Believe it or not, dear Medium reader, not everyone is on Twitter. Not too long ago, a friend asked me what Twitter is all about, and whether it’s worth joining. I told him that if Facebook and Reddit already cause enough unproductive anxiety, it’s best to avoid the Twitterverse.
On a vacation over Thanksgiving weekend, I tried to disconnect from the online world. That meant deleting Slack and Twitter from my phone (I had already uninstalled Facebook long ago), and removing my work Gmail — lest I felt the temptation to check these apps. I was not 100% successful in detaching myself completely, but it was a refreshing, uplifting and energizing exercise. I found myself excited, again, about the everyday humdrum course of human life.
However, in an age of FOMO and daily reasons to be outraged, what upset me most after I returned from the trip and to social media was rather surprising. In a span of three days, the New York Times ran profiles of Ben Shapiro, a conservative “provocative ‘gladiator’,” and a white nationalist Nazi sympathizer.
No, I was not angered by those pieces. To the contrary, actually.
I am not the biggest fan of the NYTimes. I only subscribe because many of my peers like to reference it in professional and casual conversations. (“Did you read that?”) I find that The Gray Lady often plays catch-up to other outlets like The Washington Post when it comes to reporting on news that really matter (including the very niche education technology beat. I work at EdSurge so yes, I’m biased).
Yet I found myself aligning with — even perhaps defending — the NYTimes, against many of the acrimonious reactions to the pieces, particularly those that charged it with “normalizing” and celebrating these individuals. It seems like we’re in an age where the mere act of reporting about someone is interpreted as a wholesale legitimization and justification of their character and beliefs.
Before you go on, please read those two stories if you haven’t already.
For the record, I find the views espoused by Ben Shapiro and Tony Hovater morally reprehensible, and you may too (since you likely found this post thanks to social media algorithms that surface posts from people of similar beliefs). But guess what? They, and many others, are people with whom we share a flag, national anthem and citizenship status. Nazi sympathizers shop at Target and enjoy Seinfeld, too.
That may well disappoint us. Yet is it not fascinating, albeit in a terrifying manner, how those who are educated (in Ben Shapiro’s case, from the most prestigious university) come to hold extreme — and dangerous — ideas? After all, if we want to eradicate such beliefs, shouldn’t it be worth trying to understand their chain of logic and rationale, as irrational they may be? If these people are truly the “enemy,” wouldn’t you want to learn about them to best understand how to deconstruct their worldviews?
You and I may definitely not like such people. But we better not ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.
It disappoints me that I felt compelled to write this. Then again, I guess it’s been building up. When I was an undergraduate at UC San Diego, many of my friends would come home after class and immediately turn on MSNBC to watch Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. That habit always rattled me a bit, so, being the contrarian, I would flip on Fox News in my room to try to understand the right-wing, conservative counterargument. During this time, George W. Bush was elected to his second term. Many people were teary and upset, for good reasons. I was also sad, but not surprised.
The more that people take one side, the more I want to understand the other.