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The Disintegration of Character

April 26th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

About a year ago something happened on Twitter that persuaded me to change my habits on the platform—effectively abandoning the platform and automating my feed.

Here’s the story: I said something to provoke a somewhat prominent right wing journalist. After our initial exchange, an exchange I initiated to be fair, this person’s followers quickly began to swarm me.

The reporter did nothing, even as their followers got nastier and nastier. Then one of my followers jumped in and called this reporter a hack. As soon as I saw the tweet, I replied with something to the effect of, “Don’t do that. (Person) is not a hack. We have a disagreement on this. But I don’t want my followers engaging in ad hominems in my defense.” The reporter “liked” my tweet—so I know they saw it. But they still did nothing to try and call off their own followers even as they were swarming me in far larger numbers.

What I realized as I reflected on the experience later was this: Ordinary courtesy and respect for one’s intellectual opposites are actually liabilities on Twitter. They run against the grain of what one might call “effective” use of the platform. The platform isn’t made for debate. Contra Elon, it isn’t made to be a digital public square either. Twitter is made for identity curation via meta-positioning and whatever you say, retweet, or like on Twitter is done in service of that goal, not in service of sincerely pursuing truth amongst one’s fellows. So your opposites in this scenario aren’t actually human beings, but merely a kind of proxy for the beliefs you reject. There’s no humanity to these interactions because, for all intents and purposes, there are no human beings interacting. There are only Twitter handles each trying to create, curate, and promote their digital identities. When you participate in such a space long enough, it changes you and the person you become first online and then, eventually, offline as well is an uglier, nastier twisted thing, something far less than what God intends for us as his children.

Since that realization, I’ve stopped posting to the platform from my browser and have dramatically limited my time on the platform. These days I use it intermittently as a way to keep an eye on the zeitgeist, as it were, and to know how news events, books, essays, and the like are being talked about. If it weren’t for my job, I wouldn’t use it at all.

I thought about all of this as I considered the response to Tucker Carlson’s firing at Fox. One of the common responses within the American right, especially amongst younger conservatives was to praise Carlson’s character. One tweet that seems to have been passed around the most is this one, which includes a fairly well known video of him fishing in Central Park and then having a conversation with the man filming him:

Alongside this tweet and video there were a number of other recollections of him shared on blogs and social media by his admirers. And here’s the thing: I don’t doubt anyone’s accounts of the man. You can see something inquisitive, generous, and kind even in that simple video above. Indeed, I found that the video made me feel incredibly sad because the kind, curious man in that video seems so far removed from the man whose clips routinely went viral on social media. And that’s the trouble. If you limit your assessment of Carlson to the praise of his admirers without reckoning with his on-air and in-office behavior, you have a limited and inaccurate assessment. Any account of his character as manifested in conversation with others also has to account for his on-air character. And that character is far less generous and kind.

Carlson’s commentary on the show routinely dehumanized immigrants and routinely played into long-standing racist tropes that dehumanized non-white Americans. And it wasn’t just progressives saying so, white nationalists themselves said the same:

“Tucker is ultimately on our side,” Scott Greer, a former deputy editor at the Carlson-founded Daily Caller, who cut ties with the publication in 2018 after his past writings for a white nationalist site were unearthed, said on his podcast last spring. “He can get millions and millions of boomers to nod along with talking points that would have only been seen on VDare or American Renaissance a few years ago.”

This pattern of behavior also allegedly extended to women and to his political opposites, if the claims of one former Fox News employee currently suing the network over workplace harassment are correct.

On her first day working for Mr. Carlson, Ms. Grossberg said she discovered the office was decorated with large pictures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a plunging swimsuit.

Additionally, text messages unearthed in the Dominion lawsuit show that Carlson would say things on his show that he clearly did not believe himself in order to play to his audience:

But the Dominion discovery documents also revealed that while in private communications he repeatedly cast doubt on Trump-friendly claims of a stolen election, in public and on-air he amplified the false stolen-election narrative. While Carlson’s TV persona embraced and often celebrated former President Donald Trump, the host privately trashed the former president. “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Carlson wrote in a text sent on January 4, 2021. “I truly can’t wait,” he added, declaring, “I hate him passionately.” And summarizing the Trump presidency, he wrote in another message: “That’s the last four years. We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”

Each of these things is simply wrong, regardless of your politics. To promote ideas that white nationalists themselves recognize as their own is wrong. To allow office decor featuring the former Speaker of the House of Representatives in immodest swimwear that demeans both her and her office is wrong. To lie and misrepresent your own beliefs to your audience is wrong—and when one factors in Carlson’s remarks at the Heritage event last weekend, quite hypocritical in his case:

https://www.youtube.com/live/ebG2POkoHgU?feature=share&t=502

What worries me, in short, is that the technological and political incentives of our moment are expressly opposed to sound moral reasoning and even to basic moral formation. And if that is the case, where then? We live in an age where digital networks have become our third places, online media our primary tool for shaping and forming people’s moral beliefs and imaginations. If those spaces are, themselves, almost unavoidably corrupt and captive to partisan interests and technological incentives, where then can any sort of sound moral vision, let alone a moral witness, come from?

I know what I want the answer to that question to be. But in a day where church is content just as much as political news is, I see little reason, save quiet trust in the providential care of God (which is all the reason one requires, I suppose), to hold out much hope.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).