Engaging in Twitter wars certainly requires some courage on the part of those taking on orthodoxies and received ideas. Subjecting oneself to public censure for advancing contrarian views is no doubt unpleasant. But the risks—especially to the established Twitterati—are not as great as they seem, and the benefits—partly derived from the appearance of risk—are greater than they may seem. Public intellectuals can achieve considerable standing and prestige through their seemingly contrarian views because those views are actually closer to public opinion than those “orthodox” ones prominent in the mainstream liberal press or the academy. Whether they mean to or not, these heterodox thinkers are exploiting a market inefficiency. And scrolling through their feeds, one quickly finds in them the same moral exhibitionism that populates the feeds of their chosen foes.
This is not necessarily to deny the value of what the contrarians tweet. Frequently, they are right: about the gratuitous grandstanding, the ad hominem attacks, the abuse of reason, the cynical culture war ploys, and the vindictive ignorance masquerading as social conscience. And in many cases they are writing in better faith than their “interlocutors.”
But in the act of performing their opinions on Twitter, these writers aestheticize those opinions and even degrade the very concept of rational debate they insist on upholding. They implicitly vindicate the fetishized understanding of opinions that reigns on Twitter: that is, as identity markers to be brandished in a competitive game of personality assertion. Being reasonable, open-minded, tolerant of dissent, intellectually curious: all of these become features of the brand one cultivates to attract more consumers. As Adorno wrote, “the purpose of reason dwindles away until it sinks into the fetishism of itself and of external power, so reason itself is reduced to an instrument and assimilated to its functionaries.”
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