There is a story about Jeff Bezos from when he was a young boy. He was with his grandparents, both of whom were smokers. Bezos had recently heard an anti-smoking PSA on the radio that explained how many minutes each cigarette takes off a person’s lifespan. And so, sitting there in the backseat, like a typical precocious kid, he put his math skills and this new knowledge to work and proudly explained to his grandmother, as she puffed away, “You’ve lost nine years of your life, Grandma!”
The typical response to this kind of innocent cheekiness is to pat the child on the head and tell them how smart they are. Bezos’ grandmother didn’t do that. Instead, she quite understandably burst into tears. It was after this exchange that Bezos’ grandfather took his grandson aside and taught him a lesson that he says has stuck with him for the rest of his life. “Jeff,” his grandfather said, “one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Some people might say that young Bezos did nothing wrong. They’re just facts, and the truth hurts. How else do you expect someone to recognize the seriousness of what they’re doing to themselves? There’s something to that, but it captures the central conceit of a dangerous assumption we seem to have made as a culture these days: that being right is a license to be a total, unrepentant asshole. After all, why would you need to repent if you haven’t committed the ultimate sin of being wrong? Some say there’s no reason to care about other people’s feelings if the facts are on your side.
140 characters doesn’t leave much room for kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.
The causes of this spreading through our culture are many. As we’ve become more polarized and more algorithmically sorted, we care a lot less about the people who think differently than us and put little effort into persuading them. That’s because persuasion is no longer the goal—it’s signaling. And with signaling, it’s vehemence that matters, not quality. The constraints of social media also reduce the space for any nuance or qualification you might be inclined to offer; 140 characters or even 240 does not leave much room for humility or kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.
This callous, call-out culture has completely infected both sides of the political aisle, corrupting normal people and pundits with equal viciousness.
The Donald Trumps and Stephen Millers of the world seem to think that that there is no level of personal attack or invective off-limits in the course of exposing liberal hypocrisy; and if it pisses off liberals in the process, all the better. Political correctness has become such a problem, they say, that the only solution is blunt, merciless honesty. Meanwhile, the John Olivers and Daily Show-type hosts of the world play to the left-wing blogosphere, which loves clips of them destroying and roasting and nailing the people on the right. (Jon Stewart famously “took down” Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004.) It’s become a war to see who can be crueler or meaner in a headline: “Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?” and “Democrats Are coddling Ilhan Omar like she’s an idiot child, much like Republicans do with Trump.” Talking heads know that a really good insult or a sick burn will get them online pickups the next day, the same way that athletes know that an awesome dunk will get them on SportsCenter—or sports Twitter.