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.