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Social media and the end of discourse

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Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge

There used to be something called the public intellectual.

A class of thinkers — mostly writers with prestigious degrees and academics with a knack for writing — set the Discourse. They told other people what to think, or rather, they told the unwashed masses what was going through their own heads lately. These disclosures were taken with great seriousness, even if they tended toward rambling, incoherent, or obvious. From there, the educated and those who wanted to be seen as educated would pick and choose the opinions they wished to align themselves with. It is through this process that politics were created, refined, and rehashed. (Indeed, the phrase “Overton window” was popularized by them.) This was part of what it meant to participate in the public sphere.

I used to be told, in all seriousness, to read the opinion sections of major newspapers as an edifying activity

I explain this, partly out of facetiousness, but partly because I belong to the last generation to remember the age of the opinionators. I used to be told, in all seriousness, to read the opinion sections of major newspapers as an edifying activity. But by the time I was in my mid-20s, words like “think piece” were already jokes at the expense of the opinionating class.

Part of this had to do with the rise of blogs. It was cheaper — and faster — to write opinion pieces than to do reporting, and anyone could create a blog. It became a broader trend in media, thanks to the economic pressures exerted first by Craigslist and later Google and Facebook, which ate up the market for advertisements. Writing up facts takes work, and work must be paid for. On the other hand, opinions are cheap. Everyone’s got one.

It was a tidy solution to generating content, especially as social media took off. Social media and opinion writing fed off each other. Editors sought out writers based on tweets they liked. (My own career began this way.) Opinions were written quickly about whatever the writer had seen on social media the other day. And social media descended en masse on whatever opinion writing caught its imagination. Occasionally, the reaction was laudatory, but the loudest reactions were that of outrage.

Now, anyone with a cellphone and a nice turn of phrase can roast an anointed opinionator into a corncob

The size of the opinionating class was once constrained by the physical size of a newspaper page. Now, anyone with a cellphone and a nice turn of phrase can roast an anointed opinionator into a corncob.

In some ways, the fall of the opinion class mirrors the rise of the democratized, secular press at the expense of the church. After the Enlightenment, Western public life moved toward a set of secular institutions that included a class of public intellectuals — and away from the pulpit.  

When societies remake themselves, it doesn’t happen because of a handful of pamphlets (or a hashtag or two). Just like the opinionating class first used social media for its own ends, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press existed for centuries — printing religious pamphlets, sermons, and Bibles — before it began to undermine religion’s monopoly on public life. And the printing press is only one piece of a picture that includes a scientific revolution, religious strife, industrialization, and economic exploitation. Similarly, our current cultural moment is happening against a background that can be best described by that cartoon dog sipping coffee amid a house in flames. 

Still, the production of the French libelles — vitriolic political pamphlets that frequently sought to cancel various public figures, especially royal family members — would not have been possible without movable type, and the libelles themselves played an undeniable role in the French Revolution. Likewise, the protests of 2020 and the sudden shift in public opinion around policing and race would not have happened without social media and the mass adoption of smartphones. 

With the fall of the opinion class, the mask rips off

To be clear, the opinionators are not in danger of an actual guillotining — except maybe metaphorically, which is not at all the same. They will continue to publish. Some of them will continue to make very good money! But they’ll be less important — not least because they’ll no longer be setting the Overton window.

Indeed, there might not even be an Overton window. Engaging in political life may even become indistinguishable from being part of an internet fandom. I don’t mean to say facts or logic will disappear. But we will no longer pretend that they persuade others in a free marketplace of ideas. We have long conflated civic life with “engaging with ideas” or “participating in debate” or entertaining a “broad political spectrum.” But with the fall of the opinion class, the mask rips off, revealing politics as little but clashes between competing cults of information that primarily convey values in terms of emotionality, rather than rationality. No thin veneer of “fair and unbiased” will cover these bastions of information dissemination. 

This is not as dire as it sounds; most internet fandoms behave more responsibly than at least one (or maybe even both) of America’s major political parties. 

This week, Harper’s Magazine published an open missive that I have since taken to referring to as “The Letter.” Signed by a number of opinionators, and then also J.K. Rowling for some reason (just kidding, I know exactly why), The Letter decries the “censoriousness” that is taking over the culture, describing it as “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” 

This is not a particularly clear formulation of the cultural phenomenon they condemn, and so the meaning and intent behind The Letter are subject to multiple interpretations. This is evidenced by the near-instantaneous backpedaling on Twitter by a number of signatories who were unaware of the identities of all their fellow signatories. “Censoriousness” in the abstract is bad, and “free speech” in the abstract is good. But without further elaboration, it’s very easy to talk at cross-purposes about both. 

To the extent that The Letter has a point at all, it appears to be about opposing “illiberalism”

To the extent that The Letter has a point at all, it appears to be about opposing “illiberalism.” Here, the “liberalism” referred to is the general philosophy that society ought to be based on free and equal discussion from a plurality of viewpoints. “Illiberalism,” therefore, is a fancy stand-in for what opinionators have alternately called “campus culture,” “cancel culture,” and “wokeness.”

This very vague illiberal force is called “a successor ideology” by Wesley Yang, with his coinage being immediately taken up by a number of conservative commentators like Ross Douthat (whose name does not appear on The Letter) and Andrew Sullivan (whose name does). But this term seems to only muddy the waters since the thing that they are concerned about isn’t actually a concrete ideology but an inchoate social force with the hallmarks of religious revival. 

It is perhaps no surprise that Douthat, a devout Catholic, is able to put his finger on the aspect of “spiritual renewal” sought by Americans in this moment, though he seems to be unable to go further with that observation. But I suspect he also senses what I sense, as someone raised in an evangelical Christian family: the feeling of charismatic spirituality that pervades the marches and rallies of 2020, the fervor of the newly converted, the unsettling hunger for moral righteousness. 

Matthew Yglesias (a signatory of The Letter) has referred to this cultural moment as “The Great Awokening,” comparing it somewhat cursorily to the 19th century religious revival that fed into the fire of the movement to abolish slavery. He does not mention the other Awakenings of American history, like the 18th century precursor to the American Revolution or the more recent 20th century big tent revivals that paved the way for the evangelical Christian politics that marked the Bush era. Our current era has been mostly defined by the pretense that religious fervor and emotional sentiment are incidental to politics, and that all can and should be grappled with through rational discourse. This was never true, but we at least pretended. 

What is happening right now cannot be adequately described in the language of the old paradigm — and for that reason, we all sound like absolute morons trying to talk about it

This Fifth Great Awakening is what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm-shift” and what Martin Heidegger called “world-collapse.” In the words of St. Paul, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” What is happening right now cannot be adequately described in the language of the old paradigm — and for that reason, we all sound like absolute morons trying to talk about it.

Part of this has to do with the various fallacies deployed by people who decry “cancel culture.”

First, there is the ongoing conflation of “wokeness” — roughly defined as the idea that white supremacy and patriarchy permeate our society — with illiberalism. As my friend Ezekiel Kweku, an editor at New York Magazine, has observed, neither springs from nor necessitates the other. There are plenty of public intellectuals who champion “wokeness” while using the language of so-called civil debate, with all the rigmarole of “I concur,” “with all due respect,” and “to play devil’s advocate for a moment.” 

Then there’s the motte-and-bailey fallacy around what “canceling” even means. Is someone canceled because they have been vigorously criticized? Or is someone canceled because they received death threats? Or is someone only canceled because they lost their job? Presumably, politicians should lose their jobs if they stoke sufficient outrage. Does this rule also apply to prominent figures who have been either formally or informally designated as representatives of public opinion? Where should one draw the line between the truly outrage-inducing and the undeserving victims of an internet mob? 

But this general incoherence about the problem of “cancel culture” isn’t entirely the fault of the anti-woke commentariat. They are working with old tools that are crumbling in their hands and in an old workspace that is disappearing into thin air.

Despite the talk about illiberalism and the threat to free speech, the real fear that motivates The Letter becomes obvious in the text itself, right around where its writers are spinning in circles about the obvious contradiction that a pro-speech coalition has come together to ask its critics to shut the fuck up: “It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” The opinionators are not actually afraid of being silenced. They wish to take up column inches without a pack of nobodies telling them how wrong they are.

For all its pretense to logic and debate above all else, the old paradigm bred an irrational and incomprehensibly unjust society. The opinionators frequently circulated debunked or faulty science, and they kept alive a “debate” around climate change that has not existed among scientists for decades. They tolerated the intolerant and treated dehumanization as a difference of opinion. They were — despite being held as the paragons of rational discourse — never particularly rational. One only needs to point to the war in Iraq as proof of that.

Chaos is not the same thing as evil

I am nonetheless uneasy about the days to come. I admit this is partly because I am a professional opinion writer who has been aggressively canceled online, but really, mostly because I am past the age of 30 while staring down the barrel of mass societal change. But chaos is not the same thing as evil. And although the Reign of Terror may have followed the French Revolution, the terrors wrought by the system that preceded it were far greater. In Mark Twain’s words

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions.

To my fellow uneasy olds, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence, and relevance is not a human right. All things change. And while you have a right to have hurt feelings about it, don’t be surprised when your feelings lose out in the new marketplace of emotion.