Let’s get the simple part out of the way: The YouTube channel ContraPoints is very good. Regardless of the viewer’s interest or lack thereof in internet culture wars, YouTube Nazis, or any of the other wide-ranging subjects covered in its videos, they’re funny, bizarre, erudite, and compelling.
In one video, Contra — as the host is known — a 29-year-old trans woman living in Baltimore, spends an uncomfortably long cutaway shot trying to smoosh a hot dog into an electrical outlet. In another, she runs through snowy woods wearing nothing but underwear and a furry cape, imitating a Nordic-inspired white supremacist. Her videos, which cover everything from the concept of “alpha males” to autobiographical explanations of how her own politics developed, are thick with sexuality and, especially when it comes to the early ones, with good-natured, alcohol-drenched self-loathing. They’re also, at this point, profitable enough for them to be her primary source of income — she earns more than $5,300 per video on Patreon — a figure that was almost $2,000 lower when I first interviewed her in August.
But maybe most importantly, ContraPoints isn’t just a quality source of thoughtful entertainment or a successful YouTube business. It’s also a much-needed volley at the right-wing domination of YouTube, and the beginnings of a blueprint for countering the rise of right-wing extremism and indoctrination on the video-sharing site.
If you’re an average adult user, YouTube is the place where you can see Colbert clips and movie trailers. But for the young people who make up YouTube’s most devoted audience, the site is as important a source of political content as it is a source of entertainment. Over the last few years, a rich ecosystem of commentators has established itself on the video-sharing site, recording video monologues purporting to explain the world. That network leans right. Hard. As John Herrman explained in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “YouTube is host to just one dominant native political community: the YouTube right.”
Like talk radio, YouTube hosts voices from across the political spectrum. But also like talk radio, most of the biggest and most successful ones are conservative — and not William Weld conservatives, but Steve Bannon conservatives. YouTube hosts petabytes of deeply reactionary content, and that quantity is growing by the minute. “[N]o [political] bloc is anywhere near as organized or as assertive as the YouTube right and its dozens of obdurate vloggers,” pointed out Herrman. “Nor is there a coherent group on the platform articulating any sort of direct answer to this budding form of reaction — which both validates this material in the eyes of its creators and gives it room to breathe, grow and assert itself beyond its immediate vicinity.”
That a video platform so beloved by adolescents is also so thoroughly dominated by a racist, extremist, reactionary right wing is a troubling thought, and one that hasn’t been directly confronted — partly, no doubt, because YouTube flies so far beneath the radar of most adults who follow politics. But how can we check the rise of the extreme right online — not just on YouTube, but on any of the many social platforms where it appears to flourish? Contra may not have all the answers, but she has one: Meet them on their turf and outdo them.
Contra, who recently changed her name from the one she was born with to Natalie Parrott (I’ll just call her Contra in this piece), got an early start on YouTube, making videos about atheism back in 2008 and 2009, when the online atheist scene was the locus of some of the web’s most passionate politics. She’d given it up during grad school — she was a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern University — but when she dropped out in 2015, driving an Uber and copyediting to make money while she wrote fiction, she found herself back on what felt like a very different YouTube. The site was now recommending her far-right vloggers making videos about how feminism is cancer or how Black Lives Matter is the most racist organization in American history. “I was like, That’s interesting,” she said. “What is going on with this?”
“I was looking at YouTube and seeing things really heat up again in terms of the popularity of talking about serious political or philosophical issues and almost no one doing leftist content that engaged with the other side in any way,” she explained. “I was like, I bet I can do this, so I gave it a shot, and it’s worked out better than I expected.” Much of Contra’s interest in this sort of debate stemmed from her belief that the left was bad at it, and had a tendency to adopt self-defeating rhetorical tactics.
In her video “Why I Quit Academia,” Contra lays out what could be seen as a mini-manifesto explaining her entire YouTube channel.
“Right-wing ding-dongs like to paint academia as some sort of leftist madrassa where Marxist-feminism is the only permissible worldview,” she explains. “This is an exaggeration, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration.” She tells a story about encountering Robert Nozick’s famous libertarian tract Anarchy, State, and Utopia in a seminar and finding herself unable to coherently argue against it. “We’d all cut our teeth dissecting these little squabbles between Rawls and Habermas, and we had no experience arguing against anything as far right as the political views that most Americans actually hold,” she says. “You have to go on YouTube for the real entertainment — and frankly, the real debate.”
To engage in debate, of course, you need an audience operating in good faith, making honest objections, and asking honest questions. On the internet, where disingenuous and manipulative trolls flourish, this premise might not always be warranted. A good YouTube commentator — especially one on the left, operating in essentially hostile territory — therefore has to pick her battles very carefully. At the same time, if your goal is to convince, you can’t give up on the idea of debate entirely. “In general, I do think having a debate is good,” said Contra. “But when you have very disingenuous opponents and when they are rhetorically skilled, to show up to that debate is potentially to lose a debate to a Nazi, which is very bad, so it’s something I’m afraid of.”
Contra’s fear of losing a debate to a Nazi, as it were — not because she’s wrong, but because Nazis don’t fight fairly — underpins a lot of her work. As a longtime YouTuber, she’s all too familiar with the endless and dishonest trashings of other people’s content that dominate the site. Contra writes and structures her videos in a very careful, deliberate way designed to fortify them against manipulative and bad-faith responses: “I’m not uploading stuff that I haven’t carefully controlled how each phrase is woven, which makes them hard to misinterpret,” she says. Background music makes it harder to chop up her videos in misleading or undermining ways, too, she explained, as does her constant humorous self-deprecation. All these tactics help her deploy funny, forceful, irony-laden arguments against lines of thinking that many left-of-center vloggers and commentators would consider not even worth debating, perhaps the best example being her video “Why Wh!te N@tionali$m Is Wrong.”
In that video and others, Contra explains what she means clearly and in plain language that can’t be easily caricatured. It’s at the core of what she does — even on very difficult, personal issues. The best example is probably her videos about gender identity, particularly “I Am Genderqueer (and What the #@%! That Means)” (as the title suggests, that video marked her coming out as genderqueer — she has since come out as a trans woman).
“Let’s start at the beginning: What does ‘genderqueer’ even mean?” she says early on. Then, she lays on some fake umbrage: “Well, hold on — why should I even have to explain this? Can people not use Google? I mean, surely in this day and age people have access to a wealth of reliable information” — at which point the camera cuts to a shot of Google-search suggestions to complete the term genderqueer is, among them, genderqueer is fake and genderqueer is ridiculous. Contra then shows some similarly derogatory YouTube clips.
What’s striking about this, again, is Contra’s ability to both explain why many online activists are leery about explaining certain important concepts, but also to, well, go on to explain them. In that video, she goes on to pull off a clear, relatable explanation of what being genderqueer meant to her — past tense because she is now in the process of transitioning to female and identifies as such. She hates her facial and body hair, she explains, and puts a lot of effort into removing it. She’s “indifferent” when it comes to having breasts and a penis, and therefore doesn’t see herself as a good candidate for surgery. “I actually don’t want to surrender some of my masculine attributes,” she explains. “For instance, I kind of like my voice, and other people like it, too. People respect a masculine voice, and I’m not going to go passing on male privilege just to be true to myself” (here, the word JOKE flashes in huge letters onscreen).
Obviously, a single 13-minute video isn’t going to convince skeptics to treat genderqueer people with respect. But given how common it is for the left-of-center internet to treat certain ideas, gender identity included among them, as sacred categories that shouldn’t require any sort of real explanation, it’s noteworthy just how much explaining Contra does in the video, and how effective that explaining is. “I think a lot of times the way we talk about gender identity or gender dysphoria is either in abstract medical and psychiatric terms or it’s in social justice, activist terms, and both of those ways have a way of making it seem like a very abstract notion that people [find hard to understand],” she said in our interview. “I feel like you have to play this jargon game just because they say that it’s important, and you don’t really understand why. Well, if you can connect the jargon to something more concrete, to something more individual, an individual person’s experience of it, then it suddenly acquires a reality that it didn’t have when it was just a bunch of activist jargon.” In other words: Sure, the bad-faith just askin’ questions crowd is out there, but so are people who genuinely want to understand what’s going on. Someone has to explain this stuff to them in as clear a manner as possible.
Contra’s transition is going to put a lot of her beliefs about the power of funny, meme-y, carefully structured explanation to the test. When we first spoke, prior to her coming out as trans, she told me she simply hadn’t had to deal with that much online harassment. That’s no longer the case. “Almost as soon as I came out as trans there was a spike in online harassment more vicious than anything I’d experienced before,” she said. “It turns out there are many people who spend a good portion of their spare time making life as miserable as possible for trans people. I’ve been doxed. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been stalked. I’ve had every public pre-transition photo of me compiled alongside my deadname with the purpose of never letting me be my true gender.”
Still, Contra said that at the end of the day, she isn’t vulnerable to this sort of harassment as some people are — she makes money from her fans directly and has long had a flamboyantly open persona anyway — and remains dedicated to talking about her transition process honestly. “I am trying to chronicle my transition with as much accuracy as possible,” she said. “My goal is to describe the specific details of my transition, rather than a generic transition narrative. The benefit of this approach for me is that it’s like a kind of confession or diary — I don’t have to keep my feelings to myself. But I hope it also benefits other people in that (1) trans people will recognize themselves in my story and feel less alone, and (2) cis people will gain a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of the experience of someone going through gender dysphoria and transition.” She plans on producing some sequels to her 14-minute short film “Gender Dysphoria” — an abstract look at what it has been like for her to navigate the condition.
Despite all of her success so far, and her belief that she has found an effective model for discussing controversial and misunderstood issues on YouTube, Contra did express a bit of ambivalence about that model. Some people really are able to talk about these issues in a super-earnest, straightforward way, without dick jokes or self-deprecation. And they get beaten down online as a punishment for their earnestness — usually a lot worse than Contra herself has been. “I am maybe not that brave,” she said, “and in some ways maybe my videos are a little cowardly in the sense that I’m always hiding behind … in some ways I’m borrowing the playbook of the alt-right. I’m using irony as a shield. I’m using jokes and memes.” Here, I push back a little: Isn’t that just who you are? Maybe you just aren’t wired to talk about stuff in a straightforwardly sincere way. “That’s true, too,” she said. “Some of it is just a genuine expression of my personality. I’m not really the type of person who is going to make heartfelt 20-minute vlogs. That’s just not really who I am.”