Due to a variety of factors, journalism in the digital age has in many places been swallowed by PR. Part of this is a function of the way online networks tend to work, while part of it is due to the loss of a shared sense of reality, a necessity upon which the possibility of public argumentation is built.
One of the unhappy consequences of this transformation is that in public discussion arguments have been replaced by irritable mental gestures, usually offered in service to a pre-defined friend or enemy of the speaker. The effect here is that many media projects over time develop a predictable quality. You can name the topic, name the outlet publishing the take on the topic, and if you’ve been paying attention for any length of time, you can often predict what the take will be. In this respect, Christian media of all stripes has come to be something like a fundamentalist preacher—we all know where he’s gonna end up and if you’ve been paying attention long enough, you even know how he’ll get there. This applies to many centrist and progressive Christian media projects as much as it does to conservative outlets.
Because the goal is less about winning arguments and more about defining teams, the way that we use language is subtly adjusted and transformed away from the goals of reflection and contemplation and toward the goals of propaganda and PR. Thus we develop a vocabulary not for the purpose of communication, but for the purpose of manipulation and exploitation. For those of us still trying to communicate, this makes for a fairly miserable, challenging public square.
So, in interests of trying to be as clear as possible about what we mean when we use certain terms, I wanted to try and explain what I mean when I use certain terms, not least because several readers have asked for clarity particularly regarding what I mean when I talk about “mobs” or “swarms” on social media.
Just so you’re warned: This will be a bit of an old-school Mere O piece, which means it’s less magazine essay and more long-form blog of the sort we routinely ran in the earlier days of my editorship here. I’m not sure there’s a better way of handling this particular issue, however, so we are reverting to an older more verbose, less literary style.
Before we get to mobs, it’s better to start by defining what we mean when we talk about someone being “canceled.”
One effect of the irritable gesture problem is that language is now mostly used as a tool to gain control or power rather than as a descriptive tool or something we use to try and approach truth together. For example, many now use the idea of “cancelation”, which is a real thing and a genuine problem, as a way of redirecting responsibility when a public figure is criticized for doing something reprehensible. So instead of a person “experiencing the consequences of their actions,” that person is now “canceled,” and can now be deployed as a martyr for the cause. This has the effect of insulating your side from critique because real problems with your movement as well as sound criticisms of it can now easily be brushed aside as “cancel culture.”
This, for example, is how some reactionary Reformed Christians have tried to absolve Thomas Achord of all wrongdoing. Because Achord lost his job, Achord was “canceled.” The facts of his case can then be ignored, minimized, or brushed aside. Once it’s been declared that he was “canceled” it no longer matters that he was, by his own admission:
trying to smuggle white nationalism into the classical Christian school movement
posting plainly misogynistic and anti-black racist sentiment on his many anonymous accounts
rudely criticizing the church that hosted his school from anonymous social media accounts
making creepy comments that sexualized children
praising the attempt to “lay” as many women as possible
comparing Afro-American teens to “chimps”
And it doesn’t matter, to them, that he did all of this while working with and educating children.
But it should matter, shouldn’t it? If you were a parent, would you want a man who said all the things Achord said on his anonymous accounts educating your children? I would not. And the board of his school, given all of this, decided that Achord was disqualified from his job as the headmaster of the school. This is not “cancelation.” This is “experiencing appropriate consequences for your behavior.”
So when I refer to someone being “canceled,” I am not referring to someone who experienced proportional, real-world consequences for bad behavior.
Even so, the reason that “cancelation” has such cache now is that anyone who has spent five minutes on the internet knows that it refers to a real thing that often happens online. So it won’t do to simply dismiss the entire idea of “cancelation” anymore than it would to act as if any form of severe criticism is “cancelation.”
A distinction from church life might be helpful here:
For pastors, there are certain sins that clearly disqualify you from continued ministry as a member of the clergy. If, for instance, a pastor has an affair, he should lose his job and his ordination should be revoked immediately.
There are also sins that might require a pastor to lose his job and have his ordination revoked: If a pastor has a pattern of verbally abusive behavior toward church staff, it may be that the pastor needs to be fired. Or it may be that the pastor simply needs a stern warning from the church’s leadership board or the presbytery or bishop overseeing the congregation and also needs to make amends with the people he has hurt with his unkind speech.
Then there are other cases where pastors sin and no such action of any kind is called for beyond the ordinary penitence and restitution we are required to make any time we sin. Everyone sins and in most cases the right response is simply to confess that sin, ask forgiveness from the parties wronged, and then get on with life.
In other words, when we’re reckoning with the social import of a given sin, we need ways of making distinctions between, say, a person who had an affair, a person with a divisive spirit, and a person who was rude on social media for a few weeks before shutting down their account because they recognized what it was doing to them. All three are examples of sin, but the way each is addressed will (rightly) look different.
Cancelation is when every form of moral offense is treated like a fireable offense, when, say, a bad attempt at writing in the Christian mystical tradition about sex and marriage leads to you losing a fellowship and your pastorate. Or, to slightly shift metaphors, it is when the notion of venial sin is lost altogether and every sin is treated as a mortal sin.
In other words, cancelation works by flattening important moral distinctions between actions and then punishing that action in the most severe way possible. So it by definition cannot be merciful or gracious, nor can it even engage in basic forms of moral deliberation. (A closely related point, I expect, is that when things like mercy and grace are largely unknown to a culture, all that remains to atone for wrongdoing is penance and often penace of a rather extreme sort.)
Because cancelation operates according to the logic of PR rather than the logic of reflection and deliberation, cancelation isn’t intended to be gracious or merciful. It doesn’t care about that, if we can ascribe intent to the concept in that way. Cancelation is an automated process whose goal is not the restoration of the wrongdoer or the reconciliation of severed friendship or trust. The goal, rather, is to either cow the swarmed party into suppliance or to purge the swarmed from the community so as to preserve the moral rightness or purity of that community.
There is a question lingering in the background behind the cancelation question, which is that of judgment. We have said that the injustice of cancelation, what makes cancelation distinct from simply experiencing the consequences of one’s actions, is that cancelation consists of flattening moral distinctions and applying the same hammer-like judgment to any form of public wrong that displeases us. We stumble over that crucial word “judgment” at our own peril, for it is this question of “judgment” on which so much hangs.
When we consider how to reckon with socially felt sins that require some kind of public response, we are inherently being drawn into acts of judgment. There is something good about this: It is for the best that we have left behind the easy relativism and non-judgmentalism of the 90s and 2000s. That time created a moral vacuum in public life which led to immense suffering, most notably for the poor and the disadvantaged, a point that Rusty Reno develops well in his book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society.
Yet there is something weighty here as well: If judgment is necessary and there are judgments we might come to that dictate firm response to evil, then we are dealing with exceedingly weighty matters. So how do we think well about what it means to judge?
The easy thing here would be to argue for effectively outsourcing judgment to institutions; to suggest that we do best when we leave this work to the formal process of institutional life. That is easy, but not terribly satisfying for a variety of reasons. After all, Christian institutions are led by fallible humans and they commit errors of judgment all the time. The deeper problem, however, is that the attempt to wave away the problem of private judgment through appeals to institutions is to ultimately retreat to commitment—a phrase I first learned from Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante over at the Calvinist International.
The idea of the retreat to commitment is that your core principles and beliefs are grounded not in reality itself but rather in an act of the will—the choice to believe and affirm a core set of commitments that you have made, often due to your belonging to a certain community or institution. The danger with this move is that it ultimately evacuates the public square of shared beliefs that transcend group divisions and allow us to reason together with one another. This is another way of saying it turns the public square into little more than a boxing ring where power alone triumphs.
The alternative is explained beautifully by Steven in what is still an essential essay nearly ten years after it was written:
We believe and profess reason to be a common possession, a reflection of an external reality which is revealed to all mankind and inescapably so. The necessity of philosophical first principles is self-evident, and this does not depend upon specific interpretative artifacts to demonstrate. Axioms are axiomatic precisely because their denial leads to immediate absurdity and impossibility. We might say it simply this way: General revelation is both revelation, it comes from God and outside of ourselves, and it is general, all mankind possesses it because of the nature of creation and humanity’s being created in the image of God.
The role of reason is important because it protects knowledge from becoming a product of power. The various subjective “commitments” do terminate in some authority structure having the last word and requiring submission. If this terminal point is God, then we still have a reasonable account, for at least two reasons. First, God really is self-existent and the authoritative creator of all things. His authority claims are just true. Secondly, all men stand equally before His face, coram deo as the saying goes. God’s existence is not the same thing as our interpretation of His existence, and so He remains immediate. Professing belief in Him is perfectly rational and requires no retreat.
However, if we place the authority in our mediating interpretative communities or even “paradigms,” we do end up subordinating ourselves to someone else’s authority, and on matters of ultimate importance, this means that we allow them to make the crucial decisions and actions for us, as our substitutes. We abdicate our own responsibility. If the substitute is God or Jesus, then this is most pious and returns us to the previous paragraph. But if the substitute is another creature, then the old word for this is idolatry. The situation becomes worse, even absurd, when we consider that we know and profess at the beginning that creatures are limited and fallible. Therefore placing ultimate faith in them and the works of their hands really is directly parallel to the situation of Psalm 115, “Eyes have they, but they see not.” Humans create the councils, churches, or philosophical matrices and possess all the tools to examine the conditions by which they were created and how they arrived at their conclusions or how they function. We can even see whether they erred and how. And yet, in order for historical artifacts to serve as true philosophical saviors, we must a priori limit ourselves to them and promise not to look at what can nevertheless still be seen. So the Scriptures are fulfilled, “they that make them are like unto them.”
What if the various historical artifacts or philosophical constructs are simply correct? Then the proper response is that we demonstrate this to be the case and persuade others of that fact. But we do not do this by stomping our feet and raising our voice. We do this through reasoned argument. And if we are successful, we do not simply make a convert, but we make a believer and another teacher. Our interlocutor sees the truth as well and understands it. The external reality becomes a common possession and both are the richer for it.
The task of judgment, then, is something that individuals are capable of executing wisely and well through their use of reason and deliberation. Scripture itself presupposes this at points. It often presupposes that you or I can look at reality and deduce something true about the world from that act of looking. That is why Jesus tells us to consider the flowers when we feel vexed by worry. That is why Paul invites his hearers to consider the rain as he speaks to them about the kindness of God. Moreover, the Psalms sometimes speak of young men being wiser than their elders because they know God’s law. Paul instructs Timothy to not let others look down on him because of his youth. Wisdom and truth can be found anywhere and can be possessed by anyone, provided that person submits their mind to God and seeks to think his thoughts after him. So the solution to the problem of judgment is not to outsource the task to institutions. That outsourcing ends up simply being a way of abdicating responsibility for doing something difficult.
Rather, it is to submit oneself to God and to seek to walk in his law and love and to radiate that out into the world through the sober use of reason. This appeal to God’s revelation, of course, also provides us with an anchor for our judgments and a way of checking or falsifying them. Judgment is just when it agrees with God’s law and accords with the principles of wisdom and reality. It is unjust when it fails in these ways.
The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han distinguishes “crowds” from “swarms,” arguing that the former are united around a common pursuit which unifies each private member into something new. The resulting group is a “crowd,” because it is a discernible human community in which individuals are choosing to give up certain things in order to participate more fully in the group so that the group can together pursue some commonly desired good. “Swarms,” in contrast, are simply mass gatherings of atomized individuals with no larger project or goal or even long-term existence as a discrete community beyond whatever brought them together.
There are several consequences that follow from this.
First, to borrow an image from Mark Sayers, swarms tend to use dynamite rather than hammers and chisels. Because swarms are temporary, digitally mediated masses rather than any sort of in-person, formalized community, they are not able to build anything, engage in deliberation, or even follow basic procedural norms in their conduct. This means that they can’t, by definition, make distinctions between varieties of offense. Their only recourse is maximal aggression with the goal of extracting the maximum possible restitution from the targeted party. Specifically, they are able to destroy livelihoods by pressuring the employers of the individual being swarmed. The employers are often attacked specifically because the swarmed individual is seen as a kind of contagion that has to be purged in Girardian fashion. This means that any entities associated with that individual are likewise impure unless they purge (read: “fire”) the person being swarmed.
Second, swarms are deeply vituperative and schismatic. Because there is no common project being pursued and because so much of swarm dynamics are driven by concerns with moral purification, swarms will routinely turn inward and devour each other once they have exhausted their easier targets. This can be seen in both the ongoing fights happening amongst neo-fundamentalists over Christian nationalism as well as the ongoing fights amongst post-evangelicals about how best to respond to accusations of abuse, harm, and so on.
Third, regular participation in swarms in any form is morally corrosive. Because swarms are animated by scapegoat dynamics and are defined by aggression, speed, and the lack of constructive projects, people who participate in swarms regularly will be formed in habits of suspicion, reactivity, and anger. Even on a neurological level, swarm participants are training their brains to need the small but regular dopamine hits that come with social media addictions.
For all these reasons, it is imperative that Christian leaders as well as ordinary Christians online avoid swarms in their daily internet usage.
How Swarms Work
So how can you recognize swarming behavior? Virtually every swarm I have ever observed, both from the neo-fundamentalist reactionaries and the progressive post-evangelicals operate in three stages:
The Bad Cop phase works when a small number of accounts with relatively low formal connectedness to large, prominent institutions surface something that they view as wrong or bad. So things begin when these accounts all begin posting (usually tweeting) about the bad thing. Notably, the method usually requires multiple accounts all posting separately about it and then, usually, amplifying each other’s posts. They’ll also be sure to either tag the account they’re attacking or quote tweet it, thereby making sure the person’s notifications begin to fill with abuse and bad treatment. They may also demand some kind of penance from the party being attacked—a retraction, apology, access to the party’s platform, and so on.
Next comes the swarm—this is when the followers of the bad cop accounts begin amplifying the initial tweets, commenting on them, and so on. This is where things begin to get deeply unpleasant because depending on your notification settings, you may be getting dozens or even hundreds of notifications every hour consisting of nothing more than people talking about how much you suck. Moreover, as the swarm continues you’ll begin to shift in your mind from “this is awful but it’ll be over in a day or two” to “do I need to worry about my job?”
The swarming accounts will also echo the demands already made by the bad cops. Depending on the size of the swarm and the persistence of the bad cops, this phase of the swarm can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days to even a few weeks or over a month, as in at least three cases I can think of off the top of my head, two of which involved close friends and one of which centered around me. Of the three, two were initiated by neo-fundamentalist accounts while the other was sparked by post-evangelical accounts.
Finally, once the swarm dies down, the good cops will arrive. These are the people who have higher degrees of institutional connectedness, the largest platforms in the group, some real-world name recognition, access to power and major, nationally known platforms, etc.
At this stage, the role of the good cop is to basically restate why you suck, but in more careful, seemingly diplomatic language that has the appearance of reducing the temperature while actually tacitly endorsing everything or nearly everything that has been said about you. This thereby legitimizes the critique and makes it feel more substantial and connected to the world outside of Twitter while affirming the demands of the swarm. This is typically the stage when a person’s livelihood is most in jeopardy because now there is the appearance of actual real-world power associated with the swarm.
What can we do instead?
One question that will inevitably arise in response to this is what can be done instead. Am I saying that large groups of people with strongly held opinions about a problem or issue cannot express their concerns? Certainly not.
That being said, the medium is the message, as it ever was. And in this case that applies on multiple levels: Firstly, the message is mediated online, which is a disembodied form of communication that blunts our sense for the humanity of the other. This isn’t to say that impersonal, remote, written correspondence is categorically bad—obviously you’re reading this online right now and you can’t see me as I’m typing, let alone whatever it is I’m doing now as you actually read the piece.
That being said, online communication channels are not limited to Twitter. You do not need to participate in a Twitter swarm to register displeasure over something. And when you take your work off of Twitter and onto a personal website, Substack, magazine, etc. you give yourself the space to lay out the argument, develop it at length, and so on. So to take two recent examples, the Josh Butler controversy was helped when his critics took to other platforms besides Twitter to make their case because it furnished them with the chance to explain their concerns in more detail and to do so in a venue that isn’t as driven by tribal dynamics. If the Butler furore happened mostly over Substack rather than Twitter, the entire controversy would have played out very differently without any loss to the substance of the critics’ concerns. In a similar way, the moments of clarity in the Thomas Achord affair came most clearly when Alastair Roberts laid out the evidence on his personal blog and when Rod Dreher did the same on his blog. The best work we can do on these things is almost always going to be well away from Twitter.
That said, a further point is important to consider here as well. Communication between persons can occur in several ways—the impersonal essay written to a broad audience is one form, tweets and social media posts are another. But then in the older republic of letters alongside the public essays you would also have extensive private personal correspondence between people—some of my favorite quotes from Lewis and Tolkien, for instance, come not from their published writings, but their letters.
The interplay between public broadcast and personal correspondence shapes people in certain ways that I don’t think are easily replicated via technology that is as heavy on public broadcast as what we have now—after all any public social media channel communication is not really personal; it’s rather a kind of confused broadcast with the appearance of personal encounter. This, again, is why it is essential that writers who wish to do constructive work cultivate a robust backchannel network of private correspondence that allows them to speak in genuinely private settings where the intent can only be the pursuit of truth rather than the currying of public favor through shrewd metapositioning.
But the problem with swarm dynamics isn’t just the remote and confused nature of communication on social media. It’s also with the particulars of swarms: On the one hand, as unpleasant experiences go, the experience of having your phone blown up for a couple days by people who hate you is really not that horrible—though obviously when swarms escalate to targeting livelihoods the stakes become quite a bit higher. Even so, many people experience far worse than online swarms every day and we shouldn’t overstate their effect.
But also: If your goal in public communication is the persuasion of other people, is participating in a swarm the best way to accomplish that? If you are one of the parties responsible for blowing up a person’s phone or inbox with messages telling them how awful they are, will the person you targeted be more open to your concern or argument? Will the people friendly to that person? For that matter, if you win total strangers to your cause via online shaming and swarming dynamics, how strongly do you think that person is committed to your cause? How deep is the devotion? As deep as the next swarm, that’s how.
In the church planting world they have a saying: What you win them with is what you win them to. I thought about this during the COVID years when churches made much of defying relatively non-intrusive public health measures. (To be clear here, I’m thinking of things like mask mandates in which churches could meet as normal save the requirement that people social distance and wear masks. As intrusions go, that is a less severe example. Health measures of the sort taken in some blue states and in Canada and Australia were quite a bit more extreme and merit a different sort of consideration, I think). Sometimes these congregations did attract new members through their insubordination. But I always have wondered how their first major church discipline case after that would go.
In a similar way, if you win people to your cause via online swarms, all you’ve done is added people so impressionable or cowardly that they can be manipulated by the mob. So: What will happen when the swarm comes for you? If you care about creating actual change rather than just making yourself feel superior, that question should frighten you.
What is the alternative to the swarm then?
Well, people have always sought community around common objects of love, commonly shared dreams and aspirations, or common concerns or anxieties. The fact that the internet has introduced some mostly toxic, mostly ineffective, mostly deformative ways of doing that work does not at all oblige us to adopt those ways. We can simply choose not to. You are not obliged to participate in the spiritual crisis of our day. We can instead do what people have always done: We can reach out to people with common values or goals, we can sit down over coffee or meals with people we do not know who might become part of the projects we are attempting. We can produce good work and see who it draws. We can write to (or call) the people we disagree with who, we hope, might still be persuadable. We can choose, in short, to build communities founded on love and trust rather than anger and suspicion and we can choose to take the time to read deeply, converse, deliberate, and reflect toward the truth together with others over a long time. Is this way easy? Of course not. Doing good work never is in a world scarred by sin.
Yet, it can be done.
And if you care more about actual individual, social, and systemic transformation rather than simply bouncing about with the swarm like a billiard ball caroming off the rails, then you should care about the ways that people are transformed in persistent, lasting ways. Those ways mostly are not through the applied pressure of loud, ill-mannered Twitter swarms. Those ways mostly are not through public shaming and having one’s livelihood threatened. Change occurs when people feel heard, when arguments are made, when debate happens across divisions and rival parties find, to their surprise, that they still do possess commonly held goals that they can pursue together. And if you do this what you’ll find is not simply that your work is more fruitful in the long-term. You’ll also find that the work is so intrinsically satisfying in itself that it lends to you a resolve to continue in it for its own sake. You will find, in other words, that you outgrow the need for the threats or encouragements of mobs. You will find within yourself “an inward clarity” that no mob can reach.
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).