Kevin D. Williamson begins his new book with a warning to the reader: “The original sin of the American intellectual is his desire to be popular.” Williamson has no pretensions to popularity if that means servicing the powerful. If anyone picks up this book under the mistaken impression that it will flatter him or his political allies, he will be quickly disabused of that notion. In that sense, The Smallest Minority is the perfect antidote to our heedless age of populist politics. It is a book unafraid to tell the people that they’re awful.
The Smallest Minority is ostensibly a book about politics in the age of social media, but it is at root a timeless exploration of group dynamics and mass psychology. Williamson provides an intellectual road map to navigate the social-media landscape — a thoughtless morass of pessimism, of vitriol, and of cynicism masquerading as wisdom. And he does so with plenty of wit and off-color commentary.
Williamson does not disappoint for those who are attracted to this work to get the inside scoop on his own brush with the censorious mob that ejected him from a brief tenure at The Atlantic over a ginned-up, intellectually dishonest contretemps. The occasionally juicy anecdotes involving the swarm of Millennial cultural revolutionaries who convinced their elders to serve him up in sacrifice to the hivemind are absorbing, but they are relegated to the prologue. And for good reason. They simply reinforce the veracity of the narrative Williamson weaves throughout the book.
Williamson’s innovation is to treat the social-media environment as a marketplace in which the chief commodity is outrage. In his telling, social media functions as a simple economy in which attention sought constitutes labor and attention paid amounts to remuneration. The problem for consumers in the outrage economy is that the product is neither gratifying nor durable. And its by-products are severely harmful.
Social media do not encourage discourse but rather “anti-discourse,” a form of dialogue in which communication is actively discouraged. They do not augment culture but have fostered the rise of “Instant Culture.” As forums, they pretend to promote egalitarianism but instead foster social stratification and enforced conformity. And ultimately, what this marketplace produces isn’t thought but ideological struggle sessions, quick takes about late-night comedians “destroying” their targets, and memes — a form of communication only marginally more sophisticated than pheromone secretion.
Williamson sees much of the angst in this virtual public square as rooted in the desire to seek or impose social solidarity. “As it stands,” he writes, “the Party of the Masses is on the rise and the Party of the Minorities is in decline, not because the masses have more votes but because the unarticulated project of populism is the pursuit of conformity and homogeneity.” The titular “smallest minority” is the individual, and the individual is a concept that haunts the populist imagination like a specter.
The Smallest Minority is particularly relevant to the recent internecine feud on the right over the value of collegial discourse itself. Among conservatives in good standing, a heated argument rages over whether the permissive nature of liberalism’s tolerance for diversity of thought and expression sows the seeds of liberal society’s degradation and, ultimately, of its destruction. This is not a new debate. The ideas animating it can be found in the works of Herbert Marcuse and in Germany’s commitment to streitbare Demokratie — the state-sponsored suppression of ideas inimical to classically liberal thought. “The case for toleration is never more than an inch away from being suffocated by the desire to punish,” Williamson observes.
Germany’s unique history notwithstanding, abiding the suppression of liberalism for the sake of preserving liberalism, Williamson notes, requires “defining danger down.” It is a theory of political life that deliberately confuses banal annoyances and common political disagreements with existential threats. The dilution of what constitutes real danger manifests in everything from far-right and far-left extremists engaging in violent and theatrical clashes to the vivisection of individuals’ social-media accounts in search of sins against propriety. Both activities aim to drum the other out of public and private social life. The distinction between public and private life is, in fact, blurred beyond the point of recognition in a culture of crisis. It must be so to sustain the heightened sense of threat.
Thus, a tasteless joke tweeted out by an obscure PR professional named Justine Sacco culminates in a national mob’s successfully demanding her dismissal. Thus, a Google engineer is exposed, shamed, and fired for his internal memo questioning the Silicon Valley orthodoxy that gender disparities in the technology sector are due to discrimination. The threat of dangerous thought is so great that charity is an unaffordable luxury.
“The idea of intolerance as a virtue is hardly new,” Williamson writes. “The perceived need for ritual communal purification is practically universal and generally murderous.” He attributes this mode of conduct to a theological way of thinking — a theme that Williamson returns to later in the book to great effect. Fervent religiosity in both its spiritual and secular forms is susceptible to moral panics. Among today’s more self-righteous crusades is one against the supposed plague of “rape culture,” the notion that American society condones sexual aggression and is institutionally unequipped to punish it. This is a theory of social justice that served as the intellectual foundation justifying the expansion of Title IX protections on college campuses to include extrajudicial tribunals for students accused of sexual misconduct.
These tribunals have yielded profound abuses. Williamson argues that the kind of ideological radicalization that spawned them would not have been possible absent the intellectually cloistered, self-reinforcing cycles of hysteria encouraged by social media. As studies have shown, groups of non-experts with similar sociopolitical outlooks are prone to radicalization. As nonconformists and dissenters drop out of the conversation, the deliberation becomes more circular and more extreme. Rhetoric sharpens, the perceived threat to the group becomes more acute, and the panic grows; but the threat itself remains an overhyped phantom of the collective imagination. “There is no secret cabal of cultural Marxists out there,” Williamson vouchsafes. “Patriarchy is a figure of speech; white supremacy is not the American zeitgeist.”
These asocial impulses are native to any group dynamic, but the conduct nurtured by social media — Twitter, in particular — verges on sociopathy. “Popularity-minded people may keep a careful eye on their follower-counts but losing one follower or potential follower over a hysterical exchange is no great cost,” Williamson says. “In fact, it may be a benefit.” It is a medium that provides psychological rewards for emotional reasoning and discourages healthy, good-faith discourse. It encourages crude status displays and ritualistic efforts to enforce group affinities. It coerces the ceremonial denunciation of nonconformists who threaten social cohesion and ideological homogeneity. And it creates perverse incentives more suited to an elementary-school playground than to a forum for exchanging ideas.
The social-media insult, a form of art President Donald Trump has perfected, is illustrative of those perversions. The target of the insult can react in only one of two ways, Williamson notes, “each of which lowers the relative status of the insulted party.” The target can respond, but it doesn’t matter whether that response is demure or combative. To respond at all elevates the aggressor to a position of social parity. And if the insulted party declines to respond, she has established herself as a doormat deserving of humiliation and scorn. The only winning move is not to play.
Williamson is, perhaps, too hard on social media. He dismisses their value propositions, chief among them the capacity to demystify previously inaccessible echelons of society. Celebrities, moguls, and politicians are suddenly accessible to the average person, and their all-too-human flaws are laid bare. But Williamson has astutely diagnosed the dangers of social media, which arguably outweigh their benefits. The overall objective of engagement on these platforms is not a fuller mutual understanding but status competition and tribal combat.
“Status is at the root of envy, jealousy, covetousness, spite, ressentiment, and — consequently — politics.” Status competition in the political arena occasionally gives way to speech policing in the tradition of streitbare Demokratie — in the name not of censorship but of “safety.” From Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to Mark Zuckerberg, the repression of dangerous ideas is always framed as a project in the service of public security. But the dangers that the suppression of speech are meant to prevent are almost always hypothetical — often wildly speculative and predicated on uncharitable assumptions about our neighbors and on flattering ones about ourselves. Meanwhile, the pernicious effects of thought suppression are real and measurable. With that, Williamson takes us on a journey into hell.
In what seems at first like a digression, Williamson pivots to an examination of evolving conceptions of the afterlife and evolving ideas about what earthly conduct should properly condemn a soul to eternal torment. Upon some reflection, it’s clear that Williamson’s Harrowing is no digression at all. The Smallest Minority is not a book about Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook — not really. It’s a book about social solidarity, sacred ritual, purification ceremonies, ministerial rites, and retribution for heresy — the trappings of the church adopted by a generation that is increasingly removed from the pews. It is a book about belief in God transmogrified into the venal worship of the self — or, in the case of the mob, selves.
The Lucifer envisioned by John Milton in 1667 was cast out of Heaven for disobedience and defiance against the kind of order that was indistinguishable from worship in the author’s time. “Non serviam,” Milton’s Lucifer averred. “I will not serve.” This rebellion was a thinking man’s temptation. “If Milton’s Lucifer seems attractive to us, it is because, in our time, Public Opinion is God,” Williamson closes. “Non serviam.”
This article appears as “The Marketplace of Anti-Discourse” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.