Matt Yglesias had a really bad opinion Thursday. He’s had them on other days as well.
Tweeting in reaction to the demented mob that gathered outside Tucker Carlson’s home Wednesday night, Yglesias, a writer for Vox, asserted, “I think the idea behind terrorizing his family, like it or not as a strategy, is to make them feel some of the fear that the victims of MAGA-inspired violence feel thanks to the non-stop racial incitement coming from Tucker, Trump, etc.”
He added, “I agree that this is probably not tactically sound but if your instinct is to empathize with the fear of the Carlson family rather than with the fear of his victims then you should take a moment to reflect on why that is.”
Then it got worse. “I honestly cannot empathize with Tucker Carlson’s wife at all — I agree that protesting at her house was tactically unwise and shouldn’t be done — but I am utterly unable to identify with her plight on any level,” Yglesias concluded.
Crucially, Yglesias’s argument is predicated on the notion that Carlson’s conservative approach to immigration amounts to racism. If you accept that premise (and you shouldn’t), the stakes are obviously higher.
It reminds me of a bit in Louis C.K.’s last stand-up special where he made an argument defending the intensity of pro-life opposition to abortion. “They think babies are being murdered! What are they supposed to be like? ‘Huh, it’s not cool, I don’t want to be a dick about it, though. I don’t want to ruin their day as they murder several babies all the time,'” the comedian quipped.
Yglesias’s tweet was obviously wrong-minded and dangerous. It was also disturbingly cruel, which is made more disturbing by the reality that others on the left likely share his sentiments. That’s exactly why I’m glad he tweeted it.
After pushback from people across the political spectrum, Yglesias wiped his decade-old Twitter account clean on Thursday. Deleting the tweets was a wise move, especially as the handful in question seemed, intentionally or otherwise, to justify threats of political violence. His platform is serious enough to make that unsafe. But garbage opinions don’t necessarily have to fall in the simple binary between never-should-have-been-posted and should-have-been-deleted. Yglesias’s act of deletion was, in effect, a concession that his take was very wrong. That seems healthy.
It actually reminds me of the Megyn Kelly controversy. Given that her remarks on blackface last month had been beamed into homes around the country, Kelly couldn’t exactly delete what she said. But she was rebutted by her panel in real time as the segment aired. Her bad opinion was immediately drowned out by better ones.
In an email to her then-coworkers, Kelly noted that disagreement “from friends and colleagues” had persuaded her to change her mind on the matter. She said as much on air the following day, before NBC took the opportunity to part ways.
Kelly’s bad opinion wasn’t quite on the same scale as a justification (bordering on an endorsement) of threats of political violence. Both she and Yglesias deserved pushback. Neither person had his or her First Amendment rights threatened, or was censored by the government.
But the dilemma with social media culture in general, and on Twitter especially, is how to push back on bad opinions without chilling debate. I don’t like the notion that Yglesias should be intimidated out of sharing bad opinions that obviously need to be rebutted in the public square, especially since he was almost certainly speaking for others on the left.
We’ll all be better off if we have the space to persuasively rebut those arguments. The question is how to engage with bad ideas without helping cultivate an atmosphere that would prevent them from ever having been said. Otherwise we’ll basically be left with vanilla centrism and bad-faith provocation.
There are no easy answers. In the case of Yglesias, that task was tougher given the way he often used the platform. Unnecessarily mean-spirited attacks may make likes and retweets easy to come by, but the coarsened culture of political Twitter contributes to the coarsening of our larger political dialogue. That may sound silly, but if we can’t have good-faith debates about bad ideas, they’ll fester in echo chambers, away from the powerful influence of persuasive critique. It’s the problem with college campuses.
Plenty of people pushed back on Yglesias intensely, but in good faith. Others did not. What we don’t want to do is intimidate people with bad opinions out of giving us the opportunity to explain why they’re wrong. I begrudgingly suppose it’s good news, then, that Yglesias is already back on Twitter.