Oscar Wilde once wrote, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I find the same logic to also be true of Twitter. Life imitates Twitter far more than Twitter imitates life. And at a time in history where the social media giant is increasingly becoming more prevalent – from it being a favorite of Donald Trump’s to the phenomenon of “cancel culture,” which was in the news after Harper’s published an open letter against it, signed by some prominent intellectuals and public figures – that is increasingly dangerous.
In her recent resignation letter from the New York Times, Bari Weiss describes how Twitter became the “ultimate editor” of one of the most prestigious publications in the country. I relate a lot to Bari, although I disagree with her on many issues. Our stories are similar, of course, mine on a much smaller stage. We’re both liberal bisexual Jewish women who are outspoken writers. We were both subjected to subtle hostilities for thinking differently in progressive institutions – her at the New York Times, me at CUNY School of Law. And at the center of both of our stories seems to be Twitter.
For me, the hatred started when a certain student – who I followed because I liked their writing and wanted to hear what they had to say more – took screenshots of out-of-context Tweets of mine (most notably, one where I was annoyed with antisemitic trolls online and posted in a moment of frustration, saying I wanted to move to Israel to spite the haters), and sent them around to fellow students to “warn” them about me. Months later, this student wrote on Twitter that I was subjecting people to “Zionist violence.”
To be clear, this student never approached me to have conversations about this, or ask any questions. They just worked hard, at the very beginning of the semester, to have me blacklisted by our incoming class. This translates to real-life interactions I had with students throughout my semester at the school, like the time the aforementioned student and their friends pointed at me and whispered amongst themselves. And I can’t help but think it’s connected to an anonymous email I got around the same time, criticizing me for being a “white person” who wrote about Standing Rock once four years ago in a reported piece. This isn’t dissimilar to what Bari Weiss said in her resignation letter with regard to the fear of Twitter mobs impacting which stories get told. Journalists are afraid to report on the news because of Twitter. I was a journalist, but I was the wrong skin tone to write this piece… which aligned with their cause anyway. It didn’t matter what I said, just that I said anything at all. Which begs the question: how do I exist as this perfect journalist and ally to progressive causes?
So Twitter screenshots, taken out of context to cast me in a hateful light because I existed as a proud Jewish woman. Despite the fact I agreed with them on like 98% of issues, I was made out to be a conservative, someone no different from Trump. Similarly, Bari, who is politically left-of-center, is made out by Twitter dissenters, which unfortunately included some former colleagues, to be right-wing. I eventually left the school, because my anxiety surrounding being de-facto “canceled,” gossiped about, and generally hated by the student body got to be too much.
Indeed, this phenomenon of cancel culture has had real-world consequences for other people as well. Consider the case of a Palestinian business owner in Minnesota, whose chain of grocery stores is in jeopardy because hateful Tweets his daughter wrote years ago, as a teenager, resurfaced. Nevermind that he fired her, or that she apologized. Once the Twitter mob got this on their radar, that was it. This immigrant family’s livelihood is at stake because of Twitter.
The world is not black and white. It exists in many glorious shades of grey. And personally, as a Jewish person, I recognize the value in healthy debate, as do many others, including those who signed the Harper’s letter. Twitter, with its bite-size opinions measured in importance and factuality by likes and retweets, doesn’t represent the real world, just the darkest parts of it. Yet, unfortunately, the real world is starting to reflect Twitter. During the pandemic, this is undoubtedly getting worse. With the spread of hate speech and conspiracy theories online, who’s to say which ideas, posted by whom, gain traction? Remember that the most divisive president in modern American history is using this very platform to sow division and spread misinformation.
And I’m not immune to this reliance on the platform. I regularly use Twitter. It’s horrible for my mental health, but especially with the state of the world right now, I can’t seem to stop using it. Ultimately, it’s emotionally and mentally draining to see hate, lies, and depressing news – albeit interspersed with humor – on an endless loop. I don’t know what the answer is. Just that Twitter has unarguably influenced the way the modern world plays out socially and politically, and not necessarily for the good.
However, there’s something to be said for accountability that doesn’t lead to cancellation, rather education, growth, and mutual understanding. Take for example Nick Cannon, who just a few weeks ago made antisemitic comments on his radio show, but has since met with Jewish leaders and read books by Jewish thinkers – including Bari Weiss’s “How To Fight Antisemitism.” The concept of T’Shuvah (atonement) in Judaism plays an important role in healing our divides to create a brighter future. T’Shuvah recognizes that no human is perfect and that we’re all going to mess up on occasion. But there are ways to go about learning from those mistakes to minimize harm moving forward.
So instead of cancellation, let’s strive for true accountability, which can only be achieved through dialogue – not shutting one another down. After all, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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