Taking criticism is hard. Lately, it appears especially hard for writers who are also on Twitter, which is many — maybe even most — writers.
Earlier this week, New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss tweeted a video of American Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel. Nagasu was the first American to ever achieve this at the Olympics — a huge feat. Weiss appended her tweet with a reference to Hamilton: “Immigrants: They get the job done.”
Twitter users were quick to point out that Nagasu is not an immigrant. Her parents are Japanese immigrants, but she was born in California and held dual citizenship until she was 22. (Also, the lyric in Miranda’s song is phrased “Immigrants: we get the job done.”) To the first correction, Weiss claimed she knew that fact, but she was taking “poetic license.” In a vacuum, Weiss’ tweet is a misstep, but not unforgivable. The desire to celebrate Nagasu is good, referencing Hamilton is good. But in the context of her work and public statements, the implicit assumption that someone non-white, with an “ethnic” name, was automatically an immigrant rubbed people the wrong way.
Rather than considering this point, Weiss lashed out. She claimed she deleted the tweet after “being told I am a racist, a ghoul and that I deserve to die.” A cursory look through her mentions showed no evidence supporting this claim, but women are attacked on the internet regularly and virulently, so it’s possible people had taken to email with particularly galling attacks.
But this claim that being criticized, and corrected, is akin to being “silenced” is becoming a common theme of late. People are responding to criticism as though it is some sort of form of torture. Katie Roiphe, a professional critic, dislikes being criticized so much that she responds by accusing her critics of being “low-level secret policemen in a new totalitarian state.” Weiss believes that when she is criticized, it is “another sign of civilization’s end.”
If I were Roiphe, I might deem these reactions “hysterical” but I dislike the gendered connotations of that word. Men who balk at “political correctness” have been reacting this way for years. Any criticism of their behavior or their opinions is galling, is somehow an attempt to erase them off the face of the earth. “We have a right to free speech!” they shout, but what they really want is a right to be free from criticism, from reflection, from having to think about the experiences of anyone other than themselves.
It is an interesting form of entitlement, this belief that criticism is an infringement on some fundamental right. As Rebecca Traister pointed out in a recent essay for The Cut, published after Roiphe’s much-hyped contra-#MeToo essay in Harper’s, it is “a tic of the powerful… mistaking the right to speech for the right to unquestioned authority.”
In a recent issue of n+1, Dayna Tortorici wrote of this same phenomenon, time-pegging it to the end of 2014: “The right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.”
This is, it should be obvious, not a right that any government or other entity ensures. Alexis Grenell wrote about this last September in a column in the New York Daily News touting the value of “shame speech,” and “the soft power of shame.”
“The First Amendment only protects freedom of expression; there is no right to be heard, or respected,” Grenell explains. “The state of shame is made possible by thousands of people of different backgrounds finally having their voices heard.”
While writers like Roiphe and Weiss are still the ones getting platforms in publications like Harper’s and The New York Times, the internet — that great equalizer — is facilitating this “state of shame.” Twitter might be overrun by Nazis, white supremacists, and angry basement-dwellers making rape and death threats, but it has also increasingly become a place where marginalized voices are able to make themselves heard.
Some people hate that. People you wouldn’t expect! Just this week, Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter at the New York Times, appeared to be so moved watching the teens who survived the school shooting in Florida this week speak on television, he tweeted, “Impressive how articulate and well-educated these kids are from this school. Obviously a good school. Another sad reason for yesterday’s events.”
More than 200 people replied to his tweet, pointing out how hurtful his words were, so Lipton attempted a clarification, “And not saying it would be less sad it [sic] there were poor kids, obviously. Just such a waste to see kids with so much opportunity before them wiped out.” More than a thousand people responded to that one, which anyone who spends any time on Twitter could have predicted.
After a few hours, he deleted those tweets, and wrote a new one. “I deleted an earlier tweet that was misread by many people. What I was saying was not meant to me [sic] disrespectful. Sorry it was read that way.”
This type of reaction is so common, and it confounds me. It is so, so much easier to listen, see that you’ve hurt people (usually people with less institutional and systemic power than you), and say sorry. Then it all goes away!
Bret Stephens, a colleague of Weiss’ in the opinion section at the Times, who seems to live for the thrill of being a bogeyman contrarian, came to Lipton’s defense.
The last line is a reference to the fact that Stephens dislikes criticism so much, he keeps threatening to leave Twitter but then fails to do so.
Opinion writers, in particular, should be able to handle criticism better, given their job is to criticize — and, at their best, honestly and diligently examine different ideas in good faith.
This week, NYT opinion editor James Bennet issued a 1,500-word memo in defense of Bari Weiss, insisting that she, and everyone else in his stable, are operating in good faith. The way he described the opinion section is exactly what its critics want it to be, and what they feel it’s falling short of achieving:
[W]e owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.
That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness. It means taking on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men. It means starting from a presumption of good faith, particularly on the part of our colleagues, including those we disagree with. It means having some humility about the possibility that, in the end, the other side might have a point, or more than one.
Bennet! Bennet. This is exactly what we are asking you, and Stephens, and Weiss to do. This is all we want! Take your critics seriously. Don’t dismiss them as too stupid or “insane” to understand your point. You are writers. You are writers of opinion, which ultimately means you are rhetoricians, so your goal is to persuade. If people are arguing with you, it means you have fallen short of that goal. Engage with them! Start from a presumption of good faith! And please, please think about why you think that presumption is owed “particularly” to people who work for the Times, not to those who read it, and love it enough to try to push you to be better.
Bennet’s memo was written after an internal Slack chat was leaked, showing NYT employees frustrated both by Weiss’ tweet and her entitled self-defense earlier this week. One anonymous employee wrote:
i wasn’t here when we had a public editor, but i understand how it worked. it was clear. what i don’t understand now and now what’s unclear is what’s supposed to happen when the same mistakes keep getting made again and again. at what point is the company willing to take the responsibility off the public for calling this stuff out? will the reader center step in? is that even what the reader center is for? i genuinely don’t know!
What seems to be obvious both to us readers and internally at the Times is that the Reader Center is not living up to the legacy of the public editor. As I’ve mentioned previously, I wrote NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan in 2014 — around the time Tortorici references in her essay, when this outcry about the audacity of plebeian critics surfaced. I was frustrated about three separate instances when NYT writers had been criticized for insensitive language and responded by pooh-poohing an uptight, uncomprehending Twitterati. (Sullivan was at the time working on a column in response to the latest incident — Alessandra Stanley referring to Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman” — but it was also in the wake of a column about Ray Rice that used florid language to describe his spousal abuse, and the infamous Mike Brown “no angel” article.) The writers were, similarly to Weiss, defending their perceived “right” to use the language they want without considering the impact it would have on readers, and vulnerable readers in particular.
I wrote the following to Sullivan at the time, and I still believe it today:
Journalism does not occur in a vacuum. When your artful words are sent out into the world, they have the power to hurt people who are particularly vulnerable.
That these articles get past not only a writer but — I assume — multiple editors without one person stopping to think about the effects the language will have, not in their stylistic quality, but in their existence in the world of readers who may be victims of violence or domestic violence or systemic discrimination and racism, is absurd.
Pretty writing is not more important than empathy and respect for people with less power and less of an ability to have their voices heard.
The problem here is not Twitter. It is a culture in which a writer can receive criticism from people their writing has harmed, and respond not with a gracious, empathetic apology, but with the dismissive arrogance it must take to claim that anyone who disagrees with you just isn’t smart enough to understand your point.
If Bennet wants people to assume his writers are operating in good faith, they need to show that. For now, Weiss has shown exactly the opposite, both in her work (as when she claimed the motto of contemporary feminism is “Believe All Women” or reductively cited a vague Instagram post in a claim of a black activist’s anti-police bias), and this week’s dustup. Tom Scocca outlined this well on — of course — Twitter:
And everyone who saw the original tweet knew what she’d tweeted, and could see that she was falsifying the record to make herself sound better.
— Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) February 16, 2018
It’s one little word in a big sea of words but it was shifty and unaware of how obvious its shiftiness was. It was not intellectually honest and it was hard to see as any sort of act of good faith.
— Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) February 16, 2018
It’s similar to the way that Bret Stephens repeatedly cites things that don’t say what he claims they say.
— Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) February 16, 2018
Here’s the thing. Weiss, Stephens, and Roiphe claim they want a gentler, kinder discourse. That’s a good goal. It can be exhausting to be patient in the face of microaggressions, especially for people who have been on the receiving end of them for so long. But if we can muster it, I have no doubt it will lead to a better discourse.
The flipside of that, though, is that Weiss, Stephens, Roiphe et al need to come down from their mountain and actually listen to and consider the criticism leveled against them. They have to try to be better right along with the rest of us.