“Something once expressed, however absurd, fortuitous or wrong it may be, because it has been once said, so tyrannizes the sayer as his property that he can never have done with it.”
So observes the German social theorist Theodor Adorno in his 1951 book Minima Moralia. Although he is reflecting on the transformations of individuality and interpersonal relations in the industrial society of the late 1940s, Adorno sounds almost as though he is discussing Twitter, particularly the way tweets are taken as immutable expressions of a person’s essential being. Thoughts tweeted in the distant past are exhumed to torment people who have risen to prominence. People engage in ritual apologies for innocuous tweets that offend overly delicate sensibilities. Some insufficiently prudent souls even end up losing jobs for tweets that are hardly controversial.
While all of this seems to be very much of our time, one of the many unhappy products of our highly mediated lives, the provenance of Adorno’s observation suggests that the distance between what we say and who we are—between ideas and identity—has been shrinking for a long time. The consequence of that shrinkage is not just that it can dehumanize. It also distorts democratic discourse, turning it into a war of all against all. Without the distance between self and thought, self and utterance, we are unable to entertain, probe, or debate ideas. We are unable to change our minds or to persuade others. We are not even in a position to form our views in thoughtful, disinterested ways. But there may yet be a way out. Precisely by codifying and accelerating the collapse of the distinction between ideas and identity, Twitter might ironically be alerting us to the absurdity and shallowness of intellectual life practiced on its terms.
How exactly did we come to this pass? The simple answer, for Adorno, was that utterances—and those who utter them—have taken on a commodity character, in Karl Marx’s sense of the term. Commercial products, Marx thought, began to evince a strange quality under industrial production. They no longer appeared to be the result of a social process mixing labor and material but took on a fetishized glow that hid the specifics of their production and endowed their mere materiality with a quasi-mystical sheen—the kind that makes teenagers covet Air Jordans, for example. The amplification of this fetish character is, indeed, the explicit aim of contemporary branding.
When Adorno wrote Minima Moralia, living as a German-Jewish refugee in Santa Monica, California, he saw language and individuality themselves taking on the same fetish character. Opinions were becoming increasingly detached from the reflective, ratiocinative processes that produced them and were taking on a commodified life of their own. Today, this commodification has reached the point that people adopt opinions in almost the same way they determine what music they like. At most, reasoning comes in after the fact, as the instruction manual for the product rather than as the process leading to the idea, belief, or opinion. And just as with matters of taste, matters of opinion have become markers of class and in-group belonging. The result is what might be called “opinion fetishism.”
Understanding the fetishization of ideas and opinions should help us understand and critique the narrow phenomenon of “cancel culture,” as well as a broader anti-intellectualism that increasingly pervades journalistic outlets and universities. To resist a misguided vision of social justice that punishes and stigmatizes people for minor verbal transgressions, even when their intentions and character are not in doubt, we must resist a broader fetishization of opinion that not only that turns people’s words into scarlet letters but also ordains that one’s personal identity constrains the range of allowable opinions.
The more baroque extremes of “woke” politics, including the litmus-test standards of politically correct speech, are one prominent product of opinion fetishism, but so, too, are the aggrieved blasts of some of the anti-woke, who see cancelation everywhere, and use its specter to impugn legitimate and fair criticism of this or that person or institution. More important than simply criticizing cancel culture, then, is recognizing the broader trends that have made something like it all but inevitable. Without a sense of that larger dynamic, criticism of cancel culture on Twitter too often falls into the trap of opinion fetishism itself.
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.”
Too many would-be Twitter contrarians end up sounding like those they critique. They are victims of a Medusan medium—and a Medusan culture as a whole—that petrifies opinions, turning them into poses the moment they are circulated. Twitter, to vary the metaphor, is quicksand, and those who struggle against it tend to be sucked down all the faster.
The lively exchange and development of ideas requires some independence of ideas from the identities, personalities, or backgrounds of those who articulate or advance them. To be sure, personal background can and even should influence our views, but those views, once formed, must stand or fall on their own merits. They can be adopted by others, modified, abandoned, proven, or disproven, regardless of who first advanced them.
How then to resist an increasingly toxic intellectual culture without succumbing either to its dynamics or to despair? Adorno concludes Minima Moralia with a bracing challenge: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Highfalutin as the sentiment may sound, Adorno meant that responsible thinkers should hold themselves somewhat outside their culture, even outside of history—as ultimately impossible as that may be. Adorno had no illusions that redemption would actually come; he just thought it was necessary as a theoretical standpoint. “Perspectives must be fashioned,” he goes on, “that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be…indigent and distorted.”
This is not a call to abandon the public square so much as to resist the assorted virtual simulacra of it. Too many just accept the inevitability of Twitter, even while lamenting its influence. The culture needs instead public intellectuals who demonstrate the kind of identity-independent reasoning that simply can’t take place on Twitter. They must create alternative spaces where genuine public reasoning can take place. There are hopeful signs of this already happening: new publications, podcasts, newsletters, and conversation spaces. Even if these alternative spaces may remain vulnerable to the same kinds of fetishization, something better may yet arise out of the old order currently consuming itself.
In any case, trying to use Twitter as a public square is like hiking the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Like the Matterhorn, Twitter is an amusement, not a place for exploration. It would be better to help the other hikers down and direct them toward the real challenge.