I used to think of Slate and Salon as brother sites, with Salon being the slightly unhinged and woker younger brother and Slate being the more serious elder. Well, Salon has gone down the drain of wokeness, and Slate is no longer nearly as interesting as it used to be, full as it is now with advice columns and celebrity gossip. I mourn the days when Hitchens, for instance, used to write great pieces at Slate. I was even impressed enough to pitch and publish two pieces there (here and here).
When I looked at the latest version of Slate, I was a bit distressed to see that the site, along with others on the Left, had taken a stand against the letter in Harper’s that’s excited so much discussion. Or rather, without engaging in (or even mentioning) the letter, the author, Lili Loofbourow, argues that the thesis of the Harper’s letter—the existence of a chilled climate for expressing your opinions because of fear of mob destruction of your reputation or of your job—is incomplete. (I just discovered another more explicit attack on the Harper’s letter in Slate, which you can see here, though it says very little).
Loofbourow’s thesis is the the Harper’s letter missed a critical element in why the climate of chilled discourse is so ubiquitous. It’s Twitter, Jake!
But there’s something crucial missing in these analyses, which grow vague and blame “the present climate” when they draw their comparisons to Orwell’s 1984. To hear them say it, it’s this climate that is responsible for unjust firings, even more than the actual employers. This climate is angry. This climate won’t be reasoned with. But what I think is largely responsible for this phenomenon they’re observing—without understanding—is Twitter. And the internet at large. And how years of arguing on social platforms, mixed with the incentives that they supply, has distorted not just the way most of us talk about things but also the way we manage ideological dissent. In short: Political discourse has been warped less because of “cancel culture” or “illiberalism” than by the way social media platforms have been poisoned, like wells, that poison us in turn.
Loofborouow goes on at length to parse the dynamics of Twitter: how the same argument arises again and again, always with predictable consequences, a feature that puts “a lot of people at the end of their rope.” This leads people to “presume bad faith”, and “meta-argue,” talking past each other.
The flaw in Loofbourow’s argument is that she doesn’t connect the dots between this dynamic and the problem raised by the Harper’s letter: a mob mentality that simply wants to punish people for their ideas. Note that the Harper’s letter just describes the phenomenon without diagnosing its causes, a step that would have caused the letter to be overly long, producing unproductive disagreements among the authors:
The the letter in Harper’s just diagnoses the problem:
But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
Well, I don’t want to go into the Slate piece in detail. It sloppily written, full of jargon, and not worthy of a full rebuttal. Just let me say a few things.
First of all, Twitter may be a proximate cause of many of the acts of social-media mobs that have poisoned the climate for free discussion, but behind that is a lot of human psychology that goes undiscussed. There’s the anonymity of using social media, the lack of the face-to-face contact that inhibits more vile statements, the ubiquity of confirmation bias, the inability of many people to focus attention on longer arguments, a fault not of Twitter, but of the Internet), a political tribalism increased in the U.S. by the election of Trump and in England by Brexit, Boris Johnson, and so on. I’m sure readers can think of other reasons, and by all means proffer them below.
Further, a great deal of the real damage to free discourse has little to do with Twitter, although the Internet makes that damage occur faster. The deplatformings of speakers at colleges (mostly deriving from the Left), the walkout by Hachette employees that led to that firm’s reneging on its agreement to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs, the pushback against the NYT’s publication of Tom Cotton’s editorial by Times staffers who claimed they felt “unsafe”—this has little to do with Twitter, or at least not with any mindset produced by Twitter. There’s a whole psychology behind Twitter, one effectively described by Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind.
Yes, Twitter makes it easier to bully people, organize mobs, and threaten themselves and their livelihoods, but Twitter by itself is not an explanation for such bullyings, firings, and so on. There are deeper reasons. I’ve advanced a few here, but the Harper’s letter wisely refrained. Before we can fix the problem, we have to agree that the problem exists. Loofbourow seems to think it does, but her diagnosis is like a doctor saying that the problem is an itch when the ultimate cause is infection with parasitic flukes (“swimmer’s itch“, which I got a case of then I went into the pond to rescue an orphaned duckling.) Many others on the Left deny that there is a problem of “cancel culture.”
And I’m not sure that we need to understand exactly why people act as bullies and harassers to curb that behavior. Perhaps it would be useful, but perhaps as well it’s easier to cure the bullying than, say, repair the split between Democrats and Republicans in America that underlies tribalism. We could start by not firing people for exercising their freedom of speech, and being more charitable towards our fellow humans, flawed just as we are.