My thoughts linger on last week’s letter to you. In that missive, I wrote about the concept of “trimming the mean,” the process by which statisticians and Olympic judges both ignore the extremes in data sets in order to arrive at a more fair and accurate assessment of that data set. I wrote that in Olympic gymnastics, the extremes (i.e., the high and low scores) are thrown out, while in our media-driven politics, the extremes get amplified. Political extremists get the attention and the spotlight. They sometimes hijack the debate and make common ground impossible.
But I think that this is a more complicated phenomenon than it may seem, and judgment is not so easy. I have been struggling with the practical question for some time now. When someone pushes a harmful lie or a racial slur or a perversion of American values, is it really the right thing to ignore it? Or is it better to call it out, to debunk and debase it, even if one consequence is that the underlying bad-faith point gets more play?
This is a debate that unfolds, of course, in the Twitterverse. There is a strong and understandable worry about giving oxygen to the extremists. I see this side’s sincere posts often, and they give me real pause. Here’s just one example: