Mike McCulloch liked the wrong things. He is a lecturer in geomatics, but what got him in trouble was not his explanation of galaxy rotation without dark matter. “My supposed ‘crime’,” he reports, “was that I had liked posts saying ‘All lives matter,’ ‘Gender has a scientific basis,’ and ones opposed to mass immigration.” Anonymous complaints to the University of Plymouth, where McCulloch is a lecturer, provoked its “Equalities Team” to investigate his Twitter account.
When McCulloch found out he was being investigated, he announced his predicament on Twitter. Online proponents of free speech quickly supported him and a lawyer who specializes in that right wrote Plymouth a letter. The university desisted. After some anxious days, McCulloch has gained thousands of followers and drawn more attention to his astrophysical theory. So all’s well that ends well — for him.
For everyone else in the culture war, a new front has been opened: likes.
Perhaps it was inevitable. If cancel culture were merely a drive to censor speech, it would have been satisfied with de-platforming speakers, revoking book contracts, and retracting papers. That’s where it would have stopped if it had been about acts. And maybe for those who have been arguing that words can be harmful, even violent, that would have been enough.
But a speaker without a venue or a writer without a publisher still thinks the wrong thoughts, feels the wrong feelings, and likes the wrong things. If the real problem all along had not been his acts so much as the attitudes that produced them, something more would have to be done. If the goal were to purge not only bad ideas but also bad people, some way to suss out their thoughtcimes would have to be found. And now it has.
Twitter and other social media platforms allow some insight into the thoughts, feelings, and desires of everyone who participates, no matter how obscure they are, so naturally the eye of the censors has shifted there. Social media sites seem to provide evidence of people’s inner lives, making them the perfect tools of surveillance and discipline for the new puritans.
Even if you never write anything in your own voice, by liking or retweeting the voices of others, you say something about yourself. But what?
What does it say about you, for example, if you retweet crime statistics that contradict the narrative of Black Lives Matter? Well, even if the statistics have been published in The New York Times, it says you’re a racist. That’s the contention of a petition that circulated recently on Twitter for the punishment of Steven Pinker. It seems to be signed by hundreds of linguists, although many are graduate students, some teach at non-existent universities, and one has a name that is an anagram for Enlightenment.
More ominously, a political data analyst named David Shor lost his job when someone on Twitter wrote his boss saying, “Come get your boy.” Shor’s offense? At the height of the riots last month, he tweeted a link to an academic study showing that violent protests gave Richard Nixon an advantage in the 1968 election. It didn’t matter that the author of the study was black, or that Shor was doing his job (studying how to help Democrats win elections). As Yascha Mounk has chronicled, nothing can exonerate you once you’ve become a scapegoat.
A hundred and fifty public intellectuals have just signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine against this trend, and the reaction has been predictable. Someone has tweeted that she now feels less safe working alongside one of the signatories. Two of the signatories themselves have already requested a retraction because they are shocked — shocked — to learn that there are other signatories whom they do not like. Above the purity of principle, in sum, they are declaring the purity of their attitudes. This is what matters now.
What is the common tweeter to do? You may not write controversial articles or sign notorious letters, but you might think twice about what you retweet. And no, don’t think that you’ve protected yourself from the pitchforks by declaring that Retweets are not Endorsements.
This naïve expectation reminds me of a joke I once heard from Slavoj Žižek.
A man goes into psychoanalysis to overcome his fear of chickens. “They will eat me!” he cries. Over years, the analyst patiently helps him see the unconscious fantasy behind his fear. Since childhood, he has believed that he is bird-seed. Now that this fantasy has been exposed and rejected, the analyst is confident that the man has been cured and can leave analysis. “I have convinced you that you are not bird-seed,” he says, “you have nothing to fear.” “No!” answers the man in terror. “You have convinced me, but you have not yet convinced the chickens.”
So, what about likes? The same chickens who think retweets are endorsements are sure that “liking” something on social media means that you like it, that you really like it — whatever that means.
Maybe you do, but maybe you don’t. A mind is a mansion with many rooms: some for pleasure, others for comfort, and still others for thrills. Unless your mind is a tent on the steppe, or a studio in Manhattan, you too like things even when you don’t like them. At least I hope you do. And you do.
Consider social media, where we hit the thumbs-up or the heart for all sorts of reasons. I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a list of all the things we might mean when we “like” a tweet or a post or an update. I’ve capped it at 50, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
1. I like this. (Whatever that means!)
2. I like that you posted this.
3. I like that you were brave enough to post this.
4. I like that you are (back) on social media.
5. I like that you are contributing to this thread.
6. I don’t like what you wrote, but I feel you need some encouragement to keep the conversation going.
7. I am expressing solidarity with you now, when liking and disliking are irrelevant. The gesture is trivial, but I didn’t make the world, I just have to live in it.
8. I agree with all of this.
9. I agree with most of this.
10. I agree with some of this.
11. I disagree with this, but admire how well it expresses an opposing view.
12. The things reported in this post are very upsetting, but I’m glad this story is getting told.
13. I like what this reminds me of.
14. I like what this is about, even if I don’t like the way it is presented.
15. I like how this presents an appalling thing, event, decision, viewpoint, person.
16. This is beyond good and evil. But there’s no button for that.
17. I want to see more of this sort of thing, even if I’m indifferent to this instance of it.
18. I am in a great mood, and this is the first thing I saw when I logged on.
19. I belly-laughed for the first time in weeks and want to thank you for that.
20. I’m under the influence of … something likeable.
21. I didn’t like — or dislike — your comment but I liked a lot of other comments on the thread, and I didn’t want you to feel excluded.
22. I join you in mocking this thing you have posted contemptuously, without comment.
23. I accidentally hit “like” when I meant only to see who liked it; then I was too embarrassed to unlike it.
24. I hate everything about this post, but this hatred makes me feel alive.
25. I liked this only because, as Sun Tzu wrote, “when people never understand what your intention is, then you win.”
26. If I like your posts, you will like mine. Right?
27. You said you’d de-friend or unfollow anyone who didn’t like this.
28. If I don’t like this photo of your grandad on his 100th birthday, although he’s as unknown to me as you are, he won’t know how special he is.
29. I keep my friends close, but my enemies closer.
30. The headline and the brief quotation accompanying it confirmed my prejudices.
31. People I admire were liking this, so although I didn’t understand it, I figure it must be deep.
32. I want other people to see, in their news feeds, that I liked this.
33. I want other people to like this, and so I’m setting a good example for them.
34. I want to retweet or share this, but I heard someone got fired for that, so I’m simply going to like it.
35. I want to lurk, but now that silence is violence I have to do something, so I’ll like this.
36. I want to comment on this, but I hate getting notifications, so I’m simply going to like it.
37. You have kids? So do I. This like won’t make up for the decades of sacrifice and ingratitude, but it’s better than nothing.
38. You think your kids (dogs, cats) are cute? I’ll do my part in supporting that comforting illusion.
39. I want 10 percent off my next purchase, which I was promised if I like this.
40. I just had to, like, sneak into this list a link to this awesome poem.
41. I am paid minimum wage to create fake profiles and like everything posted by this company.
42. I am paid in rubles to like anything that will cause chaos in American politics.
43. I like this a little more than all the other likeable things you post, so I’m going to like this one, but not all the others, otherwise you’d think I was one of those people who likes everything!!!
44. You like so many of my things, and this makes me feel that I should like something of yours, so I combed through your account in search of something I could like. This was the closest I came.
45. I am trying to do my small part to bring about a world in which there are only two permissible reactions: liking and remaining silent.
46. I am doing an experiment to see what happens if I like everything, including this.
47. I like how this will antagonize people I don’t like.
48. I want to remind you that I exist.
49. I want to connect with you.
50. I want you.
Don’t be a chicken — like this!