Never reach for a grand explanation when a simpler one will do, and when your explanation is to blame the Puritans, you can be pretty certain there’s a simpler option available. Rebecca Solnit is frustrated that so many liberals are letting occasional policy disagreements blind them to the fact that Obama is the only candidate who’s even trying to be on their side, which to her mind should earn him at least a little bit of loyalty and ideological slack-cutting. “Every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure.”
Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system. Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing.
Sure, you might say, but chin up: however much the hard left complains, they’re still going to turn out for their man on election day. But that’s not the point. The real problem with the carpers isn’t their effect on political outcomes but their effect on our political discussion. Solnit’s frustration with them, if you want to trace it back to experiences she has had personally, probably has more to do with conversations they’ve ruined than elections they’ve thrown. I don’t mean to suggest that Solnit doesn’t really care whether Democrats win elections. I just mean that people who write about politics do it for two reasons—they want their political ideas to win, and they find it fun. The complainers’ effect on the former is negligible, their effect on the latter overwhelming.
Two hundred lefties clogging Solnit’s Twitter feed with “leftsplaining” probably annoys her more than one guy in Topeka lacking the motivation to do a shift at the call center. Which is why, if the left seems hard to please these days, the explanation has less to do with the tradition of absolutism in American thought from 1600 to the present, and more to do with the dynamics of the Internet.
Some of the flaws of today’s political conversation are the same ones that existed forty years ago; some of them are longstanding faults that the Internet has made worse; some of the faults are brand new. One example of the second type is the tendency for people to weigh in just for the sake of weighing in, even though their opinion is neither deeply felt, well thought out, or interesting. Pundits do this and always will, as long as there is money to be made in telling the base what it wants to hear. Ordinary people have always done it too, but it used to be done in private—tweaking your dad’s nose over Thanksgiving turkey or earning a pat on the back from your friends over drinks down the pub. These arguments bore about as much resemblance to informed debate as a “Drunk History” video does to your high-school textbook, but that didn’t matter. People got harmless emotional satisfaction out of it, and emotional satisfaction is hard to come by.
Meanwhile, the well-informed grown-ups could continue their conversation without being distracted by the parody of their debate that their readers were conducting at home. Thanks to the Internet, that’s no longer the case. The parody debate is caught in a feedback loop that makes the lazy opinions harder to ignore and the lazy opinionators more convinced that they’re right.
Aggrieved leftier-than-thou remarks have gotten the biggest boost from this loop, which makes sense. They’re the easiest response to come up with—it takes almost no brain-power to come up with reasons why something is racist, unfeminist, or an expression of privilege. They also deliver a veterinary-grade hit of self-satisfaction. But more importantly—and this is where the Internet comes in—these kinds of remarks, whether they are expressed snarkily or sanctimoniously, are impossible to respond to. People voice them repeatedly and brazenly because they have no reason to fear being made to look foolish, much less demolished by a rational argument. This immunity from reply, as far as I can tell, is something new.
Even the most airtight rebuttal is seen as a response, not a refutation, in the online world—this is what Ryan Holiday says in Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. To be honest, he says, if your calm and conclusive rebuttal is completely disregarded, that’s a best-case scenario. More often, it’s “the equivalent of a squeaky cry of ‘Why is everyone making fun of me?!’ on the playground. Whether it happens in front of snarky blogs or a real-life bully, the result is the same: Everyone makes fun of you even more.” style=”text-align: justify;”
I am not sure why this bullying atmosphere dominates the Internet. Possible explanations are:
- Anyone who sounds aggrieved or—in the case of Solnit’s enemies—more high-minded and principled can always summon an avenging army of supporters from the vast population of Internet-dwellers unwilling to spend more than five seconds trying to understand the dispute at hand, but endlessly willing to get a quick hit of that old self-congratulation. If you insult, question, or disagree with such a sympathetic opponent, the avenging army of ignoramuses comes after you.
- In addition to the layman ignoramuses, there are also professional bloggers for whom the number of posts they need to produce and the number of ideas they have per day fail utterly to correspond. Outrage is always good for readership.
- In an old-fashioned print publication, editors are all for stoking controversy but usually draw the line at willful misrepresentation of your opponent’s position. People on the Internet are not so scrupulous. Also, a lot of them are shockingly bad at basic reading comprehension. A writer has to think damned long and hard about whether he wants to respond to some bad-but-appealing argument, since there’s a serious danger that his response will be taken out of context (deliberately or out of laziness), reduced to a headline like “So-and-so Doesn’t Care If Women Get Raped,” and reproduced on a thousand blogs. Even if all you said in the first place was that a federal program to hand out ten free rape whistles to every woman in America was not an efficient use of government funds.
My time in political journalism made me pessimistic about the people who follow politics. The way I figure it, you might as well get worked up about the NFL, since the emotional high is all you’re looking for anyway. Which makes me worse than Rebecca Solnit, because I am a hypocrite. I don’t at all mind when people clog my Twitter feed with “leftsplaining,” but sweet angels in glory, I really wish my Tweeps would shut up about sports already.