Ethics Quote Of The Month: Glenn Greenwald

A republic

“Unleash this monster and one day it will come for you. And you’ll have no principle to credibly invoke in protest when it does. You’ll be left with nothing more than lame and craven pleading that your friends do not deserve the same treatment as your enemies. Force, not principle, will be the sole factor deciding the outcome. If you’re lucky enough to have important and famous media friends…you have a chance to survive it. Absent that, you have none.”

Glenn Greenwald, in his post on the attempted “canceling” of writer Will Wilkenson over a facetious tweet.

The “monster” Greenwald is referring to is mob anger and indignation, magnified by social media, and enabled by self-preservation and cowardice. His essay, titled “The Moronic Firing of Will Wilkinson Illustrates Why Fear and Bad Faith Mob Demands Reign Supreme,” was triggered by the recent firing of an intellectual I never heard of by a think tank I never heard of, as well as his looming dismissal by the New York Times. His “crime” was this tweet…

Willkerson tweet

…which a hoard of online cretins and power-hungry wastrels pounced upon, falsely calling it a call to do violence to the ex-Vice-President and thus mandating his public humiliation and rejection.

As Greenwald correctly concludes, no reasonably intelligent reader could think the tweet, posted the night of Joe Biden’s inauguration, was anything but a pointed joke. Extreme Trump supporters were furious with Pence for not taking action to reject the 2020 election results. Anti-Trump extremists wanted Pence to remove President Trump using the inapplicable 25th Amendment ploy, which he correctly refused to do (and could do constitutionally anyway.) Thus lunatics on both sides of the U.S. ideological divide could be unified in their anger and hatred toward Mike Pence, ironically making his mistreatment a potentially unifying act. Wilkinson rueful point was valid (if clumsily made), and he wasn’t personally advocating violence against Pence. But a wealthy hedge fund manager and large-money GOP donor, Gabe Hoffman, condemned the tweet which he claimed “call[ed] for former Vice President Mike Pence to be lynched.” Hoffman asked the New York Times, which employs Wilkinson as an opinion writer, to comment on its ” ‘contributing opinion writer’ calling for violence against a public official,” then tweeted to Wilkinson’s other employers, the Niskanen Center, a moderate public policy think tank, to pressure them as well. The Center quickly fired Wilkinson, while his fate with the Times hangs in the balance. A spokesperson for the paper told Fox News: “Advocating violence of any form, even in jest, is unacceptable and against the standards of The New York Times. We’re reassessing our relationship with Will Wilkinson.”

Naturally, as happens in 99% of these increasingly common episodes, the victim of the deliberate misunderstanding resorted to a grovelling apology, saying in part,

“Last night I made an error of judgment and tweeted this. It was sharp sarcasm, but looked like a call for violence. That’s always wrong, even as a joke. It was especially wrong at a moment when unity and peace are so critical. I’m deeply sorry and vow not to repeat the mistake. . . . [T]here was no excuse for putting the point the way I did. It was wrong, period.”

No, actually it didn’t look like a call for violence, and apologizing for something it wasn’t but was deliberately misrepresented as being for malicious purposes is far worse than the tweet itself.

When the victims of the cancel craze and cyber-mobs do this, they become enablers of the terrible societal trend that is bringing them down while threatening the rest of us. I pity them but I cannot respect them. If you are going to engage in public debate and offer opinions, commentary and perspective, then you must be prepared to fight and, if necessary, suffer when something like this happens. If you are not able to do that, then, quite simply, shut up. You are a coward and a weenie, and you aren’t helping.

Some of you might recall my writing about a professional incident involving me during a program for a large institutional client. In making an example to illustrate Rationalization #22 on the Rationalization List, “There are worse things,” I noted that mass murderers like Stalin and Pol Pot could use that excuse, since Mao, by some estimates, killed more than 60 million Chinese. (I also noted that Mao could use #22 as well, since Darth Vader vaporized an entire planet.) It turned out that two of the academics in the audience were from China. They wrote me indignant emails, pronouncing themselves offended by my negative comments about Mao, who, they said, “only” killed 16 million, and those were necessary deaths for the betterment of the nation. The institute demanded that I issue a retraction and apology to them both. I refused, and I lost the client. I have had similar experiences. I don’t want to lose clients; I’m not rich: I can use the fees. But I am not going to apologize for calling Mao a mass murderer, nor for any other legitimate position I can defend.

Greenwald places what happened to Wilkinson in the larger context. He writes,

So a completely ordinary and unassuming liberal commentator is in jeopardy of having his career destroyed because of a tweet that no person in good faith could possibly believe was actually advocating violence and which, at worst, could be said to be irresponsibly worded. And this is happening even though everyone knows it is all based on a totally fictitious understanding of what he said. Why?

Whatever else might be true of them, the Niskanen Center’s president and The New York Times editors are not dumb enough to believe that Wilkinson was actually advocating that Mike Pence be lynched. It takes only a few functional brain cells to recognize what his actual intent with that tweet was, as poorly expressed or ill-advised as it might have been given the context-free world of Twitter and the tensions of the moment. So why would they indulge all this by firing a perfectly inoffensive career technocrat, all to appease the blatant bad faith and probably-not-even-serious demands of the mob?

Because this is the framework that we all now live with. It does not matter whether the anger directed at the think tank executives or New York Times editors is in good faith or not. It is utterly irrelevant whether there is any validity to the complaints against Wilkinson and the demands that he be fired. The merit of these kinds of grievance campaigns is not a factor. All that matters to these decision-makers is societal scorn and ostracization. That is why the only thing that can save Wilkinson is that he has enough powerful friends to defend him, enabling them to reverse the cost-benefit calculus: make it so that there is more social scorn from firing Wilkinson than keeping him.

Without the powerful media friends he has assembled over the years, he would have no chance to salvage his reputation and career no matter how obvious it was that the complaints against him are baseless….

Those who have crafted a society in which mob anger, no matter how invalid, results in ostracization and reputation-destruction have exploited these impulses. If you are a think tank executive in Washington or a New York Times editor, why would you want to endure the attacks on you for “sanctioning violence” or “inciting assassinations” just to save Will Wilkinson? The prevailing culture vests so much weight in these sorts of outrage mobs that it is almost always easier to appease them than resist them.

OK, it’s easier. Too bad. Indeed, too damn bad: suck it up, take a stand, be an American. I have rapidly growing contempt for both those who submit to the mob by firing, punishing or canceling the objects of their attempted intimidation and censorship, and only slightly less contempt for those like Wilkinson, who refuse to accept their responsibility as citizens to fight for American values and principles when the mob comes for them.

Sure it’s hard. Rebelling against Great Britain was hard. The Western expansion was hard. Fighting to eliminate slavery was hard; World War II was hard. Life is hard, democracy is hard.

In the end, what Glenn Greenwald is writing about is a mass failure of American character.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Glenn Greenwald

  1. I must admit to very mixed feelings on this one. For starters, I completely agree with Greenwald’s point, and this stuff scares the shit out of me. For a bunch of faceless pitchfork-and-torchers social media throngs – many of which are amplified by bots – to destroy a person’s career like this is preposterous. And terrifying.

    On the other hand, the tweet itself was just flat-out stupid. A quasi-public figure, working for a think tank and occasionally writing for the NYT, needs to be more circumspect. The worst thing about Twitter – and there are many – is that it’s a platform that rejects nuance and reason in favor of snark and snappy one-liners. One should never forget that there are plenty of people on Twitter itching for a chance to supply their own.

    Anything we post online needs to be evaluated through the lens of “what would my worst enemy make of this?” I learned this lesson a long time ago, pre-Internet, when I understood that any memo issued by the company I worked for would be faxed to the editor of the local paper within a half an hour of being issued.

    “Tatiana McGrath” could get away with this tweet and emerge unscathed – arguably, with a bigger following. But some working dude?

    Here are the lessons:

    1) Ignore Greenwald at your own peril. He’s absolutely right about this.
    2) Wilkinson made an unforced error.
    3) Twitter is where reputations go do die. Read it if you must, but post at your own peril.

  2. That tweet was exceedingly gross. I don’t get the point and with the way things are today, without any other context, it looks like a desire to see Pence harmed. After listening to four years of intense hatred to the point of calling for violence against republican lawmakers, I don’t think Wilkinson should get a free pass.

    I wouldn’t have fired him, but if he was my employee, he’d get a good tongue lashing and a choice. Represent yourself with decorum or find another employer.

    The root cause to all this is the nature of social media and the “show-n-tell” narcissism of internet culture. Not everyone needs to know what everyone thinks (including my own words) and not every fool thought needs to be put out there.

    Greenwald is right. The chilling of speech by mob rule can only lead to greater numbers of people considered guilty of thought-crimes. That being said, Wilkinson sounds like a dickhead and should be lynched.

    Haha. Just kidding.

  3. I wonder if this one is covered by Ethics Estoppel, in that anyone who claimed to believe Donald Trump’s speech on 6th Jan constituted incitement cannot defend this tweet as not constituting incitement.

    My own view is that social media amplifies the worst in us, and that if we all judge each other by our worst, then civilisation is doomed.

  4. I agree. The tweet was too clever by half. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it on first reading. Requires too much explication.

    • But firing is crazy. It’s just twitter. Give him a chance to clarify what he was saying. If you don’t like it, stop reading his tweets. Same thing with the Wolfe person in the next post. This cancel thing is just awful and wrong. Stop firing people, just tweet back, or stop reading twitter. I never have.

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