ContraPoints was the very first creator I covered on my blog. Back then, it was still when Natalie Wynn was figuring out an identity for her channel–was it going to fit the stereotypical mold of LeftTube and just focus on idealist theory and response videos, or was it going to flip the script and focus more on instruction and teaching rather than shameful moralization? The alternative turned out to be a hybrid of both, but not in the way anyone would’ve anticipated it would pan out.
Natalie Wynn had started out when pioneers of the LeftTube genre had already cemented their presence as — if faint — sole resistors to far-right personalities from having an undisputed monopoly over political discourse on YouTube. Sargon of Akkad, Stefan Molyneux, Paul Joseph Watson — and many more befitting the mold of provocative far-right commentary channels — were basically dominating the field with no sense of rivalry looming on the horizon. A new generation of leftist political commentators have since made a concerted effort to change that, and by far ContraPoints has been the most successful, not only through sheer numbers, but also through her creatives means to instill a craving of knowledge in her audience regardless of political leniency.
On a fundamental level, ContraPoints’ videos work because they appeal to a dormant sense of curiosity within all of us to learn about uncharted — and sometimes taboo — areas of knowledge we wouldn’t have once thought to approach without the guidance of a patient and welcoming instructor. Sure, the videos are well-scripted, well-paced, follow a strict linear path from basic concepts to more complex ones, and involve their own sense of levity to counter any residual melancholy, but away from the mechanical workings of it all, there’s a sense that Natalie perfectly understands the sensibilities of her audience such that it helps her gauge what would be most effective in easing their mind to foreign ideas.
Because Natalie in some way — and especially when talking about trans issues — is the very material she’s teaching, it can be very hard to distance the broad applicability of what she says, away from her own self. In trying to explain the convoluted emotional knots of being trans, it can occasionally devolve into a form of meta-commentary embedded in the text, played out by characters, but at the same time very much in-tune with her own sense of self-esteem, and the emotional trauma to have weathered a major course of her life before she was in a position to comfortably talk about it.
This is best illustrated in a sequence from her “Autogynephilia” video. It involved her sitting in a therapist’s chair and talking about the early detours she’d been cluelessly following before fulling assuming her current identity. It ranged from anecdotes about her early sex-life, the visceral enjoyment she got from donning — if only temporarily — a façade that was not her own, and a rebuttal of false preconceptions made about her in the most stereotypical of ways.
Elsewhere, yet another sequence from the same video saw her naked, emotionally-vulnerable self, wrestle with the false presumptions such gender critical caricature Abigail, had made about her character. The scene is played out as a legal drama, but the playful tone with which she approaches the conversation makes the audience instantly compelled to be empathetic, and kind, even though they may not always identify with her struggle.
A similar confessionary tone can be found in her “Are Traps Gay?” video. Here she focuses more specifically on TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) terminology, and how obtuse it often purposefully is to derail from discussing the very core of its most problematic ideas. She then once again takes liberty to uncover some previously-unknown facts about her own self, only in the quest to illuminate both her viewers, and her adversaries on what they might think has to warrant additional understanding.
The truth is, Natalie feels compelled to do it out of moral responsibility, but it’s still nothing shy of admirable to see her repeatedly take the leap of faith, unearthing new facts about herself she might’ve not wanted everyone to know, and in the process make the overall message of the videos an easier pill to swallow despite what social taboos might say otherwise.
This is a complete departure from what we’ve been accustomed to in the political YouTube space, and most certainly in LeftTube as it gains traction. The political space has often been one of “annihilating”, “destroying”, “decimating”, and “killing” the opponent, without much thought given to the meat of the arguments, or the credentials of whomever is making it. In a Creator’s Issue profile Katherine Cross wrote for the Verge, Natalie Wynn said something I thought perfectly captured her own sense of welcome and generosity when confronting her ideological counterparts, and her most skeptical allies:
There’s a lot to unpack here, but in brief, as Wynn puts it, “You [can] respond to a political opponent and have the model of that conversation be seduction. Because usually what you have on YouTube is this very combative posture right? Ownage. Wrecking. Destroying your enemy.” It is, she says, a “toxically masculine posture: the idea that a conversation or an argument is about destroying another person. That’s a terrible thought and a terrible way to have discourse.”
The above I think, doesn’t get enough credit in explaining ContraPoints’ rise to prominence. We’ve seen tactics deployed by LeftTube figures before to counter the tide of fascism often culminate in response videos with a quick expiration date, or even charity fundraisers made out of spite. What Natalie Wynn calls “seduction” can be just as aptly deemed “playful persuasion”. She’s not to coerce her adversaries into adopting her views, nor is she interested in their unconditional humiliation. What she rather excels at better than any other LeftTube fixture, is being able to usher a community-wide conversation about the topics she’s intently brought to the forefront. She’s not interested in making a grand statement about the validity of her ideas, or their saliency in the great quest to build a self-governed syndicate with no social hierarchies in place. She proposes readily available solutions to current problems, and doesn’t venture too far out into the abstract pie-in-the-sky theoretical promises of a society free of capitalism’s shackles as its institutions have become so painstakingly difficult to dismantle. Her ideas are approachable, and in a sense, it could appeal to any political sensibility provided their recipient has at least an iota of human empathy.
Persuasion has always been to me too much of a tall order to justify. My platform on Medium has grown to accommodate for so much ideological variety, but I always found myself bound by the fear of poking a giant bear. I got a small taste of that when I made mention of the latest harassment campaign led by a GamerGate commentator on YouTube — a movement Natalie credits the bulk of our current woes— and it was then that I understood the rules Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki have set for us to draft the borders of the debate only encourage a greater sense of political entrenchment with constant efforts to fully dehumanize the other side.
Social media is one of the last bastions of social capitalism we seem to be hanging onto. It rewards those most intent on tearing down the other as viciously as is permissible within the terms-of-service, but what I can almost assert with confidence, is that social media brings out the unapologetic capitalist within all of us, where the value of trade is not money, but clout. This very clout, is a currency most LeftTube staples until very recently seemed to disproportionately value over pursuing true social justice for the most underprivileged segment of their audience. It left them stuck on disputes of a very insignificant nature, their fans battling over the spoils of the battlefront in its wake, and the subject of discussion being totally lost amidst all the sword clackery.
Such instance of this happening was when Hbomberguy started a fundraiser to UK trans charity, Mermaids. The intent seemed at first innocuous, but as I started to pick apart the events leading up to it, it turned out famed transphobe “Glinner” had made a similar effort to the contrary purpose prior. The only question swirling in my mind after I found out about that, was whether it was worth getting Glinner angry over Islam so that Hbomberguy may finally take the initiative and raise funds for mosques affected by desecration and raise awareness of islamophobia’s vile effects. Of course, such a prospect never seemed to make its way onto my time-line the same way the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended stream was, and that just further cemented my skepticism of LeftTube’s commitment to collective betterment when the only way it seems to get them involved, is to play the very game their right-wing counterparts have repeatedly bested them at.
Toxic masculinity seems to be the unifying flag they all fly. As the vacated space of YouTube politics was colonized by far-right political pundits and commentators, their style has come to permeate so much of the political discourse on the platform, and social media as a whole. Responding to their concerns of a world ever-changing is often done on their own terms, and it is ever-so-rare that we get to see a LeftTube figure make the case for their own ideas, soliciting a response. Far-right extremists on YouTube seem to have perfected the art of riling up their base without much trouble at all, and their LeftTube counterparts do not make it any better by playing right into their hands and confirming much of what is thought to be true about them–that they’re only here to assert dominance, not campaign for ideas and advocate for social reform on behalf of their downtrodden followers.
In talking to Ezra Klein about the predominant masculine tenure these conversations have a tendency of donning, Natalie Wynn said that “growling about logic in a deep whisky voice is like, straight male culture”, she then adds “there’s an esthetic of reason, which often involves, for some reason speaking really deeply and close to the microphone, which involves posing as this kind of, cynical, detached, unemotional, masculine person who’s sort of sneering at hysterical women, angry minorities, things like that”.
To say Natalie’s characterization of far-right political discourse on YouTube is accurate, is an understatement. What Natalie hadn’t perhaps realized, is that when LeftTube tries to emulate that esthetic, they do end up playing their hand into an erroneous notion that no political commentator was to show weakness, or talk about their emotional vulnerabilities if they want to be taken seriously.
This has been my longest-standing criticism of leftward political YouTube–it seems to think the only way to get through to their other side, is by employ the very tactics deterring leftists from extending a hand back. So what that means, is constant dunking on others in the aim to “own them”, making more response videos than original content, and just an overall subservience to YouTube’s algorithmic hellscape of appealing to a linear pattern of pushing the extremes of political discourse without much thought to potential negative cultural impact.
Natalie Wynn already tried that — she didn’t like it one bit — and it looks like the elements of her success are not defined by the archetypal mode of a political commentary channel. Throughout her videos, there’s a persistent sense of vulnerability, and carefully-calculated instances of self-deprecation, along with some moments of appropriate ferocity. It’s not a “the winner takes all” kind of deal–it’s just Natalie duly working her filmmaking knowledge, peppered in with recurring moments of creative artistic genius. It proved to LeftTube that it didn’t have to fight arsonists with fire, or elsewise appeal to their own self-ascribed masculinity-bred sense of false-intellectuality. What Natalie thought — correctly — is that rising above the temptation to play into YouTube’s most sadistic experimentations was a bet well worth taking, and indeed it paid off in spades.