Incentives matter. We all know this, but it’s curious how little serious discourse there is about what those incentives are encouraging us to do.
We seem fine ignoring the fact that the incentive structure of Instagram trains young women to sexualize themselves for “likes” from strangers. Often it’s effectively training wheels for OnlyFans, and many parents let tweens use it largely without question or oversight.
Twitter reduces empathy, understanding, and nuance, while turbocharging the rewards for conflict and extremism. The obvious danger is being simply accepted with a shrug.
Each of these incentives, if aligned, can merge into an overwhelming force that pulls some or even most of us down a path that we didn’t expect and perhaps should even avoid. The effect of destructive incentives dragging someone into bad behavior can be found in the increasingly unseemly (and most likely unwitting) behavior of a once-respected writer and man: David French.
French is a lawyer who previously ran the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus free speech advocacy and litigation group, and served as a military lawyer in Iraq. Not long ago, he was a middle-tier Never Trump writer for National Review. But he’s managed to elevate himself to much higher visibility by becoming perhaps the most extreme conservative critic of conservative evangelicals who supported Donald Trump.
After an online feud triggered by Sohrab Ahmari’s “Against David French-ism” piece in First Things, French ended up getting caught in a flywheel in which more extreme rhetoric gets him more attention, which then draws more attacks, which leads him in turn to even more extreme rhetoric.
Going After White Evangelical Trump Supporters
Today, that flywheel has taken him to the point where he attacks other people’s character in the strongest possible terms, using words like “cruel,” “vicious,” “deceitful,” and “indefensible.” A white evangelical himself, he recently claimed that America has “become more just” as “white Protestant power has waned.”
He describes evangelical Trump supporters the way he might once have talked about Islamic terrorists abroad, as potential national security threats. He says, “The hardcore Trump evangelical base threatens our constitutional rule of law.” He tweets, “The evidence that January 6th was a Christian insurrection just grows and grows and grows. Combatting this perversion of the Gospel has to be a top priority. It’s not just heresy, it’s an active threat to the peace and security of the nation.”
It’s not clear where he goes from here, but French has certainly profited from this so far. His name is now on many people’s lips. He drives a lot of online conversation. And he’s been rewarded with a recent elevation from purely conservative media to the Atlantic.
It’s unlikely French sat down one day and decided to reinvent himself into one of the most hysterically hostile critics of American evangelicals, or that he concocted an explicit strategy of using extreme rhetoric to boost his profile. But that’s where the perverse incentives of our society carried him.
Even more disturbing, with victim status as a prime currency in today’s society, French has also gone down the dark path of vicarious victimhood. Owing to French’s public status, one of his family members has been a target for horrific online abuse.
After these attacks started, rather than take steps to protect this person, French repeatedly posted information about him or her over multiple years, including this person’s full name (including middle name), relationship to him, even a picture and other personal info, and the specific characteristics that draw the abuse in the first place.
The attacks on this family member have allowed French to play the victim and parlay that into hard-for-conservatives-to-get mainstream press appearances. It got him on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” It helped him get a major feature article in the Atlantic.
In these media appearances, French once again repeated all the identifying details of this family member that would draw still more abuse. In fact, it was in the Atlantic article that he even posted this family member’s full name, including middle name.
Social media is by its nature somewhat ephemeral. Even if the vile tweets about French’s family member somehow survived getting deleted for violating hate speech rules, they would have quickly been buried deep in the archives. But articles in major publications are something else entirely.
French’s major media writings and interviews are now permanent memorials for this family member to find later, rendering these vicious attacks indelible in a way social media never could. Imagine what this family member will find when googling his or her own name. Consider this: would anyone outside the dark corners of the internet have ever known about these tweets without French bringing them up himself?
I have no reason to believe French doesn’t love this family member. But the very nature of our sick society’s incentives turned French into that person’s victimizer, something he has probably never stepped back from the fray long enough to recognize.
Down the Dark Rabbit Hole
Too many people have already badly harmed themselves or their loved ones by getting sucked into the vortex by our society’s sick incentives. While none of us can completely escape their effects, let us be careful lest they take us to a place we never imagined ourselves going.
As for French, I hope he’s able to detach himself from the flywheel he’s stuck in. I hear privately from people who admire him and basically agree with his position on Trump that he’s now going too far. If he keeps going, he may well self-destruct.
Above all, David, if you’re reading this, please stop talking and writing about your family member, and tell your friends like David Brooks to stop writing about this person as well. Hate and vilify me as much as you want, but please think about what you’ve been doing to someone you love so much and take a step back from the brink.
Descent into evil is a permanent threat to everyone in a fallen world. Even the best struggle to maintain virtue and avoid temptations and the perverse incentives of modern society. And today’s social and professional incentives can push us all, not just French, in this direction if we aren’t careful.