[Edgelord:] Even from its earliest uses, the word carries the connotation of eye-rolling skepticism. The edge in edgelord comes from expressions like cutting edge or the idea of being edgy, applying a sense of boldness or unconventionality to such behavior; the lord half elevates such a person ironically with the rank of a deity or member of British nobility, with echoes of Voldemort, Sauron, and other dark-spirited, villainous characters who hold that title. — “Doing the Work of the Edgelord,” Merriam-Webster.com
Lately, on political news blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been seeing a lot of summary dismissals of arguments, particularly those which are racially or pandemically charged. This might suggest people are more stressed out than ever. One rarely sees argumentative moves like this when times are calm, even in the divisive cesspools of social media and in the freewheeling comments areas still permitted by news sites.
Only when people begin to crack under sweeping emotional strain do they start to become rhetorically evasive and nihilistic. They want to appear as though they’re open to reasoned discussion and debate, but really they want to close down the conversation and talk about their cats. In a sense, I don’t blame them. We’re in a very emotionally difficult moment right now. And no one wants to admit to having an exploding head.
We might classify this particular evasion as a form of “rhetorical edgelordism”—an attempt to disingenuously self-protect by dismissing an argument while also trying to seem like the smartest, most incisive person in the room.
If someone says, “It could be A or it could be B,” the edgelord adds, “No, A and B are a false choice because C,” which invalidates them, ostensibly ending the discussion. Usually the person bringing C is upset with having to choose between A or B and wishes to redefine the choice as (A vs B) vs C—where C is much less controversial, threatening, or applicable.
C is usually something exotic. In order to function as a blanket dismissal, C can’t use the ideas from A or B (because then it falls into the scope of original discussion). It has to be from a distant discipline or sphere, so far outside the purview of A or B that the core argument gets derailed.
Here’s an example: “COVID-19 originated in fruit bats” (A) vs. “It was bio-evolved in a Chinese lab” (B). Then (C) pops up: “Actually, statistics have shown social attitudes to pandemics track according to political party affiliation, if you want to talk relevance when it comes to the virus.” Ironically, C itself is immensely and obviously irrelevant to what’s being talked about. But unless it is instantly ignored by everyone, it’s work is done.
People who see this move might point out the scope creep. But by then the thrust of the original discussion has already fractured. In our example, we’re now talking about at least 3 issues: (1) the bat theory vs the lab theory, (2) the new political party theory, and (3) whether the new political party theory matters or is an irrelevant digression. Now it’s much easier for the edgelord to divert the argument, self-soothe, and still pose as the edgy freethinker not caught up in the preoccupations of A vs B conformist thinking. At this point, we’re about three or four rhetorical steps away from looking at a jpg of his cat, Waffles.
In healthy discussions (with psychologically healthy people), this is sometimes called “reframing the issue,” and it’s a perfectly legitimate way of clarifying a subject under consideration—when it focuses on getting at a deeper point significant to A and B. In the example, this might be something like, “The issue of whether the virus originated in fruit bats or in a lab actually raises the deeper question of whether determining the origin will matter to developing a vaccine.” Here, the reframe is aiming at a link between both A and B and trying to enhance and clarify the discussion by pointing that link out. The test is relevance: A and B are both compelling because they are interested in how we know and therefore can control the global outbreak. But when reframing is done as a way to distract and dismiss by bringing in an extraneous consideration, there are usually disingenuous motives at work.
People who didn’t live through the online evolution of bulletin boards, newsgroups, and discussion forums (all of which disappeared eventually into the reeking maw of social media), might not recognize this tactic as a largely online way of posturing and pseudo-arguing. Like most rhetorical strategies born in the disinhibited, critical-thinking-starved world of the internet, it’s largely an empty, counterproductive tactic, an emotional time and energy sink best avoided.
Still, during a lockdown, when we’re spending more of our lives online as opposed to in person, pointing these things out might be worthwhile. They’re no longer the sole province of trolls, basement dwellers, loudmouths, and fakes. As we move toward the 2021 US Presidential election, social tensions flare, and the virus dances in the streets, stress levels are likely to soar. And, in cases where public discourse is critical, we might even see close friends and family posing as the edgelord in the room while surreptitiously looking for the exit.