Cliqueishness and Tribalism on Twitter

John Cole at Balloon Juice says everything there is to say about it (though, if you’re not a Twitter denizen, his post requires some backstory).

If you’re not on Twitter…count yourself lucky. OK, not really. What I was going to say is: if you’re not on Twitter, what’s been happening for a while now is that a group of Twitter users who are interconnected both on and off Twitter have had the long knives out for Salon blogger/attorney Glenn Greenwald, as Cole describes in his post. The reasons for such a concerted backlash against Greenwald in particular are several, but I’m not going to get into them all here. The reason for that is (as Cole also hints at): it’s incredibly inside-baseball and almost unimaginably lengthy to recount the whole mess in detail; to do it justice. If you’re interested, you won’t have any trouble finding posts in various outlets about why Greenwald (and a few other bloggers/pundits) are considered by some to be just awful. For my purposes here (and without weighing in on the merits of either the various previous complaints or Greenwald’s actual words and responses), let me just leave it by noting that a coordinated campaign of disagreement against Greenwald does indeed exist, and has existed for some time among a remarkably uniform group of people on Twitter.

What happened recently (and what precipitated Cole’s post) was that someone was (as usual) taking Greenwald to task, this time over his critique of the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA which was signed into law by President Obama on December 31st (I’m not linking to Glenn because I didn’t link to the critiques, either). During a discussion involving Greenwald and some people who opposed him as well as some who agreed with him, one of the people who clearly agreed with Glenn’s view and thought those who were attacking him were justifying something under Obama that they’d have opposed under Bush said, hyperbolically, that Greenwald’s attackers (specifically a Twitter user named AngryBlackLady) would try to justify or support it if Obama “raped a nun live on TV.” Greenwald, a while later, said he agreed with that idea of some people’s reflexive defensiveness about Obama’s positions and actions. Aprés THAT, le deluge.

More than seventy-two hours straight of outrage and amplified Greenwald-attacking among this group resulted, with many of the attacks wrongly accusing Greenwald himself of having coined the nun-rape analogy. Although I think that, much like Nazi analogies, anything as extreme as nun-rape is often a questionable analogy to make regardless of the circumstances, I think John Cole is right when he says that Greenwald

…wasn’t minimizing rape, he was using rape as the ugliest example he could think of (and he later added child-killing and assassination), far from minimizing rape and far from making rape ‘jokes.’

That’s the backstory.

What makes Cole’s post much more relevant than (ahem) the fact that I agree with his general take on what will probably gruesomely be forever-after called “nun-rape gate” (or “NUN RAPE RAWR,” as Cole puts it), is Cole’s zeroing-in on a problem I’ve noticed for quite some time on Twitter (and in the larger blogosphere, but Twitter is in some ways sort of the crack to the blogosphere’s cocaine: concentrated and much quicker-acting): the tribalism and cliqueishness, which is concentrated in one particular area.

Here’s Cole’s take on it:

I just merely pointed out that the people doing a two day “GLENN RAPE RAWR” tweetfest simply to attack Glenn had lost the plot. And I maintain that. What Glenn said to ABL was dickish, but in the scheme of things hurled between the two of them, pretty tame. So I’m sorry to see ABL go, but I’m not going to back down to a crowd of idiots on twitter. For those of you who love to point out I was a former Republican, you are right- and I saw this kind of behavior before, where the “enemy” is always wrong and must be destroyed. Hell, y’all wanna go old school, just drop the rape stuff and call Greenwald an anti-Semite. There’s lots of material already written for you on the internet out there. So maybe I’m a little touchy when I see these manic internet pile-ons when everyone is in shoot to kill mode. Objectively pro-Saddam, anyone? Fifth column, anyone? I watch people unironically invoke “OBAMA DERANGEMENT SYNDROME,” apparently unaware that BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) was something invented by diehard Bush loyalists to deflect any and all criticism of Bush.

If you’re not a reader of Balloon-Juice or a Twitter user, much of the specifics of that paragraph will be somewhat-opaque inside baseball-ish to you. So forget the specifics. The larger point, which Cole makes quite clearly, is that there is indeed a very well-defined group of people who, by their actions, seem to value a sort of clannish “sticking together” over whatever else Twitter and the blogosphere are presumably about for us political junkies, namely: exchanging opinions on current events and where we each see things going (and also wish/hope they go or are working to help ensure they go).

Although Greenwald has sometimes delved into counterattacking his detractors or at least defending himself against charges made against him on Twitter, at bottom, this is the difference between Glenn Greenwald and his detractors (for the most part): agree with him or not, Greenwald pursues the latter aim I mentioned above, namely: he opines on current events and gives his opinion on where he thinks things are vs. where they should be. What Greenwald doesn’t do is spend his valuable time and column-inches at Salon nursing an ever-growing list of grievances against those who he perceives to have sinned against someone he considers to be “on his team” (whatever that may be).

Whatever one may think of Greenwald’s demeanor or his methods, he continues to occupy a relatively powerful position (in the arena of opinion journalism) on the front page of Salon for a very good reason: because he frequently ferrets out facts that others miss, and makes a very strong case for his positions, supporting them with copious accurate references. In short, he’s an excellent opinion journalist. The specific type of opinion journalism Greenwald engages in – chiefly criticism of some of the President’s (and congressional Democrats’) policies – is literally one of the cornerstones of what journalism itself is supposed to be about. No less a person than Joseph Pulitzer himself once famously remarked that “a newspaper should have no friends.” Thomas Jefferson had numerous thoughts on the functioning of a journalistic class in the then-nascent American system, not all of them flattering (by a long shot), but the most important of them was: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson knew that despite all the flaws and drawbacks of much of the actual day-to-day workings and dealings of specific media (and media people), when the chips are well and truly down, they are indispensable in preventing the even-greater abuses and horrors which seem to inevitably result from the actions of power that is unchecked by the cleansing sunshine of journalism.

However, as a result of his approach, Greenwald’s brand of opinion journalism strikes most in this group of his detractors as being “anti-Obama.” For Greenwald, his work is about calling out abuses of power and violations of liberties, regardless of who’s in power, but for this group of his detractors, it’s about something else. To be as fair as possible, for all I know, Greenwald may actually BE anti-Obama in the sense of being willing to vote against him – although it’s just as possible that Greenwald’s steady drumbeat of criticism of Obama’s p0licies reflects a rigorous determination to hold the current, Democratic administration to the same standards of scrutiny to which we ALL held the last, GOP-controlled administration…and that, when the time comes to vote, Greenwald will pull the lever for Obama unhesitatingly because he understands how much worse on a broad range of issues that matter to HIM any of the currently-possible replacement GOP Presidents would be. But whatever the case in that regard, Greenwald exemplifies Pulitzer’s call for newpapers (or journalists, in their professional capacity) to “have no friends”; he understands that it is not his job to pull for (or shill for) Team Obama, Team Democrat, or Team ANYTHING. Hell, the reason most regular people even ARE Democrats (the people who give real, honest consideration to why they support or oppose such things as political parties, at any rate) is because they agree on balance more than they disagree with the core issues espoused by the Democratic party – and also, often, because no other viable party exists which more closely represents their views than the Democrats. If people didn’t agree (at least more often than not), then they wouldn’t be Democrats, they’d be Republicans, or something else. For most such high-information voters, it’s about the issues, far more than it’s about the personalities. If something is objectionable under one President, it doesn’t become acceptable under another, just because the party in power changes. Certainly that seems to be, broadly speaking, Glenn Greenwald’s view.

Greenwald’s persistent critics, on the other hand (at least those on the left on Twitter), can be identified virtually to a person by a belief in President Obama’s essential goodness and success as a President coupled with this reflexive tribalism I’m describing, which puts defending “their own” against all perceived criticism (or at least attempting to mitigate the impact of any criticism) above all else. Does the recently-signed NDAA potentially allow for the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial, in express violation of the 4th amendment? NO! say the defenders of Obama/Greenwald critics – despite the evidence and reasoning Greenwald (and others) provide to the contrary. But – and here is where the cliqueishness and tribalism enter – even if the bill/law itself does so, it’s OK that it passed, and that Obama signed it…because he’d never misuse such authority.

Greenwald’s critics (at least those who fall into the group Cole mentions in his post, this “relentless group of people who, at any given moment, are hurling insults at Glenn“), may, like Greenwald, have individual or group blogs at which they offer their own takes on politics and current events. They may also offer their opinions on current events and politics on Twitter. Unlike Greenwald, by contrast, what animates the people in the group Cole mentions isn’t chiefly what is done or not done (or said or not said) by the President or congress or the courts – in short, what really gets them going isn’t what’s actually happening in the world of politics and law. Instead, what truly gets the blood of the Greenwald detractors flowing (not to mention their tweets) is defending “their guys” and/or attacking “the other guys.” And Obama, by their reckoning, as reflected in their attacks, is “their guy #1,” though the tribalism very clearly extends to all perceived “allies”:

If you haven’t noticed by now, this type of group-think is not only entirely backwards in my opinion, but also observably counterproductive. If the first responsibility of citizens (and doubly so of journalists) is to try to evaluate politicians based upon both how closely they live up to what they said they would do (or attempt to do) when they wanted citizens’ votes and how closely their actions and beliefs are consonant with those of the individual voter, then it is not only natural but almost REQUIRED that there be criticism of some of the actions of politicians from not just their opponents, but also from within the group of citizens who supported that politician in the last election. Greenwald’s critiques of Obama’s policies – or even his guesses at what Obama’s motivations for certain actions (or inactions) may be – are literally what we are each supposed to do in this country: hold our politicians, even (perhaps especially) the ones we support, accountable. Of course, it’s equally acceptable – even recommended – for others to disagree with those who disagree with a politician’s actions. We all have our differences. What’s NOT nearly as productive or understandable is for those who don’t disagree with the given actions of a politician to begin to think of those who DO disagree as “the enemy,” or as people who should be opposed, shouted down, discredited.

Think of it this way: politician X makes decision Y or supports bill Z: that’s ordinary, commonplace, a productive part of the political system. Certain people from the politician’s same general political persuasion support that politician’s decision/position, and give voice to their support in various forums: also ordinary, commonplace, and a productive part of the political system. Other people from the same general political persuasion oppose that particular decision/position, and also write about it in various forums: STILL also ordinary, commonplace, and a productive part of the political system. But then, the first group – those who supported the politician’s decision – band together en masse to decry at great length and often with ad hominem strawman arguments, the second group of individual citizens and journalists who opposed the decision. That last one is the only one of the foregoing scenarios/actions which hold zero – in fact, net negative – value: it is neither ordinary and commonplace, nor is it a productive part of our political system. Nothing of value, politically, comes from citizens or journalists attacking other citizens or journalists over political issues. That’s where things like, say, the Civil War come from, to use an extreme example. How much time is spent by Obama fans attacking other citizens or journalists who disagree with them? No one knows for sure, but countless hours, at the least.

The reason I say such activities are actually a net negative political value is twofold. First, what ELSE could have been done with that time? How many phone-bank calls could have been made, voters registered, precincts organized, etc? Greenwald critics may argue (indeed, I have seen them argue) that they do those activist things anyway, and that they’re perfectly able to do both actual activism AND still pile on perceived liberal “enemies” in their spare time, but there’s unquestionably an opportunity cost to all the haranguing: it takes time and energy to keep up a steady stream of character assassination, energy and time which could be used elsewhere in the service of what the Greenwald critics claim is their number one priority: re-electing the President and preventing a Republican advance in congress (or strengthening Democratic gains). Second, no one who isn’t already in agreement with the bash-Greenwald agenda (as well as probably already very familiar with the vicissitudes of intra-lefty Twitter-wrangling) is going to read such extended bashes against fellow progressives and think: “wow, that’s really motivating.” No one will read such things and become LESS turned-off. But plenty of liberals, Democrats and progressives may read such broadsides against authors like Greenwald or others who they often find themselves in agreement with and find themselves both repelled by the vitriol and also feeling attacked-by-association when they hear suggestions that anyone who agrees with, retweets, or in fact does anything but shun and excoriate these journalists/bloggers is stupid/evil/deluded.

In the end – and to repeat – criticizing politicians is literally a responsibility of citizenship and conscience. Hammering away publicly and repeatedly at other people (or perceived groups of people) because they disagree or refuse to “support the team” is not, and it advances no one’s political fortunes, nor does it further the cause of reasonable discourse or even dissent. It’s just tribalism and tearing-down. And this type of tribalism and cliqueishness discredits those who (consciously or unconsciously) practice it, and makes the political process worse. It is in no way analogous to the criticism of elected officials’ decisions – even biased criticism.

Hell, from the point of view of most liberals/progressives/Democrats, Republicans’ typical comments would exemplify “biased criticism” of the President/Democrats, but you’ll not see (and indeed it would strike most people as odd if they saw) lefties criticizing Republicans simply because they disagree with the President or with Democratic principles. You’ll often see plenty of arguing with Republicans’ IDEAS, yes – arguing often done in a very confrontational or angry manner. But that’s not the same thing at all as saying:”if you’ve got a problem with anybody I roll with” (as the tweet above says), well, caveat orator, buddy: we’re coming for ya. You just won’t see most of the people who attack Greenwald and others they consider to be “the professional left” going after the GOP because they are critical or disagree. It’s expected that Republicans will criticize Democrats/progressives/liberals, because even Greenwald critics understand that Republicans have a different view of things and different set of beliefs about what they would like/expect government to do. But fellow Democrats/progressives/liberals? Those are the people for whom Greenwald’s critics reserve their most withering scorn and concerted attacks (not to mention the lion’s share of unwitting hypocrisy in doing so). Why? Because the Greenwald critics, as evidenced by their actions, clearly believe that anyone who self-identifies with any of those labels (Democrat, progressive, liberal) OUGHT to be on Team Obama – that they ought to either agree with the President or congressional Democrats universally, or at the very least, that if, for some incomprehensible reason they disagree, they ought to at least have the “decency” or the “smarts” to simply shut up about it, lest they hurt the team. “STFU” (Shut the Fuck Up) is a big favorite shorthand slogan of Obama fans/Greenwald detractors. That might earn a few high-fives around the tribal campfire, but it’s hardly a substitute for genuine political discourse.

4 thoughts on “Cliqueishness and Tribalism on Twitter

  1. Great post, Lars. It’s the best take on “Nun rape Rawr” by far that I’ve read and you nailed exactly what is going on; there is not a bit of difference–other than to whom “Dear Leader” was–between the Bushbots and Obots. Each were/are slavish in their devotion and just about equally nasty.

    ABL has been on a GG jihad from nearly day one on BJ. This is one of her earliest examples from there from Dec. 2010; http://www.balloon-juice.com/2010/12/05/not-content-to-bash-obama-glenn-greenwald-bashes-an-obama-supporter-stays-classy/#comments

    The best point you make is that it is our duty as citizens to criticize our leadership and hold their feet to the fire. That is what each side is too blind to see due to their slavish devotion. There have been times in our history that the citizens of the US did that and their actions resulted in real change, but things are going to have to get much worse before it happens again.

  2. Or maybe a lot of people just think Greenwald is dishonest (as demonstrated many times, in venues including minor blogs, professional blogs and even Maddow, but which a sycophant like Lars is going to ignore), and his demeanor has made a lot of people dislike him.

    A lot of people coming to the same conclusion isn’t a clique, a tribe or a conspiracy. It’s called a *CONSENSUS*. Sort of like the consensus that Greenwald was a crypto-Libertarian, the one you and his other defenders denied. Up until the point you couldn’t.

    And thank you Lars for stirring this stuff up with a largely-unreadable post that went on way too long. You have learned a lot from Greenwald’s circumlocutions. Or at least that blathering on can be used to hide a weak thesis.

    1. You’re correct in the sense that it’s quite clear a certain group of people think Greenwald is dishonest. And smelly. And mean. And they even heard that he causes cancer in laboratory mice. That doesn’t mean that group of people is correct, though, and in fact the evidence for many of the claims of each specific act of intolerable perfidy on Greenwald’s part is quite thin indeed.

      I think I’ll leave it there, though, because contrary to your assumption, it’s never been a goal of mine to defend Greenwald per se. He just happens to be the most-frequent proximate target of the detrimental, puerile cliquish behavior which John Cole observed and I also described here.

      And I can see that description has struck a nerve, too, else you would not have bothered to sign in with a throwaway email address just to slog your way through a post you claim is “mostly unreadable,” and you certainly wouldn’t have bothered to spend any of your valuable time wasting a comment on someone so hopeless.

    2. In fact, Greenwald is not dishonest. He has been consistent in his beliefs, his language and his behavior since he began blogging. I know, because I started reading Unclaimed Territory about 2 weeks after he started it. He can be an asshole, but he’s never been any different. And he’s never, ever denied that he’s a civil libertarian.

      Which brings us to the definition of civil libertarian. His beliefs are that civil rights and liberties are of the utmost importance. You really should learn the difference between civil libertarian and libertarian. Many liberals, including myself, value civil rights and liberties fundamentally. Once those are gone, the remaining progressive victories go away too. You can disagree with that, but you are not being honest when you say that Greenwald has ever claimed to be anything but what he is.

      In an effort to be against Greenwald, one of the tribe actually said “Bush’s complex issues were distorted by Greenwald”. Bush, to most progressives, is a war criminal who took our constitution and put a flame to it. We spent 8 long years watching BushCo destroy this country, but a “progressive” hates Greenwald so much that, instead of admitting Greenwald’s beliefs are consistent with what he wrote during the Bush era, his writing is classified as “distorting” Bush’s “many complex issues”. That is what Lars is describing.

      Tonight, I saw fans of Rachel Maddow called “cultists” by another so-called “progressive”. Why? Maddow was always a strong progressive voice and we celebrated when she was given her own show. Why is she suddenly bad? Because back in July she commented on marriage rights being granted GLBTs in New York and said “Obama is against what just happened”. She was stating a fact, as that was his position during his campaign (“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” See here). When anyone says the slightest thing negative about Obama, they are immediately villified and the pile-on begins.

      You want to pretend that this is only about Greenwald, good for you. The fact is, though, any progressive that does not follow the party line exactly is made to be the enemy and targeted. Unfortunately, Greenwald and a few others actually engage the mobs. They’d do better to simply block them and engage those who engage in honest debate.

      I have seen people in that Tribe make homophobic jokes, make light of child rape, send pictures of dead animals to disturbed people and even say that it doesn’t matter if an American citizen was summarily executed without due process. Greenwald probably would’ve been better off saying something about dead Palestinian children because I’ve since learned that a few of those is worth it as long as we kill the terrorists. But, honestly, he didn’t make the joke, he just took a really low swipe at someone who regularly attacks him.

      So, in short, the Progressives and liberals who have remained consistent in their views through the Bush era and into the Obama era are now “Them” and are regularly attacked. You don’t see that because it’s fine with you that “They” get attacked as “They” aren’t toeing the line. They are no longer “good” liberals and must be sacrificed at the altar of the party. We’re all glad that you’re good with that. Go you! Some folks, though, really aren’t willing to sacrifice every single progressive voice because they actually have an opinion. And we certainly aren’t going to adopt NeoCon ideology in order to discredit the people with whom we don’t agree.

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