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:
“PSA for Twitter account activists: By constantly reacting to and amplifying Q GOP radicals (like MTG), you are not only making them superstars, you are helping them raise vast sums of money for upcoming 2022 election. Please Stop. Please. Stop.”
Extra fullstops for emphasis. Here’s another: “I have seen way too much MT Greene on my timeline. It’s what she wants. It doesn’t matter if you’re dunking on her.”
All of this makes some amount of sense. Starve the purveyors of disinformation, right? But there is another side, and contrary voices abound: “Don’t tell me to ignore Trump, Boebert and all the GOP nutjobs. History is replete with examples of good people ignoring the evil amongst them only to have it destroy everything. We drag their hate into the light and attack it vigorously. Anything else is surrender.” This fighting spirit quickens the pulse.
And, of course, my new Indian-food-summit friend, Tom Nichols, regularly expresses the view that certainly Trump himself cannot be ignored, willed into oblivion like some might want. As Nichols recently wrote, “Don’t even @ me about ‘not amplifying’ [Trump]. Never let a single GOP official ignore the reality that this is the party, and never let any GOP voter pretend that they’re not in favor of this.”
Who is right? Perhaps it depends on who the target is, who the troll is, what the issue is.
For my own part, I don’t have a sophisticated set of rules. I am a private citizen with some platform, not a public official with real power. So I respond and ignore on a case-by-case basis. I tend to ignore the MTG’s of the world, but not always. From time to time, my temper gets the best of me, usually when the bad-faith lying reaches some new low. That happened in early 2020, when then-Congressman Doug Collins had this to say in the wake of the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani: Democrats “are in love with terrorists. We see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families.”
What a rotten lie. I don’t often seethe, but I seethed. And I penned a rare open letter for CNN.com. I believed the outrageous sentiment of the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee deserved a pointed rebuttal. I started out hot and never got cooler:
“Dear Representative Doug Collins,
You are not my congressman, and while I am ever thankful for that fact, after seeing your performance on Fox News on Wednesday night, I’m not sure you are fit to be anyone’s Congressman.”
After pointing out that no American is “in love” with terrorists and that when terrorists do kill, they target Americans, not Democrats or Republicans, I continued:
“You are not a talk radio host or a carnival barker. You are a pastor, an attorney and a sitting member of Congress. Therefore, the evidence would suggest you should know better. To utter such garbage, which you know to be false and defamatory, goes against all the training and teaching you must have received.”
Then the closing: “Learn that volume and wisdom are not the same thing. You were elected to lead. Please give it a try.”
Whether this was more therapeutic than constructive is not clear. But there are certainly distinctions to be made in this debate. There is a difference between me and a White House official, who may need to think more than twice about elevating nonsense and being dragged into the muck. There is a difference between debating and repudiating, between giving oxygen to a troll and trying to counteract poison from an official with clout. There is also a difference between a marginalized Representative like Marjorie Taylor Greene, with no committee assignments, and Donald Trump, who still commands a huge and immovable following and may yet be president again. I am curious what you think about these distinctions and whether they matter.
As for Congressman Collins, I was not the only one angered by his character assassination of Democrats. His hateful comments provoked a widespread uproar and, though I cannot take credit for his eventual about-face, I am still tickled by the notation that CNN later appended to my article: “Editor’s Note: The day after this piece published, Rep. Collins apologized for his controversial comments.” Engagement rather than avoidance seems to have been the right thing in that case.
As you may know, last year Doug Collins lost his race for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. He is now a private citizen. And any future crappy musings of his need not ever be amplified again.