Over the last 5 years, a number of terms which have entered into the public discourse have basically become radioactive. Touch them, and you get contaminated. If you are to handle them at all, you’d best wear a hazard suit, because you’re bound to upset somebody on one side of the political aisle or the other. Some of them were crafted as rhetorical weapons to be used against opponents. Sometimes they turn into targets for ridicule from the other side, or the weapons get turned against those who wielded them. A word which is a badge of honor at first (eg. "woke") may morph into an object of ridicule for the other side. Either way, they’re all somehow poisoned now, dangerous. Here’s a short list of terms sure to get you into trouble on Twitter:
- dog whistle
- identity politics
- "Intellectual dark Web"
- cancel culture
Then there are words like "fascist" which are now bandied about so liberally as to have lost a large part of their impact. That’s a particularly interesting one. It was always a complex term, traditionally used to refer to far-right, authoritarian, nationalist, dictatorial forms of government. But back when the two poles of US politics lay closer to the center of the political spectrum, it was at least clear that it referred to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. In modern times, it has — not unreasonably — come to be applied to political opponents at either extreme, where increasingly totalitarian points of view have somehow become legitimate perspectives within a democratic framework. But as the center becomes a political "no man’s land", with more radical voices on both sides drowning out the moderate ones (or cowing them into silence), political discourse itself is becoming more extreme, and "fascist" is fast becoming a label applied to anybody who identifies with the opposing political party. A perfectly good word rendered useless through excessive application.
Use any of these words on a place like Twitter, and you will be very rapidly assigned to one of two groups; you’ll be either:
- An evil, alt-right, white-supremacist, closet-fascist dishonestly hiding your racist, transphobic (etc) ideology behind a veneer of rationality.
- A deranged, radical, "woke" Marxist/anarchist who wants to destroy the fabric of American society.
It’s not just words that have turned radioactive, but associations as well. We no longer evaluate information on the basis of its content, but rather on its source. One would have thought that decades (and even centuries) of Critical Theory and rationalism would have taught us that both are important, but it seems we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. If you cite a valid point from a conservative commentator like Ben Shapiro or Douglas Murray, or from people on the left like Naomi Klein or Ezra Klein (no relation — ha!), you will be immediately classified as guilty by association. The foreseeable consequence of this is that opinions and doctrines become more and more polarized because they are never tempered by exposure to convincing counterarguments. Your self-censorship means that you don’t end up contributing these meaningful, nuance-adding viewpoints to the conversation; maybe, with time, you don’t even see them any more. And in the end, unless we make a strongly concerted effort to read, watch and listen broadly, we wind up in echo chambers that end up distorting not only our world view, but even our understanding of what constitute the basic facts of reality.
In the shifting sands of modern life, if you quote Sam Harris or Bret Weinstein — people who would have very clearly been classified on the left side of the political spectrum at any point in the 20th century — you’re obviously taking your first hits of an intellectual "gateway drug" that will eventually lead you to the alt-right, if you’re not there already. Anybody who has actually listened to either of those folks at length (and there is plenty of material to evaluate) can’t possibly reasonably conclude that they’re agents of evil; the evidence for their good intentions and acts is evident. They’re probably not right about everything they say — nobody ever is — but there is no denying that they are making valuable, good-faith contributions to the conversation. What the fuck is wrong with us? Have we entirely decided to desist with the pursuit of truth and the evaluation of ideas?
Oh, what a crock of fucking shit we’ve created. Twitter provides the ideal environment in which the infection can fester and spread. It is a bot-plagued platform manipulated by foreign governments, domestic agencies, a polarized media ecosystem, and politicians who have utterly lost sight of their fundamental mission to represent the interests of the people. The populace willingly participates and heaps fuel on the fire. One could not hope for a better environment for mobs to roam about, torching digital lives and reputations on the basis of tiny snippets of text, quoted without context. There is no edit button, no way of making sense of the conversation, because there isn’t a conversation, only a metastisizing fireball of hastily fired responses and retweets. All discourse is political, but never was it more overt than on Twitter, and the result of this politicization seems overwhelming negative, fruit indeed, but poisoned fruit.
I have never been more disappointed in humanity than I am today, and I feel literally powerless to influence the direction in which we are headed. An argument like this one barely serves to make me feel at least the satisfaction of having expressed a point of view; it is meaningless in the face of the overwhelming trend towards division and tribalism.