Asking For Trouble

Recently, there was a push to vilify “centrists” on twitter by the left, essentially decrying their hiding behind the claim of “moderation” to conceal their fascistic and/or white supremacist leanings. The play was a variation on the old attack, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” If you aren’t for social justice, then you’re against it, and the only reason anyone would be against it is because you’re evil, even if you try to hide it behind a false facade.

Was there such a thing as centrists? It seemed to be nothing more than a name given to those who were neither radical right nor left. There was no clubhouse, no meetings, no baseball hat bearing the name “centrist.” I looked around to see if there was some platform to which centrists adhere, or some ideology to which they swore allegiance. I found nothing.

And yet, there was no pushback, either. No one proclaimed they were proud to be a centrist and how dare the fringes vilify them. If, as I supposed, the vast majority of Americans fall between the radical fringes, why was there no one speaking out against this attack? Mizzou journalism prof Michael Kearney conducted a study that provides a clue.

With the growing popularity of social media, Twitter has become a prominent place to voice opinions on both ends of the political spectrum. With the ability to follow those who only argue one side, voices of people who are in the middle, disinterested in politics or use social media solely for entertainment purposes might be getting drowned out amidst the political noise.

Michael Kearney, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, found that while partisan users form highly partisan social networks on Twitter, moderate users – or those less politically engaged – continue to avoid politics, potentially creating an important void on social media.

The fact that there is no such thing as centrists presents the problem. They have no echo chamber, no cheerleading squad, no group of sycophants to defend the honor of the tribe against attack.

Some “centrists” just don’t obsess about politics, don’t follow every burp and fart of outrage that pushes the unduly passionate to their respective edges. So you’re left with a great deal of noise being made by those for whom politics and outrage are a driving force in their worlds and, essentially, silence from people for whom it’s inconsequential.

“We are not necessarily getting farther and farther apart – it’s just the people in the middle are becoming more quiet and withdrawn,” Kearney said. “If you fail to consider all the people in the middle who do not care about politics as much, it seems like there is a more clear division when there is not, so social media might be artificially creating this sense that we are becoming more polarized.”

Kearney found that rather than increasing exposure to diverse viewpoints or sheltering users with self-reinforcing filter bubbles, social media simply amplifies and reflects the trends found in broader media environments. This was the first study of its kind to examine change in real-time behaviors of political polarization by looking at who Twitter users choose to follow during a general election.

As the temperature rose, Democrats followed Democrats. Republicans followed Republicans. Those in the middle didn’t change who they followed. But for those of us in law, the issue isn’t that we’re disinterested in politics and so don’t bother with the banal screaming between the sides, but rather that we are caught in a bind.

There are groups that have seized names for themselves — law twitter, appellate twitter, justice twitter (but oddly enough, there is no “injustice twitter”) — to not only own their space, but also to amass partisan followings so as to create the appearance that they speak for the law, for lawyers, in some quasi-official capacity. They will like you if you play by their rules, acquiesce to their views and engage in the normal, if infantile, game of supporting the team with “likes” and “RTs,” with words of kindness and support for friends and vitriol for foes. It need not be rational, or make any legal sense at all, as long as it’s good for the team.

If you’re a lawyer, however, it may not be so easy to ignore. When someone twits something decidedly wrong, basically ignorant, about the law, into your timeline, you have to decide what, if anything to do about it. Most of us aren’t shrinking violets and tend to not only think well of our opinion, but feel some peculiar compulsion to share it with people. Ironically, it’s not that these are people whose views matter, as they’re often no more than random ‘nyms who are as likely to be a 12-year-old as a lawyer, or a lawyer of 12-minutes experience as a judge on the circuit.

Then comes the moment of truth, eyes burning at the sight of someone from the fringe asserting some position that’s just monumentally dumb, maybe even dangerous, and clearly, in our humble opinion, wrong. You type out the letters, prepare the twit and . . . do you push the button?

Why bother? You won’t win any argument with a radical nutjob, but you stand to become the target of their mob of angry idiots, swarming in defense of their teammate.

And in a brutal flash of sanity, you hear the voice in your head saying, “Why bother? Who needs some swarm of outraged idiots attacking me?” And you hit X instead and go on with your day.

Richard Nixon came up with the “Silent Majority” as a tool to fight the youth counterculture and Vietnam War protesters, and if one is to judge by his re-election win against George McGovern in 1972, he had a point. It’s a troubling analogy, of course, given how things turned out with both Nixon and the war, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that the crazies are any less crazy this time because of it.

There is no vocal group of “centrists” who will either shout down the fringes or back up moderate voices anywhere along the spectrum between the radical right and left. There’s little to be gained by trying to introduce reason and facts into the mix, sometimes challenging one side, other times the other, when either one gets dangerously out of line.

Silence seems to be the safest bet, as the unduly passionate will, by definition, dedicate far more of their fury and time to attacking any idea, any voice, that doesn’t fully support their every view. And so it appears, to the unwary eye, that there’s no one left but the crazies. Kearney’s study shows that’s not the case. You’re not alone. You just might not have anybody willing to speak up for you when the flies swarm, as it’s just not worth the effort to be reasonable. To do otherwise would be asking for trouble, and there’s only a handful of us willing to put our butts on the line and foolish enough to suffer the attacks of the unduly passionate.

18 thoughts on “Asking For Trouble

  1. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Professor Kearney may be right about social media. That is not what scares me.

    What scares me is that there may no longer be a majority of voting centrists. In years gone by, political scientists used to describe the remarkable staying power of our two-party political system using the term “Dualism in a Moving Consensus.”

    That dictum was premised on the notion that there was alway one consensus that held sway among a majority of voters. Imagine a squiggly black line running across a page. The line has peaks and valleys. Now superimpose on the paper a dotted red line and a dotted blue line. One is slightly above and one is slightly below the black line.

    Political scientists posited that political parties always tried to hew closest to that black line, and hence the moving consensus, in order to gain electoral success. That consensus and the effort to model it in the positions of each party tended to reinforce the two-party system since it was not necessary to have more than two to implement the will of the moving consensus. You only needed two to satisfy the consensus (the majority of the voters), and the one that came closest to the consensus was the one that won.

    Now imagine a lack of a consensus. That’s why you have multiple parties in Europe. Our Founders feared that sort of factionalism. With factionalism comes extremes as each faction plays to its base and the base loudly lambasts those who disagree and thus endeavors to push the voters into extreme positions. We are beginning to see that play out in the Democratic party with the battle between liberals and progressives. In the Republican party, we see the populists do battle with the libertarians.

    In present-day America, I fear that not only will the center not hold but that there is no center anymore. Professor Kearney attributes the lack of centrists on social media to the brutality of Twitter and the like for those who are centrists. While that may be true, it may also be true that there aren’t many centrists to be found anywhere.* That scares the shat out of me.

    All the best.

    RGK

    * Simple Justice is one of the few places where the views of centrists are tolerated and sometimes promoted. I think that is probably because lawyers live by seeing all sides of a problem. But, what the hell do I know.

    1. B. McLeod

      Whether there is or is not an identifiable consensus, there certainly is a lot of road between the two gutters.

      Commonly, the unpoliticized and nonfanatical will tend to put up with creeping lunacy until it begins to impact them personally.

    2. SHG Post author

      Seeing a bit of the twitters, and just how magnificently irrational much of it is, I want to believe that most people still prefer logic and reason to their fits of partisan emotion, and that the amplification of extremist view on social media is more a matter of the unduly passionate being willing to scream all day long than they’re being the majority. I could be wrong.

      And who are these “centrists” of which you speak? I’ve yet to meet one.

      1. Sgt. Schutlz

        First the word liberal is lost to the progressives. Now, moderate conservatives and liberals are swept under the label “centrists.” We’re not going to have many words left when the next administration takes office.

    3. Guitardave

      RGK, I think your correct, ( and stop with the ‘what do i know’ stuff )..or maybe i should say, i fear you may be correct. Most of ‘the deplorables’ i run with are centrist and not politically active, and not ‘on the twit’. Like myself, they long ago became frustrated with choosing the lesser of 2 evils, or they believed campaign promises that never came to fruition, and gave up. Many are just too busy trying to survive to give any energy to parsing out which pile of lies they prefer. The resulting apathy becomes the default mode.

      My not-really-but-kinda positive ( wishful thinking?) thought is, that there is actually a majority of centrists…the non-twitter, non-voters. The other side of my coin is as yours, dark indeed.
      GD

        1. Guitardave

          Judge Kopf,
          I only said that cause when i read it, i thought, “if that’s the case, its a wonder i can even feed myself… 😉
          GD

  2. Raccoon Strait

    Seems to me the best reply to those extremist who point to the number of followers or likes they get is: ‘Well that ain’t hundreds of millions’. But your right, who wants to be attacked from both sides?

    Now getting life members of the procrastinators and apathy clubs off their collective butts come election time is another matter. While social media might have a role, I don’t think giving social media the lead in that effort is a wise choice.

    1. SHG Post author

      The sound you hear is the sound coming from the village square, the place where the voices of the passionate do their screaming. Social media is a lousy village square, but like it or not, it’s what we’ve got.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Asinus asinum fricat

    Speaking of which… if this Twit thing of yours develops into one of those sort-a-relationships like you have with that newspaper you read everyday you might want to consider a micro dosing strategy with the antibiotics, just in case, until your hemoglobin levels start leveling out and stabilizing.

    Or you could just start cooking on cast iron more to combat all this Twit Fatigue! Hard to say thought if it is the Twits, that are actually the underlying cause of that paleness and bluish skin and the shortness of breath?

    Is your Twit Fatigue accompanied by a rapid heartbeat? Dizziness and lightheadedness?

    P.S. Is there a Latin phrase for “being shrill about/over the obvious”?

  4. rxc

    Every movement has people that drive it. People who have that fire in their bellies to turn the goals of the movement into reality. Both the extreme left and the extreme right have these people, and they drive the movements. Centrists, almost by definition, do not have anyone driving themselves with the desire to impose centralism on a society, so they just sit there, and wait for the extremes to duke things out. They are not extremists, so they don’t move anything. They are a form of inertia, which is why they are so despised by the extremists.

    The extremists in the movements drive those movements, and they also drive society. At this point, the left and right in most countries are pretty evenly matched, so we have a lot of smoke being generated. Lets all hope that the smoke does not turn to fire.

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