Nikki Haley’s recent comments about the downside of the “own the libs” style of conservative activism—which is heavy on mockery, insults, and other forms of Internet trolling—touched off a certain amount of debate in conservative circles. Some agreed about the folly of pursuing the cheap satisfaction of a caustic putdown over actual persuasion, some thought mockery still has an important role in political debate, and the defenders of “owning the libs” admitted that they don’t believe in political debate anyway, declaring that “this is not about persuasion anymore.” I would ask why they don’t just pack it in and proceed straight to civil war, but it seems unethical to encourage people to get themselves killed doing something stupid.
As I’ve been thinking it over, though, I’ve realized the greater danger of the “own the libs” mentality. It’s not just about your failure to persuade your opponents—or, more likely, the uncommitted observer, which is who those debates are really aimed at. It’s about your failure to hold your own side accountable.
But first let’s look at Haley’s comments.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote ‘own the libs,’ Haley asked at the High School Leadership Summit at George Washington University. The vast majority raised their hands in response, and then erupted into spontaneous applause.
“I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this—are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?” Haley asked. “We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership—it’s the exact opposite.”
“Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view,” she added. “Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”
This message is desperately needed. The Republican Party has been so seduced by the lure of pure partisan spite that it recently elected a president primarily because of his suitability for the task of “owning the libs.” But this terminology is an empty metaphor.
“Owning” in this context means nothing. It confers no influence or authority and is definitely not recognized by the person who is allegedly “owned.” You may puff yourself up with “the pure, unadulterated pleasure of breaking the will of some puffed-up liberal nimrod on social media with a clever, cutting, caustic takedown.” But you have “broken his will” in exactly the same way that Jon Stewart “destroyed” all of his targets, which is to say, not at all. It is a subjective illusion in your own head.
Consider where the term came from. As best I can tell, this usage of the word “own” originated with hackers, who used it to describe the act of controlling someone else’s computer or network and therefore “owning” it. This is, of course, an ironic usage, because the whole point is that the system the hacker controls is actually somebody else’s property. But it least it referred to some kind of external, practical form of efficacy.
From there, however, “own” spread to videogamers who used it to refer to the process of inflicting a humiliating defeat on another player. (You will often see this in the form of a deliberate and unpronounceable typo, “pwn.” The culture of online discussion, which involves a lot of fast typing and no editing, has led to the adoption of various slang terms based on common typographical errors.) From here the term spilled out into the wider culture and particularly to online trolls, who see Internet discussion as just another game in which their job is to inflict an imagined defeat on whoever is foolish enough to waste time talking to them.
In other words, this term came from people who were trying to take a narrow and rather useless skill—being able to beat other people in a made-up game—and make it seem as if it is a sign of efficacy and accomplishment in life. In this context, “own” literally refers to the false sense of power that results from a purely symbolic and imaginary victory—and that is exactly how it works when you confuse insulting people on social media with an actual victory for a substantive political agenda.
You might want to notice, by the way, that “own the libs” or “trigger the libs” has actually become a meme on the left, to describe someone on the right making a complete fool of himself—eating overcooked steak or wearing a diaper in public—because of the trauma he imagines it will cause to his political opposition. I believe this is what the kids these days call a “self-own.”
The deeper problem, though, is that politicians who are ostensibly on our own side love to see us distract ourselves with these imaginary rhetorical victories, because it takes the pressure off of them. People who view themselves as hard-core political warriors have been so busy “owning the libs” that they have barely even noticed when these politicians fail to repeal Obamacare, or pass a bloated budget with massive new spending, or enlarge the entitlement state, or post trillion-dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see.
To the extent you are not holding leaders on your own side accountable, you are relinquishing your ownership of them. The politicians want a system where they can do or say whatever they want, and you will stick by them so long as they can get opponents on the left to hate them. And they can always get that, because the politicians on the left are busy getting their electoral base to try to “own” you—actually, they usually send late-night comedians to “destroy” the opposition—because they also want to free themselves from accountability.
Our current politics of petty warfare over the Outrage of the Day, driven by attempts to drive home the latest meme or insult, is not a form of effective political activism. It’s just a tool demagogues use to draft you as a foot soldier who will act on tribal loyalty rather than firm principles.
“Own the libs” really means, “Be a good little follower,” and it’s how you get owned.