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'Own the libs' was a snide way to mock conservatives, and is now a fun way to respond to liberalism

Triggering snowflakes and owning liberals is petty, sure. But so is the condescension conservatives have long faced.
Image: Trump supporters
Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer before his Make America Great Again rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on August 2, 2018.Leah Millis / Reuters

I was “owning the libs” before it was even cool, back when it was still called “playing” someone. Then I used to live in Austin, and, whenever I went to Whole Foods (which constitutes a Whole Block near downtown) to pick up some overpriced item, I would wear a shirt that kids these days might call “triggering,” but which I will readily admit was me just “being a jerk.” The shirt was bright red, with Ronald Reagan’s head, lined white and done in the classic style of Che Guevara — a pretty perfect parody of Shepard Fairey's iconographic work.

I had a self-satisfied sense of joy and superiority when other patrons of this bastion of upper class white liberalism looked at my shirt with pleased recognition, before their faces dropped and these privileged hypocrites realized they’d just been “played.”

They’d scowl, I’d smile and then we’d part, both having self-important stories to tell after we’d finished purchasing exotic, overpriced organic things from a company that was once owned by an anti-union stalwart who criticized his employees and customers for being overweight, but has since sold out to a monopoly-building corporation that itself has been accused of cheating workers out of wages while having the audacity to give one of its newest pet purchases the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

In a sense, I and the other Whole Foods customers got played. Or triggered. Or, according to the latest Fake News, “owned.”

I say “fake news” in a way that it’s never used: Genuinely. To get owned originally came from hacker culture but was reappropriated on Twitter entirely by liberals looking to slam-dunk on the conservatives, who themselves were trying to “trigger” the left with various reactionary (and often absurdist, sometimes self-sabotaging) performative pieces.

So, though now it’s meant in earnest on the right, “to own the libs” is an entirely left-created, and left-promoted phrase — a cheap punchline to a Twitter joke dismissing an attempt by someone on the right to “trigger” liberals.

Both phrases are so meta and dependent on specific context that neither is actually funny or really true.

Still, there’s lots of finger-wagging at people on the right who are suddenly making efforts at “owning” or “triggering,” as if any attempt to point out the self-seriousness, narrow-minded tribalism and general self-delusion of the other political side is an exclusively “conservative” thing. The mainstream left (specifically, the rich, white, coastal left) has been systematically trying to “trigger” and “own” conservatives for years, without ever owning up to their own owningness.

“To own the libs” is an entirely left-created, and left-promoted phrase — a cheap punchline to a Twitter joke dismissing an attempt by someone on the right to “trigger” liberals.

After all, what else is it but an in-joke, a signal that you’re better than someone else and more in-the-know, then to suggest that they settle on their political positions because “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”? Or that fully 50 percent of your opponent’s supporters are “a basket of deplorables” and “irredeemable”?

Or take Hollywood (whose leaders are part of the same elite class evident in both ruling parties), where community spaces like houses of worship and sporting events are cast as twisted prisons for damaged souls or stupid horse-powered distractions in which cars go around in a circle, but nearly no mind is paid to the cult-like appeal of activities like CrossFit or SoulCycle, the classist virtue-signaling of expensive yoga regimes or the obsession with all things “organic.”

Whether it’s vilifying gun owners or portraying anyone not from a coastal city as a rube, it seems there’s not much a non-liberal can do that doesn’t immediately attract the derision and mockery of a mainstream (rich, white) left that screams for more diversity while collectively living in gentrified urban neighborhoods and pushing out the poor and minorities.

So it is no wonder that conservatives (or someone perhaps a little right-leaning) might lash out in petty, little ways — “F*ck your feelings,” tote a gun, ostentatiously suck on a few plastic straws, smash a Keurig (which, actually, might be better for the environment in the long run). Or you could pass around a genuinely well-executed send-up that takes literal aim at two trends simultaneously: The rise of absurdly-themed group yoga events and the feel-goody, trigger-free clickbait videos of “Nice” Facebook.

Or they might lash out in very unhelpful ways: After all, the biggest own was electing Donald Trump. The “deplorables” embraced the insults and dismissals and turned what was supposed to be a guaranteed win for an anointed champion into a most unexpected defeat.

Just before the election and immediately following it, mainstream media did try to come to terms with the wide swath of people it’s mostly ignored by sending in waves of reporters to look into “middle America” and the “working class” (while, notably, failing to acknowledge that middle America and the working class is far from exclusively white or poor). The result was the continuation of a blame narrative that portrays white flyover state residents as sad, lonely people mired exclusively in misery, while ignoring that it was well-off whites of both genders who helped push Trump into office.

To its credit, the broader left — also unhappy with its own bigwigs not listening to their concerns — have pushed back in substantial ways. A few months after Stacey Abrams’ historic win in the Georgia gubernatorial primary and black women’s takedown of Roy Moore in the Alabama special election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win over her own party’s political machine is turning heads. The media and commentators, notably sympathetic to any kind of liberal candidate, are paying excitable attention. So are undecided voters in nowhere Kansas, who everyone dismissed at trashy Trumpers. Turns out, unhappy people do want to see actual change that focuses on their concerns.

And, so long as these candidates have a political orientation that even remotely resembles the center-left, they’re embraced and welcomed on big talk shows or Late Night with Stephen Colbert. Meanwhile, those folks with perhaps more naturally conservative leanings who thought they were on the ascendence have to make due with triggering — or using the libs’ own manufactured phrase, “owning the libs.”

When the high school kids cheered at the phrase during U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s speech last month, it was just their way of trying to co-op another insult. After all, many were about to head off to educational institutions that they feel are traditionally hostile to basic conservative ideas. But a funny thing happened: Haley acknowledged that while “it’s fun and that it can feel good," she said, "real leadership is about... bringing people around to your point of view.” It was the opposite of any kind of own.

The sky really started to fall when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, backed her up, and in the ensuing days, conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro co-signed the idea that what’s needed to win the broader debate is meaningful dialogue. Trump and his diehards are turning off conservatives both in the party and on the street because people do want some solutions, some sort of dialogue and someone to acknowledge their concerns, not just their feelings.

The question is whether either side will even allow that to happen... but it probably won’t.

The left’s “owning” will remain heavy-handed, while the right’s “triggering” will stay so abrasive. That’s why, short of actually bothering to engage in an actual dialogue, “playing” somebody is the perfect third-party solution: A little subtle ribbing here, a moment of reflection there, done with a sense of humor and acknowledgment that we’re all a little hypocritical.

Whether you’re a little left or little right, maybe we should all try a bit more playing around. But if you still feel inclined to “own the libs” or “own the cons,” maybe also try to welcome the possibility of other options apart from the two main, moneyed machines that already own everybody. I hear libertarians and socialists actually have a lot in common, and might even form a union someday.

Just playin’.

Jeff Winkler is a writer in Tennessee.