Recently, youtuber Natalie Wynn brought up a great concept in her breakdown of why Incels believe the things they do– “masochistic epistemology.” She put it simply, “what hurts, is true.

She said this in the context of how incels basically form parasocial death cults when they are ‘blackpilled.’ They come to believe that because they feel terrible about themselves right now, that feeling is objectively true and forever, and even the reality of how the ‘world really works’ and there’s no hope to change it, only to “LDR”. Which is, ‘lie down and rot’, a form of suicide baiting. What’s happened here is that otherwise genuine feelings of pain or insecurity have been validated maybe too much and have evolved into an entire worldview centered around affirmation of pain. And once pain-as-truth becomes social capital, the way people behave changes to maximize its growth and spread.

But I have to say? I feel like I have encountered versions of the very same behavior in my own spaces, on tumblr, on facebook, etc.:

  • There’s definitely forms of love-bombing that surround mental illness or depression support connections that shower you with confirmation and praise only as long as you reject any steps of managing mental illness, so long as it unstoppably dominates your life. Once you question someone else’s behavior or declare that you’re seeing a therapist or something all your new parasocial friends turn against you.
  • I’ve seen it in supposedly feminist spaces where women that are otherwise strangers to each other talk each other into hopelessness and heightened fear of sex and fear of other people in their life, especially male figures. Sometimes not even based in a specific personal experience, but instead just this collective ‘dark truth’ of womanhood. TERFs love to do this, and segue younger people into fear of trans women this way.
  • I’ve seen it happen a lot within lgbt+ spaces where someone’s personal despair about dysphoria, homophobia they face, not being able to find a partner or being judged by family or strangers, or even fear of violence, enters a feedback loop with other people they don’t actually know and don’t have any interests but their own consumption in mind amplifying it, forming these insular enclaves where fear is truth and everyone else is wrong because they don’t feel as terrible about being attracted to the same sex or for being trans as they should. Meanwhile no one struggling within this structure is actually getting the support or help they need, they’re just arguing about it and building cases for, when the mythical support does fall from the sky,  why they should get it first.
  • There’s mounds of discourse where people argue over how because that group couldn’t possibly live as terrible a reality as this group, their lived experience isn’t the order of the universe and therefore doesn’t deserve validity or attention at all. And to argue, inexperienced people fall into the trap of trying to artificially match the despair levels of their critics, or try to counter one black pill with their own black pill which will never be credible to outsiders, resulting in cringy disaster at all vectors. In the red-hot radioactive mess troll accounts prosper.

Which is not to say that all these situations are full of people as baseless as incels– some of them are living very difficult lives, but are using “masochistic epistemology“ as the internal logic of their world. And the effect of such an internal logic is extremely dark self-confirming biases in excess of what is necessary to communicate the dangers of their lives, or cope with hardship. And any similar person who goes off seeking friends who acknowledge their pain is going to find a black hole of people who’d otherwise be peers escalating that very pain in themselves and others in order to confirm it’s all real.

Natalie Wynn herself, a trans woman, struggled with the urge to go to 4chan’s /lgbt/ and wait for the most toxic and hopeless crowds there rip her appearance apart even though it made very little logical sense. The people there shared the same insecurities as her, that they don’t pass, that people will despise them, and in some way hearing those insecurities confirmed rather than denied to her felt more like ‘the real truth’ or ‘what people really think’ than it did to hear praise and encouragement. Even if what they had to say wasn’t anywhere near an objective truth. 

The “pain is real” mindset is that hard to shake! It doesn’t matter if you’re smart, prepared to identify the phenomenon with philosophy education, intellectually aware that it’s bad for you. There is a self-harm impulse to ‘face reality’, but a very specific reality that confirms the bias of your pain or insecurity. The comfort zone of discomfort, in a way! It just wants you to not feel crazy for feeling those things and is willing to hurt you even more to prove you’re right about your environment or your life.