Surviving the Twitter Mob

Did you know that Karl Marx was a staunch advocate of free trade? Don’t believe me? Well, it’s true. In 1848, in front of a large crowd, Marx delivered a speech that ended with this:

“But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.”

Luckily for Marx, Twitter didn’t exist in 1848. If he had Tweeted this today, his own people would have taken the quote out of context and rained hellfire upon him.

The point I’m making is that sometimes we have to embrace ideas with which we vehemently disagree to make progress. It’s simple dialectics, my dear Watson. Thesis + antithesis equals synthesis. Apparently, Twitter disagrees, as I found out today. It all started when I posted my support for the new university free speech law in the UK:

I explained that bad ideas (antitheses) must be allowed to engage with good ideas (theses), with the result being the eventual triumph of the best ideas (synthesis). Banning bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it draws even more attention to them. Not only that, but by relegating bad ideas to the dark corners (of real-life and of the internet), susceptible people can easily fall for them. In contrast, bad ideas aired in a public forum can be challenged, refuted, and even protested. I also made it clear that free speech does not include incitement of violence and genocide.

In light of this (what I thought to be quite innocuous) Tweet, I was swiftly carried away by the Twitter mob. It was a real feeding frenzy, if I’ve ever seen one, spearheaded, ironically, by those professing a love for social justice. I was accused of being a racist (my wife of 20 years is non-white, my children are mixed race). I was lambasted as a proponent of antisemitism by the same mob that is now railing against Israel’s response to Palestinian rockets. I was called dumb, stupid, naïve, bigoted, a dipshit, and much worse.

Internet mobs can be vicious. They egg each other on, each trying to out-do the other with their insults. Even the most resilient among us can be crippled by the barrage of hate and public shaming. There is nothing new about this. Similar behaviors were seen in the Cultural Revolution:

There is a real sense of triumph and jubilation in their righteousness. The effect on the publicly shamed is devastating.

There was no reasoning with the Twitter mob. I tried to explain that labelling bad ideas as “forbidden” simply draws (especially young) people to them. I told them that bad ideas can be easily challenged in a debate, but not so in an online forum where many young people are radicalized. I told them that banning those ideas on universities is not going to make those ideas go away. None of these sensible ideas seemed to pacify the mob.

I’m not here to apologize. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. I do have one question for the mob, though: if Marx can see the value in free trade, why can’t you see the value in ideas with which you disagree? I’m not asking you to value those ideas in themselves (because they are patently abhorrent). I’m asking you to value the fact that, together, we can defeat those bad ideas.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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