Complaints that public discourse is becoming more polarized and poisonous are generally unconvincing. With the exception of certain supposed golden ages (say, America in the 1950s), there have been few eras in which Americans observed even a pretense of public consensus. And when the appearance of consensus has existed, it has generally required the exclusion of black Americans (or women, or Catholics) from the national conversation. Outside these purported halcyon periods, the cut and thrust of debate is brutal. One need read only a bit of the founding fathers (or the Church fathers) to see that we are no more prone to polemic than our forebears.
But some things do change. New forms of communication shape the ways in which men argue, if not the passions that move them. Twitter in particular has made it stunningly easy to pick a passage out of context—not just out of the writer’s whole life and work, but out of the essay itself—and share it with an unsympathetic audience. Thus the rise of hate-reading, the practice of reading publications not because they edify, but because they outrage. Low or nonexistent paywalls make it so that one need not subscribe to a publication in order to enjoy a rush of righteous anger.
Twitter’s tendency to strip things of context convinces people on both sides that their ideological opponents are more monstrous and extreme than in fact they are. And it encourages writers to compose in short, sharp polemical bursts designed to invite hate-reading. At some point, we begin to fit our face to the mask others assign us. Of course, a kind of performative kindness or ostentatious humility can be the most effective cloak for cruelty. As Augustine noted, some men act “in their own interest, but under the guise of a greater tenderness of spirit.” The cult of nice is so often put to bad use. But a self-conscious meanness hardly seems any better.
Worst of all, people are often attacked on Twitter not for what they have said, but for what they have not said. A statement might not be wrong itself, but it can nonetheless be considered a “bad look” because of the way people might interpret (or misinterpret) it. Sometimes this is justifiable. People do make esoteric or euphemistic arguments for evil. But other times, we read statements counter to their plain meaning. We assign them a significance that they do not merely stop short of expressing, but that they actively exclude. We are sure that our enemies are evil. So what they say must be evil, too. This hermeneutic of suspicion makes discussion of difficult topics all but impossible.
If the above account of Twitter is right, two things follow. First and most important, we must practice and develop virtues of speech. As Pope Francis has frequently and rightly reminded us, gossip, slander, and detraction are sins. Second, we need to reconsider the technology that has made slander and mobbing easier than ever. It may be time to get rid of the counters showing each tweet’s number of retweets and likes. A change of this type would not make men fundamentally kinder, but it might help fewer to stumble. A more radical and perhaps more attractive proposal is to impose legal constraints on services like Twitter. If social media platforms were held liable for statements published on them, their owners would be compelled either to bridle defamatory speech (such as that directed earlier this year against Nicholas Sandmann) or to shut the platforms down altogether.
In The City of God, Augustine laments the evils that attend judging other men. Augustine was particularly troubled by the practice of judicial torture, a method meant to ascertain whether or not a man was innocent. But his words have broader application. He saw that “the ignorance of the judge frequently involves an innocent person in suffering.” We cannot know whether men are guilty or innocent, malevolent or ineloquent. Augustine takes this as a sign that “darkness shrouds social life.”
Though Augustine recognized that judging cases was a duty, he regarded it as one men should hate. “Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling,” he wrote, “were [the judge] to recognise the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God, ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me.’” Something like this should be felt by anyone who finds it necessary not only to weigh the statements of men, but to search out their motives. Yet what Augustine regarded as the most unpleasant duty, we eagerly take up.
Last week, John Podhoretz wrote a moving column in the New York Post on the virtues and vices of Twitter. He stopped using the platform after a tweet of his was interpreted in a way counter to his intentions. I have not quit Twitter, but in the new year I hope to use it in a manner that shows more justice and charity to those with whom I disagree. Precisely because our disagreements matter, it is important to describe them accurately, rather than with caricature.
I have often fallen short of this standard. Most recently, I unjustly and uncharitably attacked Mark Galli over his famous op-ed in Christianity Today. Earlier in the year, I made an egregious and false charge against Adrian Vermeule, one of several statements against him I regret. During the summer of 2018 I called on Pope Francis to resign, on Twitter and in print, a rash and foolish opinion I no longer hold and should not have expressed when I did. For a long time, I vehemently and uncharitably attacked Fr. James Martin and Massimo Faggioli. They responded with restraint and grace. I also took several cheap shots at David French, which I should not have done. I have apologized for most of these things on Twitter, and I renew those apologies here.
What made me a bad Twitter user was my unwillingness to acknowledge when I was wrong and my eagerness to declare that other men were. I thought I was opposing bad actors on Twitter. In fact, I had become the kind of person I meant to resist.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.
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