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Newsletter #70: Why You Should Be Careful About How Online Critiques Affect You and Others
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The Social Dynamics of Political Realignment
Ezra Klein recently interviewed Mark Leibovich, an Atlantic writer who wrote a book about the political people who worked with or supported Trump. It’s basically two Trump haters psychoanalyzing Trump supporters. In other words, mostly very boring.
But Klein hit on a point I’ve warned people about repeatedly. Namely how criticism - and I’d argue specifically online/Twitter criticism - can have the effect of radically changing people’s politics in a short period of time without them ever consciously thinking about it. Here’s what Klein had to say:
But something I see sometimes with a Stefanik, with a Lindsey Graham, with a bunch of them is what I’ve come to think of as the anti-anti-Trump ratchet. So you start out not pro-Trump, but you’re a Republican. You don’t hate everything about the guy. You do think the media is unfair to him. You think they’re really unfair to his supporters, who are many of your supporters.
And so you pick some fights because it’s good for you to pick some fights on behalf of him when you’re critical of him elsewhere or you’ve been critical of him in the past. You step out when you think you can. And then you get a big reaction backwards, a big blowback, like how dare you. We thought we knew you.
And every one of them has their moments in this. I think for Lindsey Graham, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were a big moment. Stefanik has hers. I’ve heard this from a bunch of people. But there’s this way in which you start out not exactly Trump positive, but open. And you’re Republican, and you also don’t really like liberals because you’re not a liberal.
And something about the back-and-forth of stepping out for Trump a bit, then getting this blowback, then stepping out a bit more and getting this blowback. And soon your friends are totally different, your enemies are totally different, who likes you is different. And I’ve watched this in politicians before as a psychological dynamic. And I’ve actually seen it in pundits too. As a psychological dynamic, this is often a pathway to a very different politics in three years. You can look at a Glenn Greenwald like this, I think.
You see this a lot, the social dynamics of odd bedfellows becoming a greased path towards ending up in a place that, I think, four years ago you could have never imagined yourself being.
This absolutely happens, and not just in a conservative direction. It probably explains at least part of the Never Trump phenomenon.
All of us instinctively react against negative criticism. One of our most typical reactions is to double down, and to become hostile towards the person who criticized us.
I think this has played a key role in David French’s evolution since the Trump campaign. Imagine David French back in 2019. He’s minding his own business, standing in line for his caffe latte at Starbucks. His phone beeps and it’s a Google Alert, or perhaps a friend texting him to say “check this out.” The subject is an article in First Things, the leading conservative religious journal in the country, called “Against David French-ism,” written by fellow conservative Sohrab Ahmari. Then thousands of people pile on saying how much they agree with Sohrab Ahmari about French and his approach being what’s wrong with the world.
Do you really think you’d respond any differently than he did? We’d probably all respond basically the same. Nothing is more natural than to want to defend your honor when attacked, especially if you are a man.
Let’s be honest, something like that would affect any of us. I’m not immune. I tried to imagine a scenario of similar happening to me. Consider Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He does great work over there and you should check them out. I’m a fan of Ryan. But what if one day out of the blue he were to write a piece called something like, “Aaron Renn Is a Menace to Society”? And then a huge number of people on Twitter agreed. That might just make me rethink my opinion of Ryan and his friends. I’m pretty sure Ryan isn’t going to do that. This is just to create an illustrative scenario using myself as the example. And to give myself an excuse to tell you to go check out EPPC.
Add to this mix an additional ingredient, where a group of people start sending us messages and tweets of support, taking our side and saying what a great guy we were. Wouldn’t that incline us to want to align ourselves with the people who had our back? Undoubtedly it would, even if we hadn’t historically been that friendly with them.
This is especially the case for people who were “cancelled.” They often fall into more extreme or radical politics simply because those are the only people who will still accept them. So keep in mind that if we throw a friend under the cancel mob bus, we may not like the people who don’t abandon them.
The Danger of Being Unconsciously Realigned
For anyone whose persona is remotely public, there’s a very real danger of having our focus, our political or other views, and even the group of people we align with radically changed in short order because of online criticism. The progressive technocrat Matt Yglesias, who has a lot of views that are out of step with the left and the Democratic party mainstream, frequently gets roasted on Twitter. In a recent reader Q&A, he responded to the danger posed to him by the dynamics that Klein and Leibovich discussed. He wrote:
I think that this is a very real dynamic that progressives should try to be more self-aware about. I wrote about this last fall in the case of Dave Chappelle, but when you create a dynamic where anyone who violates one of dozens of different taboos gets shunned by progressives, more and more prominent people end up inhabiting a right-leaning information ecosystem. There’s a longstanding cliche that the right likes to search for converts and the left likes to search for heretics, and I think it’s roughly true and a serious problem.
I try really hard, personally, not to fall into this spiral because I really do care a lot about taxes and health care policy and the welfare state. Those were the issues I was known for covering a long time ago, and I think they are very important.
Again, I think it works equally well the other political direction.
It’s good for Yglesias to be self-aware here. Many hardened veterans of online political battles are not. They think they are used to handling the hate because they get so much of it. But almost all of that likely comes from people who are already their political opponents. Even this can have the effect of hardening us, or making us more extreme in our views. So we have to be careful. But it’s really when criticism comes from an unexpected source or especially from people adjacent to us that these dynamics can come into play.
Alienating Potential Allies
Many if not most of you are not public figures, so the odds of you becoming a target of this may be low. But any of us could unwittingly become one of the people who turns someone who could be our ally into an enemy because of excessive online criticism.
I have seen this happening to multiple people in the Christian world. In fact, I recently did an entire Member Zoom event dedicated to this phenomenon. (I have a private, exclusive Member group for my closest supporters - stay tuned for more on that as I will have some announcements about it coming up soon).
What I often see on Twitter is that somebody posts a take that their friends disagree with. The friends think they are too squish, going soft, etc. So the friends start clapping back. If this happens enough times, people start to ask: are they really my friends?
This is the dynamic that leads to some of these realignments across a wide range domains. Again, it’s particularly powerful in promoting realignment when a new and unexpected group of people stick up for the person being attacked.
A lot of folks have alienated people that could have been their friends, simply because they felt compelled to criticize, and then keep escalating.
My approach for people that I think are basically good guys but who simply have disagreements with me on key points is to look for common ground and de-escalate or avoid conflict. The Twitter dogpile can be long term counterproductive. That’s not to say that I never mix it up on Twitter. But I try to be judicious. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I do try.
I try to limit my critiques mostly to people who are already bigger figures in the public square. When you are a public figure like that, you are going to get hit no matter what. It’s unlikely that my critique by itself will affect people like this all that much.
Summary and Action Items
I have two takeaways for you:
Beware of how being attacked online can cause you to shift your own position. We need to have integrity in the face of this kind of pressure. I use the term integrity here in the sense of structural integrity, like that of a building, bridge, plane or ship. We can’t crackup or deform under pressure.
Think about the possible social dynamics at play when you criticize someone, particularly someone in your own orbit or world. Policing the party line often does work. It’s perfectly acceptable for groups to use social pressure to encourage people to adhere to group norms. But be careful that you calibrate this not to become counter-productive and turn a potential friend or neutral party into an enemy.
I am convinced that social dynamics around the online discourse such as these are a factor in nearly every major change of position or “team” that we see. Many of us have changed our views pretty significantly on a number of matters in the last 5-10 years. I think these kinds of social dynamics were probably at play in that too. As I said, I don’t claim to be exempt from these pressures.
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Practical Career Tools
One of my guiding principles is to build up not just tear down. To that end, I try to regularly give practical tips and “news you can use.” Nobody wants to hear just Debbie Downer cultural critique all the time.
I recently gave two of these via Twitter, which I may turn into articles at some point. But for now, you can see them there.
The first is a career selection framework for regular people who are not going to achieve top 10-20% educational credentials. A sweet spot for jobs are ones that are non-scalable, non-tradable, and with good pay now + rising future demand. I define these terms and give examples in the thread.
For those of you who are in that higher educational or career echelon, my second is a method for creating executive level presentations. It’s about incorporating both horizontal logic and vertical logic into the materials. I define the terms in the thread, and use my modern English translation and adaptation of John Owen’s 1656 Puritan class Mortification of Sin (paperback, kindle, epub) as an example of how I applied these principles.
The necessary condition for the reign of the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) is that beings, places, fragments of the world remain without any real contact. Where the GAFA claim to be “linking up the entire world,” what they’re actually doing is working toward the real isolation of everybody. By immobilizing bodies. By keeping everyone cloistered in their signifying bubble. The power play of cybernetic power is to give everyone the impression that they have access to the whole world when they are actually more and more separated, that they have more and more “friends” when they are more and more autistic. The serial crowd of public transportation was always a lonely crowd, but people didn’t transport their personal bubble along with them, as they have done since smartphones appeared. A bubble that immunizes against any contact, in addition to constituting a perfect snitch. This separation engineered by cybernetics pushes in a non-accidental way in the direction of making each fragment into a little paranoid entity, towards a drifting of the existential continents where the estrangement that already reigns between individuals in this “society” collectivizes ferociously into a thousand delirious little aggregates. In the face of all that, the thing to do, it would seem, is to leave home, take to the road, go meet up with others, work towards forming connections, whether conflictual, prudent, or joyful, between the different parts of the world. Organizing ourselves has never been anything else than loving each other.
- The Invisible Committee, Now
Cover image photo credit: Matthew Yglesias, CC BY-SA 2.0