agnes callard is good, actually
She is always worth reading because she is always so fresh and surprising. Even when I disagree with her, I’m in awe at the singular and courageous weirdness of her mind and perspective. (I think about this piece, in particular, all the time.) If you’re blessed enough to have no idea why I feel compelled to assert at this particular moment that Agnes Callard is one of my favorite philosophers, public intellectuals, and living writers of any kind—though I would assert it whenever, if asked—here’s a brief summary. In short, Agnes Tweeted something silly about her tradition of taking her children’s’ Halloween candy away, and unhinged morons on Twitter reached new frontiers in the art of losing their shit. They accused her of abusing her children, they dredged up past offenses that have nothing to do with Halloween candy, they criticized her appearance (as people criticizing any woman online always end up doing), they accused her of anti-Semitism, and so on and on. In the end, one or more of them found her phone number, somehow, and sent her death threats. The whole spectacle is so morally disgusting, it’s almost hard to respond with anything but wretching.
I don’t really understand why the original Tweet was so offensive to people—my best working theory is that any mention of children breaks the internet’s anti-brain, and that people with “in this house…” signs in their yards who are barred from expressing their brokenness by becoming Q Anon conspiracy theorists obsessed with kabals of child-eating politicians satisfy their own paranoiac impulses by accusing someone who takes candy away from her child of abuse, which, my god, could my eyes roll further back in my head—but let’s accept for the sake of argument that it’s, at worst, a bit mean to take your children’ Halloween candy. A world in which minor interpersonal failures occasion death threats is obviously a sick world, as even the most Twitter-addled among us would probably agree. But more to the point, a world where small interpersonal failures occasion mass condemnation is a sick world, too. The standard response to this kind of thing is “WELL, WHEN YOU POST ON THE INTERNET ABOUT DOING ANYTHING WEIRD, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?” What we should be able to expect—and what we must be able to expect in order to avoid pyschological disaster?!—is forgiveness, or mild chiding. Sure, it is predictable that if you post anything whatsoever about yourself online, people may respond insanely, but that doesn’t mean it’s good or excusable that they do. Another standard response is that it’s not a big deal when you’re mobbed online. But does anyone really believe that they’d emerge unscathed if thousands of people were shrieking at them that they’re child abusing satanists or whatever the fuck? I can understand the claim that it’s sometimes worth it to inflict pyschological damage on someone powerful and otherwise untouchable by mobbing them online, and I probably even agree, but I can’t understand the claim that it’s simply no big deal to become the target of thousands of angry assholes online. How can anyone really believe that it’s not psychologically oppressive to be yelled at by thousands of strangers? Isn’t this what’s called “cyber-bullying” when we’re sympathetic to its victims, and aren’t there lots of campaigns about how people frequently kill themselves when they’re subjected to it? The internet is sort of a weird place because it allows us to publicize the sort of shortcomings that only our intimates would have known about in a different era. It’s an open and different question whether the revelation of details about our private lives involves reprehensible or perhaps just ill-advised exhibitionism, but, given that we doi live in a world in which it’s become pretty normal to discuss our kids’ foibles and our fights with our spouses on the internet, people have to be allowed to fuck up in minor ways without becoming celebrity villains, even when they are in fact being assholes. (Again, I want to be clear: it seems reasonable to me to take your kids’ Halloween candy away, but what do I know.) Who among us is not frequently a bit of an asshole?
Agnes herself has explained that she doesn’t want people to defend her if she gets “cancelled.” In her words: “If I am being canceled, I want my friends — and this includes not only my closest associates but any people who consider themselves friendly to me — to stand by, remain silent and do nothing. If you care about me, let them eat me alive.” Her reasoning runs as follows: “You imagine that you are fighting against the mob, but actually you are becoming a part of it. Within the mob there is no justice and no argument and no reasoning, no space for inquiry or investigation. The only good move is not to play.”
I don’t agree with her, hence this post. There are at least two further options, and a further moral consideration. The first is to step outside of the mob and comment on its very existence, as I’ve tried to do here. The second is to engage with the mob not by adopting its tactics but by making actual arguments. The further moral consideration is that a cancellation like this is an object lesson in how fucking unlivable and ethically warping existence on a certain corner of the internet has become, not just for the periodic cancelees but for everyone who participates in or witnesses the cancellations in question. (To be clear again: I’m willing to accept that sometimes cancellations are the only option, generally in cases in which someone really powerful and otherwise invulnerable has done something really bad; what I’m not willing to accept is that it’s good for any of us to regularly inflict this kind of bullshit on relatively normal people who’ve made relatively minor mistakes.) No doubt, this post is in part a shriek into the void, because I do simply want to emote, along with the mob, albeit about the stupidity and senesless cruelty of this sort of mobbing But there are two brief points that strike me as well worth saying.
1. In a way, I regret that I’m not on Twitter at the moment, because I’m perfectly positioned to speak the only language that a lot of the more unhinged people seem to understand—the language of weaponization of my personal traumas. “As a survivor” of actual child abuse (lol), which I wrote about here, I have the moral and epistemic authority to assert decisively that taking your kid’s candy away ain’t it, chief. Consider, for instance, the following Tweet, which I’ve screenshotted in such a way as to cut out the Tweeter’s name, since we shouldn’t bully even people who Tweets this ludicrously idiotic:
What….the fuck…are you talking…about. This is not a TRAUMATIC MEMORY. It is insulting to people with actual traumatic memories when every negative experience or irritation can be so cheaply converted into a trauma. Shut…up.
I think Twitter mobbings present a sort collection action problem, though not of the usual kind where people should cooperate but don’t have individual incentive to do so. Here, isolated behaviors would be morally innocuous, but the combined effect of a large enough number of individually innnocuous actions becomes morally heinous. I think most people mistakenly reason as if they are the only person posting in response to someone’s ill-advised Tweet; because they assume that they’re just one of a small handful of mild hecklers, they’re inclined to think that someone with a ill-advised Tweet will only have to confront mild, emotionally maneagable backlash. “Quit complaining,” they think. “You Tweeted that you took your kid’s candy, and you deserve to read 10-15 Tweets calling you a big meanie!” But they would reason differently (or so I fervently hope) if they were asked: do you deserve thousands of insults because you took your kid’s halloween candy? People who think it’s no big deal to field a critical response online misunderstand that each isolated instance of heckling takes on a different emotional significance in the context of mass heckling. Agnes is unusually resiliant, but we can’t arrange our society and its norms around the expectation that people become so resiliant that they’d be fine in similar circumstances. No one, resiliant or not, should have to endure a barrage of insults that, in aggregate, are devastating, even if they’d all be fine in isolation. (And in fact, when there are a barrage of Tweets, it’s inevitable that some of them won’t be fine in isolation.) I think this is how people should reason when they consider adding to an online pile-on.
In conclusion, Twitter is awful, people are awful, everything’s awful, and we are all doomed.