I think McArdle makes a very good point here:
The rise of the internet, and particularly the rise of social media, has given us unprecedented access to the stupid opinions of unfamous people. Sure, we knew when Jesse Jackson talked about “Hymietown”, or Gerald Ford bizarrely claimed that “there is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration.” But these people were prominent figures on the national political scene. It did not, however, used to be national news when a state commiteeman somewhere said something dumb, because news is supposed to be rare and interesting, not common-verging-on-banal.
Now it seems like every week, my twitter feed blows up with some completely moronic thing said by some completely unimportant person who I have never heard of–and who I will never hear from again, after their Two Minutes Hate/fifteen minutes of fame. I mean, who cares what an instructor at West Liberty University thinks? I understand that her students do, but this is a matter for the administration, who are presumably fully capable of telling her to stop being such a partisan fool. Nonetheless, the tremendous power of social media relentlessly amplifies these sorts of cretinous musings as if they actually mattered.
And in the process, it amplifies the feeling that everyone on the other side must be terrible people. For starters, most people can’t even remember the idiotic things said by people they identify with. Liberals can instantly call to mind this infamous exchange between a Fox News host and Bill Nye, the science guy, about global warming and volcanoes. But how many of them remember the CNN host who asked whether the Russian meteorite had been caused by global warming? Conservatives, meanwhile, all know about the global warming meteorite, but have a much less encyclopedic command of stupid utterances by conservative types.
In isolation, combing the internet for horrible things said and done by our political opponents seems largely harmless, and one hopes that it may even cut down on the parade of horribleness. However, there’s also a pernicious effect. The sheer number of these “Outrage of the Day” moments is multiplying, and it seems to me that increasingly, these episodes are being used as “proof” of propositions like “the GOP is overwhelmingly racist” or “professors just use their position for political indoctrination”.
But there are tens of millions of liberals in this country, and even more tens of millions of conservatives. At any given moment, statistically, thousands of these people are saying or doing things that are horrible and idiotic. Sheerly by chance, some of those scrofulous churls will have some minor position of power in one institution or another.
What we are seeing on Twitter and Facebook is not the veil being ripped from some black, secret place deep in the heart of the other side. It’s just the law of large numbers playing out in a nation of 300 million people.
I think McArdle is right but I also think this problem is asymmetric. Maybe it’s because I am something of a Right Winger but it seems like, lately, this the “idiot as illustrative” attack has been far more common from the Left than the Right. Not that the Right is above it (Bill Ayers, anyone?) But even with the libertarian/conservative bias of my Twitter and Google Reader feeds, I see a lot more Left Wing Outrage! than Right Wing Outrage! (and really, too much of both).
I’ll illustrate it with an example from a side I disagree with. I am reluctantly pro-choice but have sympathies for the pro-life view. However, not a week goes by when my Twitter and Facebook feeds don’t fill up with something like this from Mary Sue McClurkin in defense of an extremely restrictive abortion bill:
“When a physician removes a child from a woman, that is the largest organ in a body,” McClurkin said in an interview Thursday. “That’s a big thing. That’s a big surgery. You don’t have any other organs in your body that are bigger than that.”
Or this, which might be satire, where a woman segues from complaining about deer crossing signs to abortion.
Every time one of these quotes comes up, it results in a several-day shitstorm about how the real agenda of the Pro-Life movement has been revealed. And not just them. The real agenda of the Republican Party, the conservative movement, the Tea Party, Fox News, Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Holy Fuck, They’re All In On It!! It’s bullshit, of course. Even the Pro Life movement is not monolithic in their views and support for legislation.
Little Green Footballs, in particular, has been one of the worst at this, frequently posting long pulls from unregistered unmoderated forums to “prove” how racist all of Obama’s opponents are. But what percentage of Obama’s opponents post racist comments over at Breitbart? Even if you have a hundred trolls, that’s less than one in every million Obama opponents.
This is simply an extension of the ad hominem attack that is used to dismiss arguments people don’t want to engage. This is especially true when the issues are difficult and the solutions are murky: global warming (“They’re socialists!”), race (“They’re racists!”), poverty (“And they’re sexist, too!”), abortion (“War on women!”). And with 300 million people and tens of thousands of prattling elected officials, you can be guaranteed of finding someone — usually many someones — who match the caricature.
(This occasionally blows up, when someone inadvertently posts an Onion article or similar satire as though it were serious. This happened yesterday with claims that Lamar Smith wanted hearings on whether meteors were real. I skeptically RT’d the link before remembering that Smith had specifically called for heavier investment in asteroid defense.)
Here’s how I tell if some piece of stupidity is worth responding to. If it has been brought to my attention my people who think it’s brilliant, I’ll attack it (as I did with the Mother Jones piece below). If it’s been brought to my attention by critics, I might respond if it’s particularly hilariously stupid. Otherwise, meh. I’m really not terribly interested in what some student writer at UCLA or some obscure Mississippi legislator or Maxine Waters has to say. I’ll comment on it for comedic value because I think stupidity is funny, especially in people who think they are brilliant and wise. But in the arena of ideas, wouldn’t people much rather engage someone like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias or the President himself? Isn’t it better to punch way above your weight class than way below it?