
You want to identify and counter harmful ideas early, before they become too ingrained and powerful in your scene. There is no way then around educating yourself and others about such ideas, and about the potential dangers and dark neighbourhoods of even the most friendly looking hippie culture tenets. Studying nazi hippiedom, eco-fascism, deadly New Age cults, and the logic of antisemitic conspiracy theories will strengthen your radar and sharpen your tools for dealing with their seeds when they emerge in your proximity.
A pre-existing political education and experience seems to be the best vaccine against falling prey to stuff like the QAnon cult, or "it's lizard people!" explanations of world politics. Someone who has dug deep into any somewhat scientific attempt to explain Capitalism, be it Neoclassicist theory or Marxism, will less easily be convinced by concepts such as "it's all a cabal of greedy jews". Someone who's spent their life in political struggles will understand much better how politics works in the real world, and therefore quickly question conspiracy theories that depend on the perfect omnipotence of a small group of evil people. Be wary of any promotion of, or claim to, the "apolitical". Ignorance of worldly matters is no requirement for connecting to nature, or for attaining spiritual experience, or for overcoming "the Man" – in fact, ignorance of worldly matters seems very much antithetical to these projects. Remember all the religious, spiritual, artistic, ecological, anti-authoritarian characters that left their mark in the political history of human civilization – they prove that you can be deeply hippie and political at the same time.
To end on an optimistic note: Among hippie cultures, I consider the burners relatively well-armed against the intellectual dangers described in this talk. Burners enjoy running their hippiedom through a gauntlet of constant self-deprecation bordering on ridicule, which opens up much space for skepticism and criticism; their anarchism is quick to turn against their own institutions, which subverts tendencies towards community authoritarianism; individualism and diversity in manner and thinking are heavily promoted, which limits the encroachment of dogmatic conformism. The 10 Principles of Burning Man are too vague to serve as a strict manual on how to see or shape the world – but they effectively decry many common paths to harm.
Some books I've read in preparation of this talk, and can greatly recommend to those who found it interesting (sorry, all in German):
- Katharina Nocun, Pia Lamberty: Fake Facts. Wie Verschwörungstheorien unser Denken bestimmen – goes deep into the psychology of thinking in conspiracy theories, and how to deal with it when encountered in person; but also investigates anti-vaxxer scenes, the New Age industry, alternative medicine peddlers etc.; a thorough ideological analysis of a wide variety of schools of irrationalism
- Mira Landwehr: "Vier Beine gut, zwei Beine schlecht" – Zum Zusammenhang von Tierliebe und Menschenhass in der veganen Tierrechtsbewegung – focuses on anti-humanistic and anti-rational tendencies in the vegan and animal rights movements, deep ecology and eco-fascism, the mingling between these scenes and neonazis, romanticisms for "the natural" and calls for the destruction of human civilization
- Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung: Braune Ökologen. Hintergrunde und Strukturen am Beispiel Mecklenburg-Vorpommerns – features analyses of classical and contemporary (neo-)Nazi ecologism and environmentalism and intentional communities like the (Neo-)Artamans, who attempt to spread an anti-modern "blood and soil" counter-culture by settling under-populated parts of East Germany