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The Barry Effect
Why does social justice, especially the kind that drives many contemporary DEI initiatives, seem so nonsensical? Why do law students at a prestigious school seem unaware of the First Amendment? Why do student activists and college administrators seem to think that physically attacking a woman for her opinion is productive behavior? And what about the egregious neglect of due process or a person’s right to defend oneself in so many campus cancelations? If the goal of these initiatives truly is diversity, equity, inclusion, and the fair treatment of all, these actions seem counterproductive. However, if the goal is confusion, chaos, and destabilization of the status quo, then it makes all the sense in the world.
Many progressive activists and scholars do this to aid in their mission for social transformation. They may not even believe what they say, but they know how what they say can influence their world. If they can succeed in making people doubt their realities, they can more easily usher in their preferred reality and wrest power from upholders of the status quo. I have started to call this strategy “The Barry Effect.”
The show, Barry, an HBO comedy series starring Bill Hader as the title character, provides an apt illustration of this strategy. In Episode 5 of Season Three, Barry’s girlfriend, Sally, is upset about being betrayed by a work colleague. Barry offers to help Sally and initially asks where her colleague lives. Barry offers to help, saying he just wants to “freak her out a little bit.” When asked what he means by that, he explains:
“Oh, there's a lot of ways. It's, you know, nothing bad, no. It's just like, for instance, I could send her a picture of herself sleeping, you know just as a way of being like, ‘Hey, not cool would you did to Sally.’... Oh she'd never know I was there. No, the whole point is to isolate her and make her feel like she's going insane. So, I would just do little things like replace her dog with a slightly different dog or, you know, change the furniture in her house so she thinks she's shrinking. You know, basic stuff. Basically, just plant a seed and then they just kind of hang themselves so it's super non-violent, but by the end of it, like, her brain will have essentially eaten itself.
The Barry Effect is the attempt to create so much cognitive dissonance that the brain begins to malfunction from profound uncertainty. Altering a person’s perceptions of reality, especially when combined with isolation and blame (that one’s confusion is a result of a personal flaw), can break that person down.
The Barry Effect plays on the innate relationship between humans and the concept of certainty. Uncertainty is the most disquieting feeling a human can have. According to Nietzsche, in “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” the entire point of the human intellect is to provide a sense of safety and prevent ubiquitous anxiety. This is not the certainty of knowing the truth about lofty concepts or the efficacy of particular opinions. This is the certainty about mundane reality itself. Most people would crumble if they were led to be unsure about the most basic things. Those who wield The Barry Effect know this.
The prodding of one’s brain toward auto-cannibalism is called “menticide” by psychiatrist Joost A. M. Meerloo, and this murder of the mind is a means to “logicide”: the eradication of logic, itself. The Barry Effect is a powerful weapon for “menticidal maniacs.” Its seeds can be sown by suddenly making innocuous statements into micro-aggressions. They can be cultivated by demonizing basic features of society like reason, the value of hard work, the concept of merit, free speech, and even equality. Once someone is no longer sure of what is and is not real or acceptable, the destabilization has reached a point where the person is helpless mentally and emotionally. Such a person is easy to manipulate and control, helping others seize power. Theoretically, if this can be done to a critical mass, whole cultures can be transformed.
That is the theory, anyway. The critical theory, to be more exact. Much of the theory and practice of contemporary social justice is influenced by scholars of the Frankfurt School, a think tank known for its work in critical theory, a confluence of cultural Marxism and Freudian Psychoanalysis. These philosophers prescribed a profound altering of reality to shake people out of their “false consciousness” and, therefore, change society for the better.
Passages from critical theory that address something like The Barry Effect are too many and too nuanced for the scope of this article, but I can mention a few. In “The Actuality of Philosophy,” Theodor Adorno, one of the primary figures in critical theory, prescribed a tactic to get out from under a society’s preferred ideology, including what that society considers “reality.” When being asked a question, Adorno says we must negate the question in our answer. He writes,
If the idea of philosophic interpretation which I tried to develop for you is valid, then it can be expressed as the demand to answer the questions of a pre-given reality each time, through a fantasy which rearranges the elements of the question without going beyond the circumference of the elements, the exactitude of which has its control in the disappearance of the question.
Adorno suggests taking concepts associated with the question, or particular words or concepts within the question, and rearranging them into a new question, and it is that question one answers. Apparently, this can help shake people out of hegemony or "false consciousness."
Lest you think this is too theoretical and nonsensical to be put into practice, consider law professor Khiara Bridges’s testimony in front of the U.S. Senate regarding the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. When asked by Senator John Cornyn if she thought a baby that is not yet born has value, she answered, “I believe a person with the capacity for pregnancy has value,” she answered. “They have intelligence. They have agency.” When Senator Corbyn interrupted her to let her know she wasn’t answering the actual question asked, she said “And I’m talking about the person with a capacity for pregnancy... I’m answering a more interesting question to me.” Rather than answer a question from a person who, in that context, represented the status quo, she rearranged the question by choosing concepts associated with the question (pregnancy, birth, sex, etc.), formulated a new question—one that spoke more directly to her beliefs in non-binary biological sex—and answered it. Bridges did all this with a straight face as if nothing strange was happening. If one listened closely enough, perhaps one could hear the sound of people’s brains eating themselves. The Barry Effect was taking hold, and both Barry and Adorno would be proud.
Herbert Marcuse, another prominent critical theorist, may also be held responsible for the prevalence of The Barry Effect in social justice activism. The “why” and “how” of The Barry Effect can be gleaned from much of his writing, especially in the 50s and 60s. In “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse insists that free speech and viewpoint diversity do nothing but maintain the status quo and that the only way to transform society would be a complete revolution brought on by complete intolerance of those with opposing viewpoints and complete tolerance of those with similar viewpoints. Naturally, this leads to a kind of special pleading in which an act is acceptable when done by oneself or one’s group but unacceptable when done by others. This is why those who abide by critical theories say anyone who does not agree with them is suffering from false consciousness, implying that they are the only ones with true consciousness.
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Aligned with repressive tolerance and rearranging reality, the altering of definitions is a favorite tactic for inducing The Barry Effect. Take, for example, the redefinition of racism as only racial discrimination from a racialized white source, making a black person’s racial discrimination of a whites not a form of racism. The rationale is that racism only occurs when the person doing the discrimination is perceived as having more power than his or her target. Thus, a poor white person can be racist toward a rich black person, but the reversal—a rich black person’s racial bigotry toward a poor white person—does not constitute racism. Given the long-held definition of racism as any racial discrimination from any source, this new definition is bound to create some confusion and some doubting of fundamental concepts like race and racism and, by extension, social justice, equality, justice, and so on. This, of course, is by design. For the utmost clarity, one would not change a definition but qualify it with an adjective, e.g., “hegemonic racism” vs. “counter-hegemonic” racism, or “traditional” racism vs. “neo-racism,” etc. The fact that adjectives, a universal mode of clarification, are neglected strongly suggests that obfuscation, not clarity, is the entire point. Complicating the valued definitions of a society can go a long way toward its destabilization.
You can see repressive tolerance and other obfuscating acts in student protests, from Evergreen State College, to Stanford’s law school, to San Francisco State University’s shouting down of Riley Gaines, to the State University of New York-Albany’s suppression of Ian Hawort. Most, if not all, of these protestors, are well aware of how ridiculous and nonsensical they sound and how absurd and impractical they act. They don’t care. Their goal is not to make sense, to give sound arguments, or to dialogue in ways that can create reform. Their goal is complete social transformation, and The Barry Effect is a favorite tool.
Destabilization is effective if only to distract. Even if power cannot be acquired one can make dissenters so busy explaining the obvious—e.g., words cannot be literal violence or merit is not an inherently racist concept—that we have no time and energy for upholding our values, our institutions, and our society. While giving time to explain that water is wet, we take time away from productive and generative work. We don’t think about the things that matter because we are too busy explaining things that don’t. We don’t think about new things to discover because we are too busy explaining old things already discovered. Cathy Young shouldn’t have had to write an article explaining that 2 + 2= 4. She could have used her talent and intellect for something much more beneficial or informative to society.
I must be clear that by pointing out the detriments of destabilization, I am not critiquing the whole concept of scrutiny. The world is not perfect and needs to improve, so much good can come from scrutinizing normality to improve upon it. Nor am I saying that all social justice initiatives are nonsense; I believe ethnic studies is a worthwhile discipline. Nor am I saying every concept valued by contemporary DEI initiatives are wrong; I believe intersectionality, on its surface, makes total sense. These are all fine things, but when tainted by The Barry Effect, devolve into nonsense.
So, what do we do about this? It’s one thing to know about The Barry Effect, and another to combat it. Pushing back against this effect is easier for some than others regarding job security, ethos, and resources. However, I believe, if nothing else, the detriments of The Barry Effect can be lessened if approached in certain ways.
First, notice when you feel or see someone cause effects of the Barry variety and know that confusion is their goal. Otherwise, while you’re trying to wrap your mind around the idea that water isn’t wet, you won’t notice the illiberal changes in your Human Resource department or your academic administration. Secondly, don’t fight them head-on; that’s what they want. Societal in-fighting also leads to destabilization, perhaps more quickly and drastically. People who try to fight fire with fire—e.g., point out their blatant flaws and argue for the efficacy of reason and rationality—will prove ineffective against people who do not care about flaws, reason, or rationality. A ludic approach (something I expound on here) may be helpful. If you can use humor in a way that does not amount to ad hominem attacks but clever critiques of ideas and concepts, all the better.
Most importantly, we should realize and act on the fact that we are not alone and that there is power and solace in finding and working with like-minded others. Solid Ground is a “peer support community dedicated to helping people navigate the divisive impacts of oppressive ideologies” by cultivating “an environment in which participants feel free to share their experiences and to receive/offer validation, support, and camaraderie with others.” Affirming Reality is an organization started by Gabriel Clark, a disgruntled mother helping herself and others combat the destabilizing effects of contemporary DEI initiatives. Clark started the organization to “help other parents by guiding them through some of these scary issues” and “point them in the right direction, provide resources, and give them tools to pull their children out of this cult.” Feelings of profound isolation are common when dealing with the Barry Effect, finding like-minded people through organizations like these can stave off such feelings! You are not alone.
Lastly, if you want to address the wielders of The Barry Effect, present serious and prescriptive messages indirectly for those who are confused and looking for clarity. Why? An argument with a “menticidal maniac” should never be done to change that particular person’s mind. You are really using the conversation as a window of opportunity to express your views to those listening in who, perhaps more than anything, need to be told that they are not the crazy ones, and that words aren’t literal violence. In a debate, you are really talking to the audience. In a Twitter thread, for instance, you are really talking to those “listening in” on the argument. Try to disempower your interlocutor, but try harder to empower those who may need help standing their ground against obfuscation.
If nothing else, awareness is key. Regarding The Barry Effect, the best we can do is know what it is, why it is, and that we are not the crazy ones. That may be just enough to maintain our stability and react to the illiberalism of contemporary social justice successfully. Knowing this can save many people from the intended mental and emotional anguish and substantially weaken The Barry Effect until it isn’t an effect at all. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.