It’s been said that you know an argument has jumped the shark when one disputant compares the other to a Nazi. In today’s social-media-saturated discourse, it can feel like almost every discussion starts just shy of that point. The outrage culture is bizarre. It’s remarkable that professionals employed by FOX or MSNBC find new ways to spew vitriol each day, and doubly so that there are people who enjoy watching this. It’s even stranger that a few hundred thousand people have chosen to spend whole chunks of their lives trolling one another online. Strangest of all is the degree to which all this inanity bleeds over into real life.
Forget Trump. I’m thinking about prosaic discussions regarding schooling and the way seemingly sensible people approach the world around them. Here’s one example: I host a couple of AEI dinner series that bring together D.C.-based, influential education thinkers to wrestle with important issues. The other week, at one such gathering, we were talking school choice programs and whether religious private schools should be able to respect their beliefs regarding same-sex marriage and still participate in publicly funded programs. It’s a familiar but serious question, raising important points about religious free exercise, equal protection, and the design of voucher programs.
Yet talking substance was made tougher by the quick-twitch rush of a handful of participants to focus on messaging, killer tweets, and how to “own the libs.” Now, some readers are assuredly missing the point, and declaring, “Ah-ha! I knew it! I knew that’s how school choice types think!” If that’s you, sneak a look at yesterday’s WaPo story on the Bernie Bros. The reporter quoted them comparing politics to furious debates about the merits of “Star Wars” versus “Star Trek” and noted the Bernie Bros presumption that, if that’s so, “Should [political debate] not come with the trash-talking, irreverent hyperbole that comes with any other fan base on the internet?” The point is that that’s how a hyperactive minority on every side now engage.
The performative theatrics that used to be a more limited piece of serious education debates have taken on a bigger and bigger role. Why? Well, social media, cable news, and online communication all favor brevity—rewarding outrageous headlines and quick hits over nuance or judgment. The back-and-forth can suck up all the oxygen in the room, elevating the nonsense while providing a steady adrenaline rush to those who are busy dumbing our nation down. As the invaluable David French put it this weekend, “Think of the countless articles and public controversies based on nothing more than random tweets—each article centered around the idea that each tweet is further confirmation of what they think about us. We pick and choose from the public statements of our opponents and engage only with those that confirm our biases.”
That’s true, but it turns out that lots of us are frustrated with performative culture. Just last week, Pew reported that 80 percent of Republicans agree with President Trump on the issues—but less than a third of them like the way he behaves as president. The routinized boorishness that few of us like has been fueled by social media, especially Twitter. The thing is, only 1 in 5 Americans are on Twitter, and that the lion’s share of activity is driven by a relative handful of hyperactive tweeters. When newspapers and cable networks prominently feature tweets in their coverage, though, it’s easy to imagine that this fringe is actually the norm.
As French noted yesterday, “Last year the More in Common project released a study on the immense perception gap in the United States. It turns out that the Americans who are most engaged in politics have the most distorted perceptions about people on the other side. More exposure to political media made people more ignorant about the true beliefs of their political opponents. Progressive activists and devoted conservatives believe that their opponents are more extreme than they truly are.”
Social media, 24-hour-news, reams of click-chasing newsletters, and the premium on manufactured outrage are all actually making us dumber. They’re eroding the norms that undergird healthy communities and functioning government. We’re less able to find common ground, more inclined to assign nefarious motives to our opponents, and less interested in the hows and whys of getting things done. This is all bad for America, generally, but it’s especially bad for education, where the hows and whys matter immensely. The impulse to turn every dispute into a furious smackdown makes it hard to distinguish routine disagreements from actual crises. The disconnect between outrage culture and real life has rarely been as jarring as it is now, as we’re struggling to deal with the real crisis of a looming pandemic.
We can do better. We should hold our friends to the same standard of behavior that we expect of those we oppose. When we fail to do so, we only fuel the distrust and accusations of hypocrisy. Doing better also requires redoubling our efforts to eschew these tactics, even (and especially) when they seem useful. “Owning the libs” might be fun and diverting, but it comes at a huge cost—juicing the reflexive polarization that’s stifling problem-solving and reasoned debate. At least for me, the takeaway is pretty simple. We need to model the behavior that we want others to emulate. If there’s anyone for whom this should be an easy sell, it’s for those focused on how we educate our nation’s youth.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.