Have you ever muted or blocked an old friend on social media because of their political opinions? Maybe you’ve silently dropped them out of your friend group into the broader category of the crazies? We all know people who seemed apolitical when work or school made them a daily presence in our lives, but who have since fallen out of touch and lost their bearings over politics. Or maybe you’ve muted and blocked them as a way of trying to preserve your good opinion of them? You zapped their notifications so that you would continue to know them as the full human person they were and must still be, the one who did kindnesses to you and earned your admiration, not the automaton they appear to be online, the one spitting out opinions you find threatening and malicious. Maybe you’ve done both kinds of digital culls: the type you relish, and the type you don’t.
Did you feel a twinge of guilt or shame about it? Or did you make a firm decision to protect yourself and set boundaries, thus freeing yourself to digitally blast your old friends out of your life like you put the cheat codes into a video game and are eliminating the baddies?
These are all questions we on the inside must reckon with, too. Conservatives who work at magazines such as National Review, or assist legislators on the Hill, or labor in the world of think tanks, feel just as our readers do. We are unsettled by the failures of our institutions, by the sudden sense that most of the political debates we have are zero-sum contests of “us” and “them,” and that the old paradigms in our politics are not just defunct, but in some way discredited.
And so we find ourselves muting and zapping each other digitally — or doing the real-life equivalents — over debates and divergences of opinion that were either unimportant, unknown, or conducted in a less anxious, bullying way just a few years ago. We find the persistent debates that we have within the movement several times more personally acrimonious now than they were then. Outside our movement, the debates about cancel culture and free speech are occasioned by this new sense that the world is more merciless about political arguments, that understanding is a finite resource and we passed Peak Generosity some years ago. You just have to give and make do with less.
Why are so many people ending friendships over the wrong retweet or shared link? I’m sure there are a million individual nuances to each broken friendship, but there’s a larger anxiety at work that almost surely results from the intrusion of digital media. The screen through which we stay informed is itself a latent cause of almost physical anxiety, producing dopamine but not serotonin. Humans are hard-wired to sort out social information, and the social-media behemoths provide an exhausting gusher of it. But above all, new media has reduced the importance of institutions. A significant portion of America’s political class hashes out its feelings and thoughts by lobbing grenades from digital bunkers.
I happen to think the only way out is to practice friendship even when it is hard. To be personal for a moment, the reason I joined National Review was that someone whose politics are quite different from my own — Charles C. W. Cooke — initiated a conversation and wooed me over several lunches and dinners. He did so just months after National Review had published a cover story that began with the line “Michael Brendan Dougherty is bitter” and went on to enumerate the political faults into which I had fallen. I thought the offer was NR acting in its best tradition of fostering vigorous debate while maintaining friendship.
I suspect the only way out of the digital-bunker mentality is to literally exit our digital bunkers. We need to take our most difficult conversations off of social media and establish institutions and places where people can commune as human beings, face-to-face, and hash out their differences.