The Intersection of Social Liberalism and Social Media is Brutal

Aug 23, 2014

By Kevin Drum

I think it’s safe to say that Freddie deBoer is considerably to my left. But even he finds much of contemporary social liberalism dispiriting and self-righteous:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing.

….I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks….If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.


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35 comments on “The Intersection of Social Liberalism and Social Media is Brutal

  • The problem for me as someone a little hard of feeling, a little low on the empathy side, a classic geeky male plus, is dealing with the hyper pro social uber empaths. We are all pretty much left of centre with well developed liberal mindsets and should get on on that basis. But its a real struggle on both sides.

    To me they seem like tone trolls, the emotion police if not the thought police. To them I am clearly a callous, at best indifferent but more often malicious pustule on the seat their world.

    Perhaps my mirror neurons have got a little tarnished but concerns for harms to other people come first from facts and accounts of these harms and slowly grow through understanding these into an affecting distress. The highly empathic get to this distress far more quickly and seemingly with an intuitive comprehension.

    The problem I have with myself is that I am often emotionally dumbstruck until the old subconscious has crunched all the data and made me sad or whatever. The problems that I have with the Hyper Pro Social is that I see the harms they perceive as sometimes fabricated. Why should intuitions be always right? The harmed issue reports less distressing than HPS onlookers.

    But the biggest problem I have is that with huge empathy for those in-group comes also the tendency to impute malice to those perceived as out-group and the harmers when unintending ignorance is the more likely explanation . This from my comrades in arms, fighting for a fairer and more equal society, makes me now very reluctant to engage. A couple of threads here have been horrible to watch and hugely unwelcoming as a result.

    It is of course to our mutual benefit that we try to get along. I need their harm detectors, they need my capacity for calmer consideration.

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  • I mean how people get behind an ideology. Then anyone who does not share that ideology is blacklisted. Take feminism for instance and the fallacy of the excluded middle. Who said you are either a feminist or a bigot? There are other choices, such as equalist to name one. That is the gist of the article I think.

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  • Hi Katy,


    I’m terribly sorry. I suffer from name blindness, it’s a terrible affliction that society fails to recognise on a daily basis and as a result I suffer horrendous and debilitating discrimination.

    Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty in any way you understand, you have every right to spell your name however you wish. It’s just that I wish people would be a little more tactful when they encounter possible name blindness. You just can’t imagine how bad it makes us feel when people fail to think about this – really it’s brutal.

    People twitter and blog about names every day, and we don’t get a moments peace. They can be so hurtful. Sometimes, as I’m sure is true in your case, it’s simply that they haven’t been exposed to our problem – but so often we see and hear obviously deliberate attempts to undermine us to belittle us and of course to name-call!!!

    Not that you did that deliberately I’m sure, I’m just asking that you think of us more in future.

    If only people would mind their language more. Really it’s not hard. All it takes is a little forethought and a knowledge of obscene words or combinations like spelling and name.

    Some people are so insensitive. They will try to say we’re stupid, and the other day this one guy – can’t remember his name off the top of my head but famous for being a smarty-pants on TV – even accused us of trying to censor the English language. Now he’s the one who looks like an idiot for once.

    So sorry about the I-e thing. I’ll try harder next time but, unfortunately, I can’t promise. This is the burden we name blind people (or nambys as we like to call ourselves) have to carry. If only people were more aware of other peoples feelings.


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  • 8
    Katy Cordeth says:

    Oh, my account hasn’t been disabled then. That’s nice. I figured what with getting three or four comments removed in one day from the same thread, I was toast.

    I might repeat my long comment sometime if that’s okay, couching it in more diplomatic language, because I do think I was onto something. If I do, I’ll include a hyperlink so it gets flagged as spam and the powers that be can decide whether or not to post it.

    Then again, I just might not bother.

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  • Soul-crushing indeed:-

    ” . . .the avalanche is dominated by the loudest, angriest, least
    tolerant fringes of the language and conduct police.

    I suspect this wouldn’t be so bad if there were an equal and opposite
    reaction to the avalanche. If the hundreds of angry tweets were
    balanced by hundreds of more thoughtful tweets, it wouldn’t be so
    overwhelming. But what thoughtful person wants to get involved in this
    kind of thing? No one. That’s almost the definition of being
    thoughtful, after all. So the vitriol pours in, and it’s

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  • 12
    Katy Cordeth says:

    Sorry Richard but it sounds like you can dish it out but you can’t take it. You do have your own tidy line in hurling the vitriol.

    I don’t myself tweet but I’d be surprised if all the criticism you’re subjected to is as one-dimensional as you’d have us believe. The responses on this site to your recent abortion tweets have for the most part been measured, even from those who couldn’t be considered part of the Dawkins fan base.

    You and Mr Drum are free to try and disseminate the idea that all the negative feedback you’re on the receiving end of is ugly and irrational, but isn’t that a bit self-serving? You’re giving yourself carte blanche to say whatever you like without fear of reprisal. I’m sure there are plenty of ugly things tweeted at you, many of them quite hurtful. But hidden among the trollery there are, I have no doubt, many sensible, rational things being said. What the ratio is I have no idea. It’s your duty to sort the wheat from the chaff, not try and kid the world that it’s all chaff.

    I don’t actually agree with those who say you should quit the medium; as I said in one of my deleted posts, I think you’re playing the role of carnival barker, both to drum up business for this site and to keep the atheism flame lit in the popular consciousness, and tweets about what you’re having for your tea or pictures of your kitty cat just won’t serve that end. I’m sure it’s hard-going for a deeply divisive public figure to have to run the gauntlet of unmoderated public opinion every day, but you can ameliorate this by injecting a little kindness and compassion into your Twitter submissions. Cold, clinical analysis may be the order of the day in the world of academia and even on this site, but the men and women who ride the Clapham omnibus are a passionate and mercurial lot. The same rules don’t automatically apply.

    I shall now hit submit comment and cross my fingers that this post passes muster.

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  • 13
    Katy Cordeth says:

    I don’t think I’ll bother. I remember everything I said in that comment but to be honest I’m not sure which bits caused it to be sent to the cornfield. Was it the Savile link, the comparing of some New Atheists to Tea Party chimps, the Facebook stuff…? I honestly don’t know.

    I am wondering what on earth your being an equiphile is about. Perhaps there were other comments submitted in my absence which were also deleted.

    Never mind, I’m content to live in blissful ignorance.

    Pacman face.

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  • 14
    Katy Cordeth says:

    Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty in any way

    I wouldn’t worry about that, Stephen.

    I’ve just made a generous online donation to one of the many available Namby charities in an effort to make up for any offense I might have caused in my insensitive post of yesterday. I hope that clears the slate.

    Edit: Nope, still showing up at the bottom instead of where it should be.

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  • Katy Cordeth, of COURSE I have no problem with those tweets that are indeed measured, sensible disagreements. My whole life as an academic has been largely devoted to such conversations. I’m used to that sort of discussion and thrive on it. There’s all the difference in the world between disagreeing with somebody on a question of moral philosophy, and calling them a twat, a cunt, an idiot, an ignoramus and a Nazi simply because you disagree with them. And if you are asking the ratio of vitriolic abuse to measured argument, a conservative estimate would put it at more than ten to one. Isn’t it OBVIOUS that that is what Kevin Drum is talking about? And his “avalanche” is not an overstatement.

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  • We are all pretty much left of centre with well developed liberal

    Since when was liberal, the ideology of globalism, market capitalism, free trade, open borders and economies, mega, unregulated corporations, the hidden hand, a labour market which forces wages into a race to the bottom…since when was all that left of centre? About two hundred and fifty years ago, I should think.

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  • The piece is about social liberalism (not classical liberalism) from whom I have extracted those I term Hyper Pro Social and then added myself (and anyone with similar sentiments. FWIW I am morally left of centre, fiscally left of centre, an evidential “Spirit Leveller” and a Constrained Capitalist.)

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  • 20
    Katy Cordeth says:

    I really can’t help you then. If you’re going on an unmoderated public forum and expecting everyone, or even about a half of those contributing, to be polite and measured in their responses all I can say is these places are not Jane Austen novels. Nor are they populated by the academics you’re used to engaging with. People are not always mild-mannered in this context; they get to hide behind phony user names and unleash their inner troll to their evil little hearts’ content. If I could alter the entire human race’s nature and make everyone nicer for you, believe me I would, but I’m afraid we have to deal with the world as it is. If it’s any consolation, I imagine most of these twat, cunt, Nazi people wouldn’t behave like that if you met them in real life. They’re cowards, social inadequates, ignoramuses themselves.

    Didn’t you sort of imply that the kids who walked out on Sue Blackmore’s lecture were ignoramuses, even if you didn’t use that exact word? And I seem to remember your calling Glenn Greenwald ‘vile’. If I were to go back and read through your history of Twitter comments, could I expect to find similar? I’m confident too that you wouldn’t say what you said about these people to their face if you met them. It’s like road rage: people get behind their computer keyboard or the wheel of their car and they change. This is in no way a defense of the twat, cunt, Nazi people; just by way of an attempt at explanation.

    If one is concerned about avalanches, the obvious solution is not to go skiing. No, actually. Forget I said that. Ski for all your worth, ski as if your life depended on it. Rip off the ski mask and goggles and feel the cold biting into your face. Acknowledge though that there will be hidden tree stumps and boulders on the mountain which have to be negotiated, because that’s just the nature of mountains and can’t be changed. And of course stop to pet a bambi if one comes near and is friendly. You’re getting that I’m not really talking about mountains and skiing, right?

    You’ll always have a home here anyway, even if I suspect I probably won’t. I think I might take a break from this site for a while. If the founder of the feast is putting words in all caps in response to you it could be a signal that you’re beginning to wear out your welcome.

    All the best.

    P.S. You can call me by my first name only, Prof, I don’t stand on ceremony.

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  • Yes, I accept that there is something to be said for “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” I actually didn’t complain at all during the worst of it, but Kevin Drum’s article seemed to me to capture so exactly what was going on that I couldn’t resist endorsing it. I am used to accepting insults and usually take them pretty well on the chin. It’s the element of feeding frenzy, of argument by mob rule that Kevin Drum managed to capture so well, and which perhaps you would appreciate if you had looked at my Twitter page during the past few days.

    But you make some good points, Katy, thank you.

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  • This is the only social medium I visit now, not only because I’m aware of the inherent dangers in almost all the rest, but mainly because its a civilized well moderated forum.

    I can quite happily make a fool of myself here without receiving any abusive reactions; thus far, all I’ve had to “suffer” is the raising of my meagre consciousness, which at worst is just embarrassing.

    Which reminds me to make yet another plea for the delete facility to be restored please.

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  • Cheer up Phil. The hyper-emotional, Hyper Pro Social are seldom sincere and less often are they much good for the world. Use your geeky brain to take time over issues and then deal with them.

    Our former prime minister has just died, he was once a dance hall and band manager and was the huxter and salesman type. All the bleeding hearts in Ireland couldn’t stop the violence in the north, but he did, by wheeling, dealing, flattery and conning the Loyalists, the British and the IRA. He gave everyone a bit of what they wanted, without allowing anachronistic ideologies, the political division of Ireland, the Celtic twilight, the nonsense of the Loyalists or the Republicans, enter the picture.

    Results count, not tender sentiments and language.

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  • It’s cargo-cult activism. Rather than engage in serious problems that require hard work, like organizing protests against voter disenfranchisement or striking to end abortion restrictions, they’re scouring people’s speech for ridiculous imaginary slights, and then going through the motions of activism.

    I saw a lot of activists who seemed to understand Dawkin’s recent comment on abortion perfectly well, but went after him because it could be interpreted as telling a woman what to do with her uterus. When I used to try to contribute to some of those discussions people would rail against me for using a word that (some think) had a negative meaning buried in its etymological past, or saying things that “we might understand, but others could misinterpret.”

    What counts as a victory, ridding the world of the phrase “rule of thumb?”

    I say this as someone who, for most of my life, identified as adamantly liberal. Then it became liberal, with a long footnote. But if these are the most vocal liberals, I don’t want anything to do with the word. Grow up and fight something real.

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  • I mean how people get behind an ideology. Then anyone who does not share that ideology is blacklisted. Take feminism for instance and the fallacy of the excluded middle. Who said you are either a feminist or a bigot? There are other choices, such as equalist to name one. That is the gist of the article I think.

    Problem is, “equalism” isn’t a thing, and “feminism” is a set of very different things.

    But ideology or not ideology, either women should have the same rights as men (and this isn’t called “equalism”) or they shouldn’t. This isn’t the fallacy of the excluded middle, it is the law of the excluded middle.

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  • I’ve debated people online in public forums, keeping in mind that my comments can be seen by anyone with an internet connection. As if talking out loud on a busy street corner, anyone can jump in on the ongoing conversation. In my limited experience, most people have been civil. When I run into someone not willing to reason, I see no point to engage. Discussions or debates do get heated and people do resort to harsher language and ad hominems, at which time I tell them, “I try to keep emotions out of intellectual discussions.”

    In today’s mobile, instantaneous, busy lifestyle, people often give only milliseconds to a thought before responding. Patience is in short supply. The major search engines “customize” search results by user with algorithms that assume they know what we like to see, further stratifying the population into extremes. Based on one’s extrapolated “interests”, a liberal user would only see similarly interested liberal sites as top results. This does not promote learning and tolerance. See “Eli Pariser: Beware online ‘filter bubbles'” video on Youtube.

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  • 28
    Ophelia says:

    From your reply to Katy:

    I am used to accepting insults and usually take them pretty well on the chin. It’s the element of feeding frenzy, of argument by mob rule that Kevin Drum managed to capture so well, and which perhaps you would appreciate if you had looked at my Twitter page during the past few days.

    I know what that’s like, but the thing is, you have 1.1 million followers, so a feeding frenzy is going to be inevitable with any provocative tweet. Just imagine those 1,100,000 people standing behind you breathing down your neck as you type, and either brace yourself for the avalanche or decide to keep the provocation for here where it’s possible to weed out the epithet-flingers.

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  • This problem varies from country to country. In the USA there is still much perceived racism in the society. I say perceived because this sort of racism is not apartheid, it is now a psychological issue where the smallest thing can be misconstrued as racism when there was none intended.

    This perception of racism varies depending on the level of ignorance from person to person. Higher educated people no matter their race, tend to feel less affected by perceived racism. They understand racism is founded by ignorance.

    Instead of trying to get past the history of slavery and racism and discrimination that existed in the USA and try and make the best of the opportunities available, some continue to blame it on the so called white people for their lack of success or miserable lives they may have. There is no excuse for laziness no matter what race. People can’t continue to blame others for their lack of ambition or lack of education because they dropped out of school early.

    I often get surprised when I read some posts from black friends who continuously are point out perceived racism . There was a picture of a mannequin from Macy’s that depicted a character from a children’s book who was a black kid with a gap in the front teeth, in the Back to school section of the store.
    The slogan attached to this image was “Look at this horror ! Everyone should boycott Macy’s” . I think people take things too far. It did not look racist at all to me and in fact reminded me of some black people I know who resembled the mannequin to some degree. So the face of the mannequin was not purposely made to look dorky, some people actually look like that.

    Some white people got upset at the proposed boycott and posted the white version of the mannequins and they looked just as dorky because they are cartoon characters. This illustrates the perceived racism that black people seem to continue living under. As soon as someone explained that these were characters from a children’s book, the whole thing changed from perceived racism to oh it’s ok it’s just cartoon characters they were not poking racist fun at black people after all.

    So the uninformed can create a state of ignorance for the rest of the people who are connected to that feed. On Facebook, this is blatant. It has come to be that people will delete and block others on account of the perceived racism or because they are tired of hearing them complain about something that could be perceived racism based on that person’s chip on their shoulder.

    This does not and should not impede dialogue where things can be cleared up and people can become more informed. Having to step on eggshells to communicate with people is not my style. This should be told as they are and not as they are perceived since perception is some kind of paranoia. In some cases possible well founded but in these general aspects it should be no problem to come to an understanding.

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  • That is being equal under the law.

    When you have an ideology where certain members hold ridiculous beliefs (the myth of the matriarchy, testosterone is a poison, the Y chromosome is a incomplete X chromosome, men and women are exactly the same aside from genetalia and so on ) then you have true believers that are deluded.

    ” You are either a feminist or a bigot ” is the fallacy of the excluded middle and to say that feminism is only about women having the same rights as men is leaning towards the no true Scotsman fallacy because feminism certainly” is a set of very different thing ” trying to crowd under one large umbrella.

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  • This is what happens when you replace the basic ideas of right and wrong with ideology and dogma. I suppose “social liberalism” could count as both, the same thing can be said of “conservatism.”

    Unless you grew up in a very sheltered environment, you simply do not need to have your “consciousness elevated” to know that sexism and racism are wrong. This is one of my favorite fallacies of the online “social liberalism” communities. That only the group can decide what is and is not acceptable. There are a host of other silly dogmatic rules about gender and skin pigment and your ability to question the hierarchy, and I’m not telling anyone anything they didn’t already know.

    I am rambling so I guess I should come to my point. In the article, Kevin Drum said, “it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Risks of what, negative feedback? If you are flooded with hateful tweets and emails it just means what you said had some impact. If someone is not offended by what you have to say, then really what is the point of saying it?

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  • 32
    Aleister says:

    "Dear Muslima

    Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor British brothers

    Only this week I heard of one, he calls himself an academic, and do you know what happened to him? People were rude to him on Twitter. I am not exaggerating. They really were. And you, Muslima, think you have something to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin."

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  • What I find concerning isn’t the effect of “soul-crushing” vitriol on more nuanced, rationality-based speakers. It is the unthinking fury betrayed by too many on the social left. I consider myself to the left of center in most ways, and I would be surprised if my feelings were ever actually hurt by anything tweeted my way by a stranger. However, I am unwilling to accept anyone’s unexamined dogma, regardless of where they are on the social liberalism spectrum, and, I don’t hesitate to question it – usually, but not always, under cover of a screen name. The speed with which I see some of the self-proclaimed saviors of our social order fly into an irrational, mob-worthy rage is indeed worrying.

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  • When you have an ideology where certain members hold ridiculous
    beliefs (the myth of the matriarchy, testosterone is a poison, the Y
    chromosome is a incomplete X chromosome, men and women are exactly the
    same aside from genetalia and so on ) then you have true believers
    that are deluded.

    I don’t know exactly what the “myth of matriarchy” is, but obviously testosterone is not (in the proportions that are normal in living organisms) a poison, and the Y chromosome isn’t an “incomplete” X chromosome, at least not in the sence that is a defective one (it may, or may not, be the case that the historic origin of the Y chromosome is an anomaly, or mutation, in X chromosomes – but the mere biological success of sexuated organisms seems to show quite clearly that it isn’t a problem).

    Regarding women being or not being “exactly the same aside from genetalia”, I am not sure of what it means. Obviously women have functional mammary glands, a different proportion between fat and muscle, a different set of chromosomes, a different propensity to daltonism or haemophilia, and obviously those things are somehow “aside from genitalia”; but, more often than not, this kind of assertion intends something very different from mammary glands or daltonism, and is to imply that men and women are “brainwired” in different ways. This I think hasn’t been shown in any significant way, and most “differences” that are usually thrown in common discourse are either clearly false (women’s brains are ill suited to mathemathics) or too confuse to make any sence (women have better verbal abilities, men have better spatial abilities).

    ” You are either a feminist or a bigot ” is the fallacy of the
    excluded middle and to say that feminism is only about women having
    the same rights as men is leaning towards the no true Scotsman fallacy because feminism certainly” is a set > > of very different thing ” trying to crowd under one large umbrella.

    You would have to show me which other belief(s) is/are common to all people who consider themselves “feminist” besides “women should have the same rights as men”. Considering the vast set of different, even mutually exclusive, beliefs that people who consider themselves “feminist” hold, I fear that the task is impossible. And if so, there is no “true Scotsman fallacy” here.

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