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Jonathan Kay on the tyranny of Twitter:


How mob censure is changing the
intellectual landscape
Without intending to, Twitters culture warriors have created a sort
of crowdsourced ideological autocracy and paradoxically, its left-
wingers who are often targets

Comment

A journalist friend of mine recently attended his four-year-old


daughters year-end dance recital here in Toronto. Every dance was
JONATHAN KAY
in some way about Canada, he told me. My daughters dance was
June 22, 2017 Canada Geese. Another was Aurora Borealis. One dance was Our
3:08 PM EDT
Last Updated Aboriginal Peoples. And Im like, Oh, God, no.
June 26, 2017
11:28 AM EDT
Its one of the youngest classes very basic. No real theme, just
Filed under
introductory dance moves. The costumes are evocative of animal
News World
skins. The hair buns have little feathers. The theme was Honouring
Comment
the first people of North America. And I was freaked out. It was

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7/19/2017 Jonathan Kay on the tyranny of Twitter: How mob censure is changing the intellectual landscape | National Post

Facebook objectively innocent, benign, cute and even touching and it was
N EW S VI D EO S
absolutely well-intended. But Ive spent so much time in Stupid
Twitter
Twitter-Land that I expected the parents to stand up and start booing
and hissing and calling for the studio owners head.
Email

No one did that, of course, my friend added. Normal people dont


More
do those things. Minn. Governor: Body Cameras Should
Have Been...0:57
In a 1945 essay, Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell described a
rumour among leftists that the real reason American troops had
been brought to Europe was to suppress English communism, not
fight the Nazis.

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,


Orwell famously noted. No ordinary man could be such a fool.
Even by Orwells high standards, those words have aged extremely
well. Tell an ordinary Canadian schlub that white people arent
allowed to quote Beyonc, and he will be smart enough to laugh in
your face. Dress down a superbly intelligent Peace and Conflict
Studies PhD candidate for the same act, and she will fall over herself
with apologies.

I refer here, of course, to federal NDP leadership candidate Niki


Ashton, who back in March tweeted Like Beyonc says, to the left.
Time for an unapologetic left turn for the #NDP, for social, racial,
enviro and economic justice. The Vancouver chapter of Black Lives
Matter tweeted a demand that Ashton retract her appropriation of
Beyonc. And she complied, meekly replying: Not our intention to
appropriate. Were committed to a platform of racial justice + would LATEST N EW S
appreciate ur feedback. Governor General breaks royal protocol by
touching Queen Elizabeth II
BlackLivesMatter YVR @BLM_Van 14 Mar
@nikiashton Appropriating Black culture is not intersectional
Behind this photo, a Crown princes plot to
feminism. Please delete your "to the left" FB post & address the issue
#ndp usurp the presumptive king of Saudi Arabia

Niki Ashton Follow Bodies found in Swiss glacier may unlock 75-
@nikiashton year-old mystery
TY @BLM_Van We removed it.Not our intention to
appropriate.We're committed to a platform of racial justice+would
Nefarious, stupid, or he just doesn't care:
appreciate ur feedback.
Three theories about why Trump met
9:43 AM - 14 Mar 2017
secretly with Putin
7 14

It seemed like a cowardly response to a silly demand, and many said


so at the time. Then again, what were Ashtons options? Clearly, she
needed the backing of groups such as Black Lives Matter to stake
out her legitimacy as a champion of the hard left. And since
Canadian champagne socialists now take their cues on identity
politics from Twitter, losing BLM would also mean losing fundraising
opportunities as well. So no matter what Ashton might have believed
privately about her right to quote Beyoncs Irreplaceable (written

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jointly by an American and a team of Norwegians), the smart play


was outright capitulation. T O R O N TO W EAT HER

This is what my friend meant by Stupid Twitter-Land. He is not


talking about Regular Twitter-Land, which ordinary people use to get
29 C
Partly cloudy
news headlines and sports scores. Stupid Twitter-Land is a strange
Feels like 34 C
place where a local advocacy group with 950 Twitter followers can
leverage an obscure grievance to force a humiliating show of cultural Thursday 23 C
submission from a woman who, theoretically, could become the next Friday 28 C
leader of a G7 nation. Its not the population of Stupid Twitter-Land
Saturday 24 C
thats stupid, but rather the culture of intimidation and censorship
Sunday 23 C
that theyve created through groupthink.
Complete Forecast
Many indigenous, black, feminist and LGBTQ advocates will tell you
that social media has democratized the marketplace of ideas, and
broken a mainstream-media oligopoly once ruled over by middle-
aged white guys like me. Theyre absolutely right. And thats a good
thing. When I got into journalism 20 years ago, my newspapers
editorial board looked like the junior varsity version of a Donald
Trump cabinet meeting. That world is gone, in large part thanks to
the identity politics activists that cranky white cultural critics are
always complaining about.

But without intending to, Twitters culture warriors also have created
what might be described as a sort of crowdsourced ideological
autocracy. And paradoxically, the public figures who are most
consistently victimized by it are creatures of the left, such as Niki
Ashton since these are the same figures whose legitimacy as
politicians, activists and writers depends on the moral judgments of
Stupid Twitter-Lands most ruthless enforcers.

Understanding how all this came to pass means looking past the
dynamics of the online world for the pathologies that have taken
root on Twitter are rooted in changes in the increasingly
impoverished bricks-and-mortar world of workaday publishing and
academia. In the good old days when a young columnist, copy editor
or adjunct professor could aspire to a job with a pension, and a
middle-class life on a leafy street, it made sense to avoid fights and
play nice with your peers. But in a world where starving artists go
online every day with that lean and hungry look, being right or
seen as right often is the only thing that matters.

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In a recent column titled Twitter is destroying America, American


columnist Damon Linker complained that politics now take[s] place
in a context that can best be compared to a high school cafeteria
the largest, most raucous high school cafeteria in human history. At
the centre of the room sit the popular crowd the reporters, editors,
and pundits who work for the most prestigious mainstream media
outlets in the country. Everyone else in the room wants their
approval and attention, including the right-wing trolls seated at the
burnout table in the corner, and the geeks who toil away on public
policy at universities and think tanks, and more ordinary scribblers
like me, who write for slightly lesser-known magazines and
websites.

I like Linkers high-school cafeteria metaphor. But from my Canadian


perspective, Id say that his description of who sits at the popular
table is off. Elected politicians and established mainstream media
figures such as, say, Andrew Coyne, Susan Delacourt and John
Ibbitson may have tens of thousands of Twitter followers. But they
have not positioned themselves as leaders or whips within
ideological tribes, so they cannot command flocks of followers to
exact mob justice upon heretics. On the Internet, as in real life, this
is where real power lies: the power to make others feel pain.

Moreover, being figures of the establishment, mainstream writers are


viewed with suspicion by the 20-something Twitteratti rank-and-file
who serve as shock troops in any effective online mobbing
campaign. The organizing principle of identity politics is passive
aggressive: The more actual power one is perceived as having in a
society suffused with sexism, heteronormativity, white supremacism
etc., the less moral capital is ascribed to you. (It is only when the
mobbing reflexes of these movements are triggered that the group
dynamic phase-shifts suddenly into naked aggression. This may shift
back to passive aggression if the object of the attack responds by
blocking her aggressors with the mob now playing the collective
role of wounded victim. Depending on the identity of the prey, such

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cycling may play out through several iterations before the force of
the attack is spent.)

And it must be acknowledged that many of Twitters most active left-


wing cadres came by this view of societys moral hierarchy honestly,
having endured online attacks from racists, Islamophobes,
homophobes and misogynists who, though culturally marginalized in
this country, can be intimidating nonetheless.

From my time as editor-in-chief of a left-leaning Canadian magazine,


in which capacity I had to monitor the online response to my content,
I can attest that the true enforcers of Twitters journalistic gossip
chamber arent exactly household names. Many are quite young,
and have relatively few followers. What they do have are markers of
authenticity that allow them to speak authoritatively on matters of
race and gender. They also tend to inhabit professional domains that
signal a devotion to purity of thought and cause: artists, academics,
musicians, street activists, poets.

The most effective specimens combine more than one of these


categories, or may present themselves as especially authentic
representatives of their class. This has led to some surreal rock-
paper-scissors moments in Stupid Twitter-Land, such as last year,
when two well-known Toronto writers of colour had an online fight
about whether the lighter-skinned of the two was capable of
adequately giving voice to the experience of racism. In Vancouver,
similarly, traditional feminists and transgender advocates have
attacked one another on social media over the question of whether a
local womans lending library should include books by authors (such
as Catharine MacKinnon) whose ideas are now denounced as
inadequately supportive of trans rights. Like Bolsheviks and
Mensheviks shouting at each other across caf tables in the interwar
period, these true believers often reserve their harshest
recriminations for fellow travellers who have lapsed into some minor
form of apostasy.

In a world where starving artists go


online every day with that lean and
hungry look, being right, or seen as
right, often is the only thing that
matters
-

When I was a magazine editor, my colleagues would never become


more seized by terror than when it was discovered that a First
Nations poet, be they famous or obscure, had tweeted her
displeasure at something we had published. It was a microcosm of

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the fear and malaise that now grips much of the Canadian
R ELAT ED community of arts and letters more generally: There is not one star
ST O RI ES in its entire firmament whose professional status cannot be
threatened by small, ad hoc coalitions of intellectuals and artists
whose names are entirely unknown to ordinary Canadians. Indeed,
this is the reason why the debates over issues such as cultural
appropriation are so one-sided: It may take a day or two for Twitters
Jonathan Kay: Why I quit tastemakers to crowdsource a moral judgment. But once they do,
The Walrus for an
there is little room for dissent. And then everyone from the
exciting new future of
reckless commentary at wealthy men and women who run the champagne speaking salons,
Taco Barn
down to the humblest activist with an egg avatar is expected to
fall into line.
John Robson: While
you're all freaked about
One of the most unsettling experiences I had at my magazine took
appropriation, I'll just
read some Shakespeare place following the 2016 dismissal of University of British Columbia
creative writing chair Steven Galloway, after he was accused of
Rex Murphy: First the sexual assault by one of his students. None of the accusations
trigger-warning brigade against Galloway have been proven in court, and so I navely
came for my yoga mat.
Will my Milton and Yeats imagined that it would be uncontroversial to publish an article by
be next? memoirist Carmen Aguirre that stood in support of the principle of
due process and innocent-until-proven-guilty especially given that
Aguirre herself is a woman of colour who knows the horror of sexual
assault first hand, having been raped at gunpoint as a young
teenager. Yet by the time her article appeared, the fix was in: Stupid
Twitter-Land had decided that any defence of Galloway effectively
was tantamount to misogynistic hate speech. Aguirre was tarred as
a rape apologist. Several colleagues warned me that publishing it
would compromise our reputation with literary A-listers.

The author, to her great credit, persevered anyway, and included this
extraordinary salvo against her critics. The left is in shambles in
North America. And the Galloway controversy reveals why, Aguirre
wrote. It has become the new puritanical church, shaming, bullying,
condemning, and expelling anyone in its ranks who is seen as taking
a misstep. It has become victim to its own victim stance, choosing to
see oppressors and enemies within its own membership.

What Aguirre and other heretics of the Canadian intelligentsia have


discovered is that, for all their avant-garde posturing as social-justice
revolutionaries and champions of the oppressed, Stupid Twitter-
Lands enforcers are fundamentally reactionary in outlook. Which is
to say, their most savage treatment is reserved for members of their
own ideological clan who dare to mate outside the tribe. Hal
Niedzviecki the author and editor who was excommunicated after
writing a magazine editorial supporting cultural appropriation earlier
this year is a good example. The mans name now has become a
byword for political incorrectness. But in just about every other
respect, Niedzviecki is a reliable leftist. When a friend of mine who
worked at this newspaper met him a few years back, he initially

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recoiled in horror lest the Posts right-leaning ideological taint rub off
on him like some kind of dermatological pathogen.

Because my former magazines staff and many of its journalistic


contributors are drawn from the ranks of Canadian literati, I was able
to perform a close and detailed observation of the real-life human
habits and appetites that lie behind the practice of Twitter mobbing.
Having done so, Ive developed some sympathy for the denizens of
Stupid Twitter-Land even the trolls. A lot of these people are
brilliant writers who have spent their lives toiling in obscurity. Whole
years may pass during which they will write a book of poetry, or an
academic thesis, that perhaps only a few hundred people will ever
read. The privilege that I am putting on display here the right to
author a long essay in a national newspaper isnt available to
most of them. But thanks to the three-way combination of social-
media technology, the moral urgency of identity politics, and these
intellectuals hallowed status as wordsmiths, they now have a
chance to gain a wide audience and even impose their moral
judgments on others. It is not hard to see why they would jump at
this chance.

Everyone is expected to fall into line


-

Its also the case that the world of arts and letters now looks a lot like
Uber or eBay an increasingly physically disconnected world that
is woven together by email and social media. Many writers and
editors never see one another in person, with each toiling in their
respective basements or nearby coffee shops. The normal, everyday
water-cooler social lubricants that help encourage everyone to give
each other the benefit of the doubt are absent. And so innocent or
satirical comments are seized on as evidence of ignorance or
malice.

Basic expectations about how people relate to their professional


organizations no longer hold true. When I broke into this business 20
years ago, editors at newspapers or magazines were far less well-

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known than they are now. There was no Twitter back then. So if your
name didnt appear on the masthead, and you didnt write books or
columns, it was likely that no one in the general public knew your
name. Some of this countrys greatest editors passed through their
entire careers in almost complete anonymity.

All of this began changing with the rise of Twitter. Suddenly,


everyone in the media, no matter what their job, could attain a
species of daily celebrity even if it was largely confined to industry
circles by broadcasting their ideas and critiques on social media.
Human nature being what it is, these individuals quickly coalesced
into tribes whose contours didnt always correspond to their place
of employment.

At the same time, wages within the journalism industry flat-lined, and
job security eroded. So there was less motivation to toe your bosss
line, and more motivation to go rogue and focus on your own digital
brand. Your boss could take away your paycheque. But she could
never take away your followers.

When I interview young journalists today, very few of them still


dream of a career that will allow them to buy a house. Many still live
with their parents, have little in the way of savings, and dont care
much for cars or other expensive possessions. Their greatest asset
is their reputation within their peer group a peer group that they
do not define according to their alma mater or place of work, but
rather their place of politics, which they curate obsessively on social
media.

Innocent or satirical comments are


seized on as evidence of ignorance or
malice
-

When they watch their likes and retweets and such, they are like
investors of old watching a stock ticker. To lose status on social
media is, for this cohort, a form of bankruptcy. Thats why they run
scared from controversial opinions, pressure colleagues within their
organization to respect the Twitter-enforced party line, and join the
pack against excommunicated heretics. In this environment, each of
them secretly knows that they could be next.

Nor can all of this be treated as a compartmentalized online


phenomenon that has little bearing on the world outside of Stupid
Twitter-land: The pathologies that now have become normalized on
social media are beginning to metastasize to the real world.

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In May, when a CBC manager was accused of posting an insulting


Tweet in regard to cultural appropriation, he was not only attacked
on Twitter, but also, days later, in a CBC meeting room. Corporate
brass convened not one, but two public shaming sessions where the
man was made to sit shame-faced, for several hours, as his
colleagues described the psychic pain wrought by his single tweet.
(The manager had asked to perform his apologies personally, in
private. This request was denied.) The unsettling similarity to a
Soviet confession ritual was unmistakable. And this sort of spectacle
would have been seen as completely beyond the pale just a few
years ago. Thanks to the influence of Twitter, pre-scheduled
mobbing sessions have become a normalized part of the human-
resources toolkit at our national broadcaster.

A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had


breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his
week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that
he was still connected on social media with a colleague whod fallen
into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. You know that we all can
see that you are still friends with him, read one of the emails my
friend had received. So. What are you going to do about that?

So I folded, he told me with a sad, defeated air. I know Im


supposed to stick to my principles. Thats what we tell ourselves.
Free association and all that. Its part of the romance of our
profession. But I cant afford to actually do that. These people control
who gets jobs. Im broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever
they need me to say.

My friends financial situation isnt an incidental detail here. Observe


the arenas where many of the most vicious Twitter mobbings now
occur, and you will find intellectuals who have made extraordinary
financial sacrifices to pursue their artistic or activist passions, and
whose entire livelihood hinges on a thin patchwork of government
grants, modest book advances, sessional teaching contracts, and
honoraria from small journals, websites and magazines. Just one

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wrong tweet or misplaced open-letter signature can send these


people back to a life working for Uber or foodora.

This essay youre reading: There are probably a thousand other


writers in Canada who have some draft version of it on their hard
drive or rattling around their brain. The only reason its my byline
sitting at the top is that, by luck and good fortune, Ive attained
enough financial and professional independence to step outside the
system. If I put food on the table from writing BuzzFeed columns, or
were up for course renewal at a local journalism school, this piece of
writing would not exist.

Just one wrong Tweet or misplaced


open-letter signature can send these
people back to a life working for
Uber
-

Glib comparisons to Stalinism which too often get thrown around


in manifestos such as this are of course overblown: The Writers
Union of Canada and the University of British Columbia Fine Arts
faculty do not operate gulags. Nevertheless, the idea that a whole
career can fall victim to a single social-media message sent in a
moment of anger or frustration or even a bad joke has
produced an atmosphere of real terror that is compromising the art
and intellect of Canadas most creative minds. One can detect this
effect in the soul-dead language and boilerplate phrases that writers
instinctively adopt when they join the mob against others, or beg the
mob for mercy by confessing their thoughtcrimes. We live in an age
of irony; yet when the mob comes knocking, playfulness falls away
from language, and all communication is reduced to the slogans of
ideological tribalism.

Whats worse, our audience is suffering because instead of


producing content of interest to readers, listeners and viewers, the
professions finest minds are primarily focused on avoiding mob
censure. That is why there is such a sameness to the themes and
causes celebrated in many of the special projects and personal
essays that now appear in the media. On Twitter, the most
doctrinaire takes on fashionable themes are greeted with praise,
which pleases writer and editor alike. But web-site page-view data
suggest that, among rank-and-file audience members who dont live
in Stupid Twitter-Land, the market for such fare is glutted.

This is the world that Canadian writers inhabit in 2017. It is a sad


and scared place. Everyone knows this, and most will admit as much
when they are quite sure they are among trusted friends. But since

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the solution requires collective action that cuts against the self-
interest of the dogmatists who now dominate Twitter, there is no
obvious path to a systematic solution. Nor does such a campaign
have any obvious leader. (Since the very fact of this essays
existence will make me a popular target among trolls, even my
friends would agree that I am uniquely unqualified for the role.)

So all I can ask is that people reading this give a thought to how their
use of social media is shaping the broader intellectual landscape in
this country and that other writers consider lending their voices to
the effort. Civility and empathy are qualities Im trying to channel
when I send a tweet these days. On my best days, I even manage to
pretend that the people behind those Twitter accounts are real, live
human beings.

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