The Corner

Politics & Policy

How Social Media Debases Discourse

(Thomas White/Reuters)

I am very fortunate in that the thesis of my new book, The Smallest Minority, is daily demonstrated to be true, that people on social media become rage monkeys who behave in ways they’d never behave in real life. A lot of people who do not want to do me any favors cannot help themselves and keep demonstrating the truth and relevance of my argument. Take Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion, for example.

Smith had a Twitter meltdown this morning in response to some relatively gentle and polite criticism from me. Smith is a perfectly respectable journalist in his day job — a purveyor of tediously predictable received opinion, to be sure, but there is room for all kinds. Online, he is transformed through the emotional alchemy of Twitter into a deranged, masturbatory, feces-flinging rage monkey straight from Hell’s own zoo. He is, amusingly enough, so enraged that he cannot even get straight what he himself has written.

I hope readers will forgive the brief point-by-point here. I promise it adds up to something. The subject is what, if anything, poverty in Japan has to teach us about poverty in the United States.

Smith complains: “Williamson also keeps condemning my attacks on ‘the capitalist system’, using quotes around that phrase. In fact, that phrase never appeared in my article!” Exclamation point in original. The penultimate paragraph of the article reads: “Too many people fall through the cracks in the capitalist system . . .” Smith was corrected on Twitter. I wrote to him myself to give him the opportunity to correct his error. As of this writing, the error stands uncorrected. It remains a kind of exclamation point at the end of his tirade. I do not much blame any reader for failing to get that deep into the article, which is boring, but Smith wrote the damned thing, and ought to know what’s in it.

Smith writes: “First, he says we should think about absolute poverty rather than relative poverty. But *relative* poverty is the kind that he, and other conservatives, routinely blame on bad behavior! FAIL.”

Trumpian all-caps in the original. I do not know which “other conservatives” he is talking about, but if he wishes to address their arguments, then he should do that; if he wishes to address mine, he should do that. This is a common rhetorical strategy: Ignore what the writer has actually written and argue with what people like him, or people you imagine to be like him, have written. In reality, I disagree with many of my fellow conservatives on a great many issues, from taxes to the one relevant here: the benefits and shortcomings of the kinds of welfare states maintained in many other advanced countries. (Short version: I don’t think either Switzerland or Norway is an obviously unlivable pit of Stalinist despair.) What I have said and written more times than I can recall is that our anti-poverty efforts should be directed at raising the real standard of living of those at the bottom in absolute terms, and that the recent political emphasis on “inequality” focuses our attention in the wrong place, i.e. on what’s happening with high earners rather than what’s happening with the poor. “Other conservatives” can speak for themselves, I’m sure.

And if you’ll forgive the self-indulgence, I think that however you might choose to characterize my views, no serious person Left or Right would describe them as “generic conservative.” At least not if they’d read my work. But given that Smith doesn’t seem quite able to read his own work . . .

Also, note the silly, Twitter-y, Trumpian summation: “FAIL.”

Smith: “Also note that Japan has a considerably lower median income than the U.S., so Japanese people who make 50% of Japan’s median income are actually quite a bit poorer than Americans who make 50% of America’s median income! Williamson of course fails to realize this.” Exclamation point in original. This is another rhetorical strategy: “You didn’t write about this thing, but if you had written about it in the way I like to imagine you having written about it, you’d be wrong!” I did not address the question of Japanese incomes relative to U.S. incomes. Smith will go on to characterize this as a “math error.”

Smith: “Next, Williamson asserts that poor Japanese people are worse-behaved than rich Japanese people. Even if that were true, it in no way invalidates my point, because the ‘behavior gap’ between poor and rich people in Japan is small, yet the income gap is large.” This is the familiar straw-man fallacy. I do not assert that poor Japanese people exhibit more self-destructive behavior than rich Japanese do. I assert that that is the relevant question, and that Smith’s article does not answer it. It doesn’t. It may very well be the case that the “behavior gap” he cites is indeed small, but he nowhere establishes the fact. To argue that x has not been shown to be true is not to assert the truth of not-x. This is basic stuff.

Smith: “Williamson’s only ‘evidence’ that poor Japanese people are badly behaved is this article on alcoholism, whose examples of alcoholics include 1. an elite civil servant, 2. a prince, and 3. the country’s finance minister.” But the article in question was not offered as proof of that assertion, because I did not make that assertion. The article (which I thought was interesting) was only meant to offer some examples of Japan’s considerable problem with alcohol abuse. That Japan has such a problem is not seriously in dispute. It certainly is not disputed by the country’s public-health authorities, which have organized several public campaigns directed at the issue. In fact, I wrote that the question of economic standing and alcohol abuse in Japan is — surprise — complicated, and that some studies had found that certain kinds of destructive drinking behavior were more common among higher-income people. But why argue with what’s actually been written when the voices in your head are so much easier to swat down?

Smith: “Williamson then defends ‘capitalism’, which he thinks I’m attacking. But one wonders if he even read my article. My point was not to say ‘capitalism is bad’, but to argue that it needs a strong social safety net.” I do not think it is an enormous intellectual leap to characterize criticism of “the capitalist system” as criticism of the capitalism system.

Smith: “Williamson then defends the idea that drinking too much alcohol is bad, apparently thinking that I endorse over-drinking and other such self-destructive behaviors. Of course, I don’t; I merely argued that in aggregate, these are not the cause of most of the poverty we observe.” I wrote nothing about Smith’s view of alcohol abuse. I wrote that whether one understands destructive drinking as a moral question or as a medical question (or as both), the desired outcome is the same: That the person engaged in self-destructive behavior ceases engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is an example of one of Williamson’s Laws (I forget which number I have given it), that: “Something that is not your fault may still be your problem.” Nobody currently living in Appalachia or Baltimore is personally responsible for the states of those places, and none of us is responsible for the conditions into which we are born. (I would have chosen others.) But those of us who are of more or less sound mind and body are obliged to take the lead in addressing our own needs and problems, because no one else is available to do so. In some cases, lifelong or open-ended dependency on public support is the only realistic option, e.g., for those with serious physical and mental disabilities. But surely that is not the answer for every poor family in West Texas or inland California.

Smith: “Williamson then claims, again with no evidence, that U.S. antipoverty programs have been largely ineffective and that other countries’ government-run health insurance systems wouldn’t work in the U.S. The former is demonstrably wrong, the latter is just a bald assertion.” What I wrote is that our antipoverty programs often have “not delivered anything like the promised return.” Go back and read the speeches and promises that were made on behalf of Social Security or the Great Society programs and see if you think that is a fair characterization. It is the case that I do not think that, for example, the Swiss model of health care would work well in the United States; I think that because we tried it, the so-called Affordable Care Act having been in part an effort to adapt the Swiss model to the United States. Compare the compliance rate with the insurance mandate in Switzerland to the best ever achieved in the United States under ACA and tell me I’m wrong.

Smith: “Williamson also keeps condemning my attacks on ‘the capitalist system’, using quotes around that phrase. In fact, that phrase never appeared in my article!” See above.

Having exhausted the store of rhetorical fallacies, Smith moves into full Twitter rage-monkey mode.

Smith: “What did George Bernard Shaw say about wrestling with a pig? . . . If there’s one thing I hate, it’s pig-herpes.”

Bloomberg Opinion published Smith’s original dreck, but it would not have published this mush. And Smith, in all probability, would never think about submitting such a thing for publication, because it obviously fails to meet the modest intellectual standards of the people who choose to publish the dreary mediocrity that is his usual output.

But, as I argue in The Smallest Minority, social media is not a means of communication. It is an attention bazaar, where people go in hopes of being noticed and engaged with. Smith’s obvious errors and fabrications (claiming not to have written what he wrote) would be disqualifying defects in a work of journalism, but they are very effective in the realm of social media. They are part of the ritual of hating together, which is an ancient and powerful means of social bonding and status-seeking. Mr. Smith may very well ably defend his place at the table in the vast eighth-grade cafeteria of American public life, but he must debase himself and his profession to do it in the way he has chosen. He has not asked my opinion on the matter, but I would advise him that it is not worth the tradeoff.

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