Will is a friend, so naturally I’m dismayed by what happened. I’m also dismayed that it should have happened at Niskanen, a center-to-leftish institution I admire. And I’m even more worried to have yet another example of the damage Twitter is doing to American discourse — damage so profound that I’m beginning to think that the only way to fix it is not to urge tolerance, but for major institutions in the media and think-tank world to tell their employees to get the hell off Twitter.
I realize that this seems a mite counterintuitive as a solution to the cancel culture. But cancel culture isn’t the only problem with having public intellectuals increasingly communicating with each other in 280-character social media packets, though it is the most vivid.
Twitter’s very format encourages the sort of thing that is likely to get one canceled: short and context-free, composed in an instant, posted without reflection. Moreover, that very speed and effortlessness make it easy to form — or join — a mob going after someone else’s tweets. The result resembles the proverbial standoff where everyone has a loaded gun pointed at the head of someone else.
Ideally, everyone would simultaneously disarm, but no one trusts anyone else to do so. So instead, people try to make themselves safer through preemptive revenge. Or take refuge in communities of extremists who will at least protect them from anyone on the other side, no matter what they say, as long as it is sufficiently far left or right.
In exchange, of course, they demand that you smile tolerantly at the worst your own side can dish out. And that “worst” keeps getting worse because of a phenomenon well known to social scientists: When you sort people into ideological groups, the pressure of groupthink tends to push both the groups themselves, and the people within them, to become more extreme than they were before. Within each ideological space, there’s tightening conformity to radical views; between them, growing interpersonal viciousness and a total lack of understanding.
This dynamic is obviously bad for the people who inadvertently blow themselves up in a few seconds of casual typing. But it’s worse for the institutions they work for, which become hostage to the stupidest or most extreme thing any employees have said in their most thoughtless moments. They also suffer when angry employees turn internal fights over policy into ugly public spectacles. Such behavior has particularly plagued the media in recent years.
This is bad not just for these institutions, but the country. We in the media rue how so much of the right has closed itself off into bubbles that cannot be penetrated by facts or sources inconvenient to its ideology. We have talked much less about how our own behavior contributes to this phenomenon, particularly on social media.
I wouldn’t trust anyone who talked about me and my friends with the arrogant contempt that I routinely see emanating from journalists and academics on Twitter; we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives don’t, either. Especially as they watch institutions be forced by Twitter mobs to hew to an ever-narrower ideological line.
These costs of tweeting aren’t balanced by the benefits, and at this point the majority of Twitter users I know seem to agree. They hate what Twitter does to their organizations and friends, they hate the pervasive fear, they even hate how much time they waste that could have been spent on better work. But they’re addicted to the attention, or fear ceding mindshare to people who are willing to stay in the fray. And so they’re all stuck in a destructive, yet unfortunately stable, equilibrium.
I’m just as guilty as anyone, and I can see how this might sound like me asking my boss to fire my dealer, because I don’t have the fortitude to quit. But this is really a collective action problem: People feel they have to stay on because others do, and others are on for the same reason. Collective action problems can generally be solved only institutionally, which is why I think the big media outlets and the major think tanks should tell their employees to read Twitter all they like, but not to post anything more controversial than baby pictures or recipes for cornbread. Those who are lucky enough to have reputations big enough to lose — or to work for organizations that do — will be better off if they take their voices back inside the institutions that were designed to amplify their best work, rather than their worst moments. But only if they make that journey together.