If you haven’t read Bari Weiss’ letter of resignation from the New York Times, I won’t at all be offended if you forgot about this post in order to read her blistering manifesto. In case you don’t know the context. Weiss was a centrist columnist at the NYT. After months of internal hostility and abuse from colleagues, she finally left the newspaper this summer. Her letter pulls the curtain back on an industry, an institution, that has lost its way. Elite media is no longer politically liberal at least in the classical way that word is understood. Instead, elite media increasingly caters to a painfully thin slice of American progressivism. It’s easy to confuse liberalism with progressivism since so many wear both labels, but the two -isms have radically different agendas. Liberalism is devoted to, well, liberty. It is a worldview oriented towards freedom and expression. It is a worldview that tends to look with suspicion on mechanisms of control be they corporate or governmental. Progressivism, on the other hand, is oriented towards progress. There are a couple of problems with progressivism which a moment’s reflection will reveal. First, progress is a relative term. One person’s progress can very easily be another person’s catastrophe. This leads to the other problem with progressivism. Because different definitions of progress are in play, control and coercion are needed in order to bring one particular definition of progress to the fore. Competing visions of progress must be demeaned, dismissed, and destroyed. In this way, progressivism is very much opposed to liberalism even though it often wears liberalism’s clothing.
Weiss’ manifesto is about more than an elite institution being overwhelmed by progressive dogma. It is also about the dangers of an organization giving in to heteronomous rule. Heteronomous rule is when authority comes from those on the outside of an organization or institution.* Weiss points out how this has become a reality at The New York Times:
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
According to Weiss, The New York Times is being edited by Twitter. They are being governed not by journalistic principles but by the loud, aggrieved voices of a small group of Twitter activists. I suppose that there are people who would object to Weiss’ assessment. Perhaps she is overstating the case. Perhaps she is bias and aggrieved herself. But it is very likely that everyone who would make that claim is a loud and regular user of Twitter, probably with a blue check mark.
Despite arguments to the contrary, I still believe that Twitter is not real life.** Now, Twitter can certainly affect real life, but it is still not an accurate representation of real life. According to Pew Research, 22 percent of American adults use Twitter. They are younger, more educated, and more left-leaning in their politics than the rest of the country. But most people who are on Twitter don’t even use Twitter. 80 percent of all tweets come from about 10 percent of users. This means that roughly 2 percent of the population are driving the conversation on the platform. That is enormous power. Now imagine that the nation’s leading newspaper is shaping its content specifically to please a portion of that 2 percent. That is an institution being governed by heteronomous rule.
There is a lesson here for all organizations and institutions. Too often we fall victim to chasing that random user on social media who is sniping at us from behind a glowing screen. We must address them. We must answer them. We must appease them. In my opinion, this is a mistake. We are terrified of the random person saying mean things about us online. This type of person is usually not a stakeholder in your institution.*** If they were a stakeholder, they probably wouldn’t be blathering about you on social media. Instead, they would be actively participating in your mission and working for your good. Institutions would do better to focus on consolidating and strengthening their mission among those who actually care about that mission. Institutions would do better to be governed by principles rather than to be governed by ratings on social media. Institutions on social media are not much different than individuals on social media. If we aren’t careful we are always servicing an electronic image of ourselves rather than being guided by the strength of our convictions and the support of those who love us.
Stop giving the aggrieved user control over your institution. They didn’t earn it. They don’t deserve it. They are tin pot Twitter dictators. You will never appease them because the aggrieved have become too satisfied with their grievances. Heteronomous rule is the end of institutions. If not literally bringing an end to the institution, it will at the very least bring an end to that institutions’ mission. The institution will become a sort of zombie, alive in appearance but without a soul or a future.
*I was recently reminded of an old Seinfeld episode that is about heteronomous rule. (Yes, really.) In the episode Jerry is concerned about a new, local restaurant that is not getting enough business. Jerry convinces the owner to completely change his business model. After the change, the restaurant is no better off than before. In fact, it’s worse. The owner has lost everything. In typical Seinfeld fashion, Jerry just kind of shrugs it off and gets on with his life.
**It’s not the subject of this post, but maybe the two best examples of this are Chris Pratt and J.K. Rowling. Outside of Twitter they are both either beloved or not given much thought. On Twitter, Pratt and Rowling are extremely problematic. They need to be cancelled. They need to be destroyed. They are called every epithet common to the woke mob. It is very bizarre. Just type one of their names into the search bar on Twitter and you will immediately see what I’m talking about.
***The exception to this would be a disgruntled employee or client who may require a more direct approach. But even in these cases, the direct approach should usually be a discreet approach.