Sunday, December 03, 2023

Troll Culture, Cancel Culture: Two Sides of a Coin

As American civil discourse becomes increasingly contaminated with conspiracies, ideological intolerance, misinformation, and social media pile-ons, author and social critic Jonathan Rauch has a possible solution. As he argues in his book, “The Constitution of Knowledge,” we need a better social system for disagreeing productively.

In his opening chapter, Rauch levels criticisms at both sides of the aisle, saying we are in a fight against “two insurgencies: the spread of viral disinformation and alternative realities, sometimes called troll culture, and the spread of enforced conformity and ideological blacklisting, sometimes called cancel culture.” 

Troll culture and cancel culture are two sides of the same misshapen coin, Rauch argues.

“One is predominantly right-wing and populist, the other predominantly left-wing and elitist. One employs chaos and confusion, the other conformity and social coercion. But their goals are similar, and often, weirdly, they act as de facto allies.”

Many right-wing commentators and politicians have become increasingly conspiratorial, blatantly spewing ludicrous, evidence-free theories. The effects of this are powerful. Unidentified Internet trolls convinced people that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in a pizza restaurant. Alex Jones, the host of a right-wing radio show, convinced listeners that the Sandy Hook shooting, which left 20 children dead, was “a giant hoax.” And Donald Trump convinced a majority of MAGA loyalists that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

The left is dealing with a problem of “social coercion,” as Rauch put it. Even liberal professors find it difficult to cultivate a meaningful discussion within college classrooms out of fear they may be accused by their students of intolerance or lack of social sensitivity. Though professors are often thought to be the propagators of cancel culture, they are – in this case – its victims.

Rauch does not argue that racists should get a free pass or that sexism should be tolerated. But he says it’s problematic that anyone with a social media account can gang up on people who “run afoul of their sanctimony.”

“Rauch is spot on in his assessment,” said Thomas Griffith, a retired judge who served in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. “I’m actually a little hopeful a corner has been turned on the left,” said Griffith, who feels that liberals are beginning to tire of cancel culture. “I’m less hopeful on the right,” Griffith said. 

Griffith, a Republican most of his life, no longer identifies as a member of the GOP, and now calls himself a “post-partisan conservative.”

“I can’t be a Republican under this set of circumstances,” Griffith said. “It’s not as if there aren’t conservatives pushing back against election denialism, but it doesn’t seem to be having much purchase. It’s still the case that a majority of Republicans tell pollsters that they believe the election was stolen.”

Griffith collaborated with a group of former Republican senators and retired judges to author a 2022 report titled, “Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election.” The report looked at every case that challenged election results in 2020. The findings were “unequivocal,” the reports stated. It was “not a fraudulent election.”

Griffith doubts that the report changed many minds. “Our hope was that there would be some sliver of the Republican Party that would hear this message delivered not by the New York Times or CNN but from battle-tested, tried and true conservatives. Maybe they would think, ‘Oh wait, our election system actually is really good and Trump really lost.’ But who knows if it had much impact.”

Rauch and Griffith concur that disagreement is healthy and can lead to positive results when there is space for all voices to be heard. Problems arise when evidence is ignored and convenient narratives are accepted as facts.

Meanwhile, Democrats have done plenty to silence the voices of people who come to the table in good faith with differing, yet legitimate, opinions. In an environment where people actively seek avenues to vilify those around them, there is little space for an open marketplace of ideas. Rauch spoke to one Ivy League educator who said, “I’ve found that if students have an opportunity to jump on someone, they usually take it.”

Another professor said, “There is no bigger filter bubble than any selective university in the United States…. Anything that relates to race or gender, you had best keep your mouth shut if you have a point of view that deviates from the predominant woke one.” Calling out bad actors – those who truly deserve to be canceled – becomes difficult when everyone else is under fire too.

Americans want their country to heal. But that can’t happen until troll culture and cancel culture are effectively reined in. That task seems daunting when self-promoting conspiracy theorists convince audiences that massacres are hoaxes and when the thought police garner increased influence on college campuses and beyond. But maybe freedom’s detractors are weaker than they appear. As Rauch put it, “the enemies of intellectual pluralism and free inquiry seem to be ten feet tall. Which is just how they want to seem.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.