Russian Bots and the Real NPCs: Non-Political Citizens and the Rise of Partisan Dehumanization

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It takes being blinded by ideological differences, or to lack any care whatsoever, to fail to notice that laughing at someone complaining about you treating them the way they treat you is a tacit admission that you have abandoned the standards you sought to criticize them by. That is a loaded sentence if ever I’ve typed one, and I don’t pretend to act as some sort of neutral, unbiased arbiter by commenting on this trend; I can’t say I don’t find NPC memes humerous. I do, however, notice the complaint from people on the left who state that the very idea is dehumanizing, and I don’t disagree. It is, and it’s pointless to pretend otherwise, just as it’s pointless to deny that those who laugh at that complaint, rightly pointing out that those leftists are just as happy to call people who disagree with them “Russian Bots”, are also correct to notice that said left-wing activists who act that way are being hypocrites.

There is a spirit of tit-for-tat political dismissal, disregard, and disdain among both sides of the aisle for one another, which inevitably leads to each trying to use the other as a political scapegoat. Despite those defending the spurious allegations about the Kavanaugh case, there is certainly a more honest undercurrent among some Democrats and their supporters that the hearing and attempts to deny Kavanaugh were absolutely justified due to actions taken by Republicans to deny Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland. And it would be foolish to imply that the Democrats aren’t justified in the spirit of their action, if one indeed believes the Republicans had the right to prevent Garland’s appointment; though certainly one can and indeed MUST question the manner in which such an attempt was made, and therein lies the rub. This blind politicization of everything, from movies, to video games, to comic books, concerts, hobbies, hell, even appointments that specifically are not meant to be political; all of this is leading to further divides in a system where the vast majority of people are dispossessed with the political undercurrents driving either side socially.

The Hidden Tribes of America is a year-long project launched by More in Common to better understand the forces that drive political polarization and tribalism in the United States today, and to galvanize efforts to address them. The Hidden Tribes of America study forms the initial phase of the project.”

As seen in a recent study, which took a sample size of 8000 respondents of varying political beliefs, those who are either politically progressive or politically conservative within the United States make up approximately 8% and 25% of the population respectively. This leaves 67% of respondents in a gulf between these two extremes, being pulled further to either side, or else choosing to opt out of the political discussion altogether. As more and more of today’s discussions seem to focus on political issues, these “Non-Political” citizens (or the “exhausted majority” as the study labels them) make up the overwhelming majority of America, and they are 14% more likely than their counterparts to be open to compromising with the people who disagree with them than those who sit at the extremes. Perhaps exhausted majority is a better term overall for these people who are by and large sick of all of the fighting, because the fighting does tend to be a bit much, and the hypocrisy can, at times, be utterly unbearable.

The real pain caused by all of this is the push for dehumanization of ideological opposition, regardless of who it is done by. Groups of left-wing activists attempts to strip all legitimacy from the views of the right by claiming they’re being fed fake news from Russia, whereas right-wing activists and trolls mock those whom they disagree with as brainwashed NPCs or Non-Player Characters (a loaner term borrowed from video games used to describe passive background characters, whose sole purpose is to revolve around the story of the protagonist(s) and either offer them aid or else serve as means for plot development). In this, both attempt to spin the narrative that they are just heroes standing up against a horde of those whose beliefs aren’t their own—that these are people who have no fundamental value to the political equation beyond as an outside threat, or as a tool of the establishment. Meanwhile, the real NPCs, the tired many who sit in the middle, watching this fight go on and on have long since grown sick of the constant bickering and largely just want a system that works for them and the ones they love.

At the end of the day, more Americans agree than disagree about what is important. More are willing to find compromise than not. Freedom and equality of opportunity are two ideals that have shaped America since the beginning, and they are two things that unite the vast majority of Americans no matter what. Regardless of the extremes to which people are willing to go to in order to misrepresent or dehumanize one another, one thing ought to remain clear, as the study aptly remarks:

American national identity has the potential to bring Americans together, but it also has the potential to divide. Focusing on the larger things that Americans have in common, rather than always exaggerating their differences, can help make identity a more unifying force.” - p. 125

In a nation where people seem bent on denying the identity of others, it is we in the tired middle who must stand up and remind people that America is more than just an ideological battleground, and that all those within her borders, no matter their opinions, are more than just thoughtless machines acting on the whim of some other nefarious group. It is a sad remark upon of the state of society that those who don’t even play the game have to remind the bots and the NPCs of their shared humanity—to treat each other kindly and to not tread on the freedoms of others. I fear that if more don’t stand up and take a clearer stance on the matter soon, the split will only divide us more, and if history has taught us anything, nothing good ever comes out of two large groups splitting into tribes that are locked in ideological war with one another.

Shane Armstrong