Ideological predators

Content note: This post is about adults exploiting teenagers on the internet for validation. It’s about the ideological form; not the sexual form, but a lot of the underlying logic is similar. This is likely to be a difficult post for anyone who has an emotional connection to this issue.

Some some predators use vulnerable people as validation objects to make their  flawed ideologies feel true. This can happen between people of any age, but it’s particularly common for adult predators to do this to teenage victims they meet online. Adults with bad ideas manipulate teenagers into praising them. They offer false respect to teenagers who are starved for respectful adult attention. They make teenagers depend on them emotionally in completely inappropriate ways. Then they lash out when the teenagers start to notice flaws in their ideas. Teenagers can get hurt very, very badly by this.

From a teenage perspective, relationships with ideological predators can feel really good at first before the predator starts lashing out. As a teenager, you’re often at the beginning of noticing that there’s a lot wrong with the world, and that you and others have the power to make it much better. But seeing yourself as powerful enough to change the world isn’t the same as knowing how to do it. Changing the world is hard work that requires skills that are difficult to acquire. It also requires connections with others doing the same work, which can be really hard to build for teenagers without much control over their lives. And teenagers who want to make the world better are often surrounded by adults who think their desire to do so is cute, and certainly not something to take seriously. (And who may not be taking the teenager seriously on any level). That’s degrading, and very, very hard to cope with.

And then a predator shows up online. At first, they’re this really interesting adult who at first seems to take you much more seriously than anyone else does. Their ideas seem amazing, and they seem to be opening all kinds of possibilities for making the world better. They’re willing to spend endless hours talking to you. They listen to you when you are sad and lonely, and they tell you that you’re amazing and brilliant and that you deserve so much more respect than anyone is giving you. It feels really good to be exposed to an exciting new idea, and it feels even better when it’s coming in the form of conversations with an apparently experienced person you respect. And, support from an experienced person who really does respect you is an amazing thing. Sometimes teenagers get the real form of this online. And sometimes, a predator fakes respect in ways that end very, very poorly.

An emotional relationship with a predator falls apart at some point, because their ideas aren’t actually very good, and their respect for you wasn’t real. It turns out, they weren’t listening to you, they were using you as a mirror. They didn’t want respect and conversation, they wanted you to admire them. When you start noticing flaws in their bad ideas, you stop being useful as a mirror, and they stop wanting to support you. All the vulnerabilities you shared with them turn into weapons they wield against you. It’s excruciating, and it can be very, very hard to recover from.

Teenagers deserve to have adults in their lives who respect them and spend time talking to them about the world. Ideally, this should happen both on and offline. Ideological predators who want validation seek out teenagers who aren’t getting real respect from adults, and seduce them with fake respect. This shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever, but it’s unfortunately really common. (It’s not just teenagers this happens to, but teenagers are often particularly vulnerable because teenagers are often both very isolated and inexperienced with evaluating the merits of ideologies, political views, and effective approaches to activism.)

One of the most important red flags for ideological exploitation is: Do they respect your right to consider other perspectives, or do they want you to believe everything they say without question? 

Nobody is right about everything; it is never reasonable for someone to want you to believe their ideas without question. You have the right to think for yourself. It is never ok for someone to be mean to you for asking questions or for reading about other perspectives. (Even if they’re right and the other perspective you’re reading is a dangerously bad idea that has hurt them personally.) No one has to be willing to talk to you about everything; they do need to respect your right to think for yourself. If someone is trying to persuade you to agree with them, they should expect that you will want to think about it and ask questions. That’s how conversations work when you are explaining something.

No one is the boss of your reading or your other media consumption. You get to decide what you want to read (and what you don’t want to read, and you don’t have to justify your reading choices to anyone. It’s a red flag if an adult tries to monitor your reading or aggressively tells you not to read people they disagree with. Or if they try to dictate who you are and aren’t allowed to talk to.
It’s also a bad sign if they refuse to explain to you why they disagree with a particular position, especially if they’re encouraging you to see them as a mentor. “Why do you think that?” and “What’s wrong with that?” or “Why is that idea harmful?” or “Why is this important?” are reasonable questions, and it’s not ok if they lash out at you for sincerely wanting to know.

(Even if they regularly get asked that question insincerely as a form of harassment, they still shouldn’t lash out at you. You aren’t doing that. You’re asking a question because you want to understand. It’s not your fault that mean people do something superficially similar. If they’ve spent hours and hours talking to you and saying how insightful you are, then they know you well enough to trust your sincerity. It’s not ok if everything they know about you suddenly flies out the window when you ask an uncomfortable question. Also, if they’re presenting themselves as a mentor figure and want you to trust them in that role, then it *is* their job to educate you, and part of educating people is answering their sincere questions respectfully.)

Which is related to another sign to watch out for — trustworthy people with good ideas are able to disagree with others respectfully. If someone is only willing to talk about ideas they agree with and ideas they have withering contempt for, that’s a really bad sign. Reasonable people have some positions they disagree with respectfully, and they also know that people can mistakenly be attracted to bad ideas for good reasons. No one has to be willing to respect all ideas or treat all positions as honorable; everyone has to be able to tolerate *some* disagreement respectfully. Reasonable people know that they’re not right about everything, and that sometimes they will find that people they initially disagreed with had a point.

If they can’t tolerate disagreement with anyone else, what they’re feeling for you is probably not real respect. They’re probably using you as a mirror; expecting you to reflect everything they say back to them, using your sincerity and enthusiasm to make it sound true and important. But you’re not a mirror; you’re a person. Even if everything they’re saying to you right now sounds amazingly true; eventually you will disagree with them about something you both care about. (No one is right 100% of the time, and it is normal for people who care about things to have some degree of disagreement.) Their talk about how insightful and wonderful you are will very, very likely melt away when you stop agreeing with them about everything. If they could tolerate disagreement, they’d be tolerating it from other people too.

Tl;dr Some adult predators use teenagers as ideological validation objects. They offer false respect to teenagers who are hungry for genuine respect from adults. The teenage victims are expected to become mirrors, enthusiastically reflecting back whatever the adult says, making it sound true and wise. Inevitably, eventually teenagers figure out that the adult isn’t 100% right about everything, and they start questioning their ideology. The adult predator then lashes out, and withdraws all of their false respect, leaving the teenager they have isolated to pick up the pieces. This is a horrible an inexcusable thing to do to someone. People have the right to think for themselves, and to ask questions. Adults who take it upon themselves to teach teenagers about the world have a particularly strong obligation to support them in thinking for themselves. If someone effusively praises you at first and then lashes out at you for questioning them or disagreeing, something is really wrong. It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. People should not treat you that way.