I spend a lot of time these days trying to tell myself that the “speech wars” are a manufactured problem, or at least not the most pressing issue we’re dealing with at the moment. When children and parents are being ripped from each other at the border and we have a president whose incompetence runs about even with his malevolence, stories about the silencing power of social media mobs shouldn’t rank high on the concern-o-meter.
But the last few weeks have brought us two high-profile Twitter pile-ons that I see as emblematic of how the social media mess, manufactured or not, hobbles public discourse and makes it harder to deal with those more pressing issues. One of the pile-ons involves “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn, targeted by an online mob after alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich dug up some incriminating tweets and blog posts that Gunn generated many years ago.
The remarks, some of them dating back more than a decade and most of them reflecting the ethos of Troma, the legendary kitsch-schlock-horror B-movie outfit where Gunn got his start, included jokes about rape and pedophilia. They were meant to be satirical, but they were also flat-footed, unfunny and just generally awful. Gunn apologized for them six years ago, which seemed to meet the 2012 standard of atonement. Last week, Cernovich, a Trump defender who routinely mobilizes his followers to go after ideological opponents with baseless smear campaigns, put mindless Twitter users to work tarring Gunn as a pedophile.
In real life, Gunn has a reputation as a champion of women and LGBT people, and as an overall nice guy. The first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films also grossed more than $1.6 billion worldwide. But Disney was apparently frightened enough by the mob to fire him from the third. (Full disclosure: I was in graduate school with Gunn in the early 1990s. We haven’t been in contact since, though he was nice then, too.)
But these particulars aren’t as important — or as relevant to the larger mess — as what led Cernovich to attack Gunn in the first place. Gunn had defended another entertainment figure caught in a Twitter imbroglio, and along the way, he threw shade on right-wingers for destroying the nation.
That other entertainment figure was actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass, who, with his brother and producing partner, Jay Duplass, is pretty much the ne plus ultra of Hollywood’s sensitive, indie elite. Unlike Gunn, Duplass wasn’t taken down by an enemy. He was pilloried by his own side, other progressive types who saw fit to excoriate him for a single tweet.
And here’s where my concern-o-meter shoots into the red zone. This tweet did not joke about rape or pedophilia. It merely invited fellow liberals to “consider following” conservative journalist and commentator Ben Shapiro.
“I don’t agree with him on much,” Duplass wrote, “but he’s a genuine person who once helped me for no other reason than to be nice. He doesn’t bend the truth. His intentions are good.”
The blowback was swift and brutal, as Shapiro-haters dug up objectionable things Shapiro has said (there are plenty) and found Duplass guilty by association. Duplass then deleted the first tweet and fell over himself apologizing. He described the first tweet as “a disaster on many levels.”
It’s actually that second tweet that’s the disaster. Because it makes it achingly obvious that there’s a new boss in town, one even more powerful than a corporation like Disney. That boss is the social media mob. And we all work for it now.
Actually, we don’t just work for it. We’re gagged and bound by it.
For the last several years, and now more than ever, millennials and post-millennials rising into positions as gatekeepers in media, technology, education and other major sectors, are increasingly either in thrall to or shrinkingly beholden to a small, loud minority of their peers who have organized themselves into a volunteer force of thought police.
Riding the winds of social justice activism and the Trump resistance movement, the thought police see transgression everywhere. They twist relatively innocuous comments, such as Matt Damon’s doomed #MeToo remarks last year, into high crimes that demand not just public apology but public penance. (Damon vowed to “get in the backseat and close my mouth for a while.”) They deploy terms like “misogynist” and “transphobic” as weapons against anyone with a dissenting or even slightly nuanced point of view. And in a stinging irony, they create a circular firing squad that someone like Cernovich can take advantage of.
Even the calmer, less indoctrinated members of the gatekeeper class stay in compliance by writing headlines and publishing stories that echo the mob, despite what they really think. New York magazine’s “The Cut” called Duplass’ original Shapiro tweet “mystifying.” The Daily Beast dismissed Duplass as an “impressionable liberal.” During the Damon scandal, just about every outlet joined the social media chorus and denounced him as a mansplaining menace. Believe me, in private, many of those same journalists were saying something different.
The outsized influence of the thought police can be disastrous for the Gunns, the Duplasses and the Damons, but it also portends catastrophe for the intellectual health and integrity of our society. Reason itself could be stigmatized out of existence. Taking its place will be fear-driven pandering to the bad-faith positions and sloppy thinking the social media mobsters use to keep us captive. The only way around this hostage crisis is to stop meeting their demands.