One of the more unfortunate trends of the 21st century is the increasingly ugly right-wing strategy of singling out individuals—usually those who have somehow offended them by having liberal opinions—and subjecting them to grotesque smear campaigns and a deluge of abuse. Recent examples include Michelle Malkin's smear campaign against a 12-year-old who testified in favor of SCHIP; the bizarre multi-year campaign to discredit climate scientist Michael Mann; and the relentless haranguing of feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian. The goal often seems to be to “take out” the target by making the price of continuing to speak out in public so high that they quit entirely.
These kinds of harassment campaigns aren’t just immoral, but illogical. For one, the targets seem to be chosen almost at random. Plenty of people agree with Sarkeesian about video games, but she gets exponentially more abuse for it than most of her comrades. The malice conservatives aim at their targets would suggest that they think by eliminating the person, they can somehow take out the ideas the person promotes, but there’s no reason to believe that. Climate science will still be around if Mann retires tomorrow. Sarkeesian’s feminist videos are good, but if she quit making them, there are plenty of other smart women critiquing sexism in video games. No matter how successful Malkin may be at publicly humiliating a sixth-grader, she can’t change the fact that millions of children get necessary healthcare coverage through SCHIP.
So why do they do this? Michael Mann published a paper titled “The Serengeti strategy: How special interests try to intimidate scientists, and how best to fight back” that examines this question for the January edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Using his own experience as the punching bag conservatives hit when they want to take potshots at climate scientists, Mann argues that attacking individuals while leaving the larger group intact doesn’t seem to make sense initially, but there is a purpose to it.
“This is a classic ad hominem attack, consisting of innuendo and obfuscation, often focusing on irrelevant items, whose net effect is to direct attention away from the merits of an argument and instead to the character of the person making it,” Mann writes. “This approach appeals to feelings, emotions, and prejudices rather than intellect—exactly the point when the attacker is on the wrong side of the facts.”
He calls it the “Serengeti strategy” because the strategy reminds him of how a lion hunts zebra. Rather than trying to take down an entire herd of zebra, the lion reaches out and grabs one, often an individual who is perceived as a soft target for some reason. One is all that is needed to satiate the lion’s appetite, and one is much easier than trying to kill all of them.
In this case, the “herd” is the idea: Climate change, feminism, liberalism. Conservatives know they can’t kill off the herd. Their arguments are crappy and their beliefs often off-putting. So instead of trying to take on the herd, they target individuals. The idea isn't to stop the debate over whether or not climate change is real or feminism is a good idea, because that’s a debate they know they can’t win. Instead, they try to make the debate about the individual's character. They make that person the face of the idea they hate and hope that, by smearing that person, the idea will be smeared by proxy.
Mann directly experienced this when conservatives seized upon some emails he leaked and misrepresented the contents to argue, falsely, that Mann had somehow goosed his scientific findings. The conservative accusations against Mann were utterly false, but even if they were true, it really shouldn’t have meant anything. After all, as Mann points out, there’s overwhelming evidence in favor of climate change theory and his research is only a small piece of the puzzle. But Mann’s harassers didn’t see it that way. They clearly seemed to believe that by discrediting one scientist, they could bring the whole theory of climate science down.
We see a similar situation in the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian’s haters frequently try to put distance between themselves and more traditional conservatives, but we should not be fooled. Their tactics are pure Michelle Malkin and their goal of marginalizing women in geek spaces and the tech industry is indistinguishable from the larger conservative agenda regarding women.
As Sarkeesian noted in a recent talk on her relentless online haters, a lot of them have become obsessed with the idea of proving she’s a “fraud,” as though it’s somehow possible to defraud people by sharing an opinion and seeing if they agree with it. There are endless numbers of blog posts and videos out there claiming to have “proof” Sarkeesian is lying about something, either her past or the levels of harassment she faces. The evidence for these claims is slim to nothing, but what is stranger is that her critics think any of this matters. Perhaps one day they will get lucky and find out that her feminist video-making is just a cover for a drug-running operation. Doesn’t mean video games are any less sexist.
But just because these strategies are illogical doesn’t mean they are ineffective. The Serengeti strategy is particularly effective when it’s used by pundits to demonize groups conservative audiences may not know very well. Most people in a conservative audience probably don’t know any climate scientists, so if you can convince them the person you’re harassing is a bad person, it’s that much easier to imply all of them are dirty. Same with feminists.
That’s why the best way to fight back against the Serengeti strategy is for more scientists, feminists or any members of demonized groups to get out there and keep talking. The more faces to match with an idea, the harder it is for conservatives to make one individual stand for the whole. It’s one thing to use lies and innuendo to convince people not to trust Anita Sarkeesian and therefore feminism, but it’s a lot harder to do when the face of feminism is thousands of women, many of them popular and well-known.
“When it comes to fighting against disinformation, the old adage ’the best defense is a good offense’ rings true,” Mann writes. Instead of leaving vulnerable members of the herd out there to be picked off, we should surround them and give them support and protection. In doing so, we can only make the herd stronger.