Last week, Amber Rudd, the former home secretary of the United Kingdom—akin to America’s Homeland Security chief—was disinvited from an International Women’s Day event at Oxford University at the last minute. Students had raised an outcry over Rudd’s speaking engagement, owing to her involvement in the Windrush scandal, in which at least 83 foreign-born people (and possibly dozens more) were wrongly deported from the U.K. Many more were denied pensions and health care, despite the fact that they had arrived in the country before any sort of work permit for Commonwealth citizens was required. (Windrush was not some aberration for Rudd: She oversaw a department that enacted an aggressive “hostile environment” policy toward immigrants and at one point proposed forcing British companies to publicly list all their foreign workers.)
Politicians across the political spectrum denounced the students’ decision. The usual cries about deplatforming and civility rang out. Perhaps most notable was Rudd’s response: She called the decision “badly judged and rude.” Her daughter later tweeted that it was, in fact, “fucking rude,” adding, “This is NOT how women should treat each other.” What kind of International Women’s Day would it be, after all, without a hollow invocation of feminism to protect the powerful from criticism?
It was indeed rude, in an interpersonal sense, to disinvite Rudd at short notice. It probably wasted her whole afternoon. She may have had to purchase an underwhelming croissant at Oxford train station for no reason! But no one other than Amber Rudd should have had much reason to give the matter much thought. Still, this personal slight became a matter of national democratic urgency. The conceptual framework of rudeness, however, should not be broadly applicable to political acts, of which canceling the former deporter in chief’s invitation to a panel is certainly one. If your functioning democracy depends on everyone being polite to each other in perpetuity, I have some bad news for you.
In the U.K., Rudd had an interestingly similar role to that of Kirstjen Nielsen in the U.S., as head of the immigration bureaucracy, and the subsequent brow-furrowing over her disinvitation from the Oxford event is reminiscent of the excruciating discourse that followed the protests of Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., at the height of the Trump administration’s campaign of family separation. It also raises similar questions on the horrors of rudeness, which have cropped up with exhausting regularity on this side of the Atlantic since 2016, when the archetypal young man known as the Bernard brother first logged on to Twitter.
The most recent twist in this endless debate came last week, when Elizabeth Warren complained of “organized nastiness” among Sanders’s supporters on The Rachel Maddow Show, in her first interview after dropping out of the primary contest. She went on to say that campaigns “are responsible for the people who claim to be our supporters.” This is, if not flatly untrue, an utterly unworkable premise from which to conduct a modern campaign. The Sanders campaign, after all, cannot possibly seek out and privately manage the behavior of every single person who claims to be a Sanders fan. It’s harder still to set the boundary of this centralized thought-policing: Was it “organized nastiness” when hundreds of Sanders supporters replied to Warren’s tweets with snake emojis? You certainly would be within your rights to argue that it was distasteful, or even counterproductive. In that case, it’s better to argue that Sanders was also a victim of this massive swelling of online vitriol, not that he should be held accountable for it. But what kind of “nastiness” are we talking about? What crosses the line so badly that it’s worth a campaign’s time to police?
There is an important distinction to be made between people who are merely rude online and people who engage in actual harassment and threats. Twitter is full of random idiots who will tweet “I am going to put you in a toilet.” This is a thing apart from people who post home addresses and phone numbers of nonpublic figures online, and who threaten particular violent acts. There are also people who tweet things that are not threatening but are extremely vicious. And then there are tweets that are critical, even hostile, but not actually cruel or mean. It is very easy for these categories to get conflated, especially when someone is being tweeted at by a lot of people at once. This is actually a flaw in the Twitter user experience itself: When someone looks at their mentions and sees dozens of critical tweets, it’s easy to cast them all as harassment, even if only one or two truly fit the bill.
None of this is pleasant to think about, much less experience. But it is vital to distinguish between these kinds of negativity if you want to seriously and accurately describe the Twitter Problem and not just smear your opponents with the actions of a few. And, since the argument that Bernie bros are a particular menace to society has been given immense weight since 2016, it is worth thinking about why Sanders supporters might be particularly loud and aggrieved.
First: Forget it, Liz—it’s the internet. According to available data, Sanders continues to generate considerably more online interactions than the rest of the field and maintains a considerable enthusiasm gap over Joe Biden and others. While the vast majority of Sanders supporters are, like normal people, not particularly online, there has always been a simmering core of supporters who are young and online true believers. Within social media’s digital hothouses, the conditions that lead young people, especially men, to trolling activity and overall Posting Brain hold sway. The same phenomenon can be appreciated outside of politics—look at how toxic fan communities for celebrities conduct themselves. The internet makes people crazy and mean. (Many female Bernie supporters have been at the receiving end of abuse from supporters of other candidates, but it’s not a competition.)
The argument frequently offered by Bernie supporters online to diminish the importance of mean tweets is that the stakes are too high to care about rudeness. In this view, people without health insurance are dying; the planet is on the brink of climate catastrophe; millions work long hours for low wages; and therefore a little bit of online rudeness is both not a pressing concern and actually warranted by the situation. Often, it’s personal: Rude Bernie Tweeters feel driven to reply aggressively to opposing candidates or their supporters because they themselves don’t have health insurance, or because they have insurmountable student debt. Maybe their mother is drowning in medical debt. Maybe they have already lost someone, like comedian Kate Willett, who wrote movingly in February about coming to support Sanders this year, after her boyfriend committed suicide. He couldn’t afford to see a psychiatrist, and died from “self-medicating gone wrong.” Willet wrote that she’s “convinced he’d still be here if he had health insurance to get the care he needed.” She also noted that she came to this point despite having harbored her own antipathy for the legions of online Bernie bros who mounted up during the 2016 Democratic primary.
This is not just excuse-making. Once you understand that policy decisions made about things like health care and criminal justice are at least deeply personally important to people who live on the brink of financial catastrophe—or, worse, can bring violent destruction to their lives—how could you not want to scream at everyone involved? As Amber A’Lee Frost wrote in 2016, “being mean” is “a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.” Warren supporters may feel that Warren is not far enough to Bernie’s right to warrant attacks; many Bernie supporters feel differently, as evidenced by SnakeGate. The question of where to draw the line is hard, but it’s not obvious to everyone, nor can we expect there to be consensus. There are many lines that seem easily drawn to people who feel they ought to be comfortably inside them.
It is even harder to take when the Civility Police feel so empowered by this discourse that they decide to start writing citations. This leads to the grotesque spectacle of David Frum—actively involved in the worst, most bloody foreign policy decision of this century—tweeting about the “cruel means” of people who criticized Warren, and intoning without irony that, “If your politics are not founded upon and limited by an ethic of care and respect, you are working for a worse world, not a better one.” No mention of what a politics that leads to 600,000 dead Iraqis might be founded upon, nor what kind of world he was working toward.
It’s also important to bear in mind how powerless Americans feel (and are) in our crumbling democracy—as you might do when you realize that David Frum was not expelled from public life but instead has a comfortable staff writer job at one of America’s most prestigious magazines that effectively immunizes him from the impact of politics. (Perhaps the case of Frum’s mentions is one where we could actually reach consensus.)
None of this means that the Mean Tweets Primary is productive. Certainly, it can’t be said that the most vicious of Sanders’s online supporters have done much beyond giving fuel to his opponents: Joe Biden made physical, real-life mention of “Bernie brothers” last week, and it seems possible that past online interactions really did affect Warren’s willingness to endorse Sanders, which is an incredibly grim prospect. It would surely be better for American politics if, overnight, every person on the left dedicated all their energies only to the most productive forms of coalition-building against the right, but that is not how it works. When real anger and desperation is tapped, some of it will spill out in the wrong directions. Still, it’s smarter to contend with the source of that anger and desperation, rather than police the outburst.
In 2018, during the aftermath of the Kirstjen Nielsen restaurant incident, and the subsequent crisis of civility that briefly ensued, I wrote about the phenomenon of people using Yelp reviews to express irrelevant political opinions about a business that happens to find itself caught up in the news and wondered if it’s “any wonder that citizens have turned to a largely useless website to exert some small measure of their ever-more-limited influence in the political sphere?” It’s certainly no surprise that civically engaged Americans might feel that Twitter is one of their only avenues for yelling at politicians.
The question isn’t whether mean tweets can create a movement—they don’t—it’s whether any movement that’s founded in righteous anger will be allowed to survive, or end up being defined by the powerful as merely rude, the better to discredit legitimate demands. The fact of the matter is, the future portends a certain amount of anger. As my colleague Osita Nwanevu noted in January, the searing inequality of the last decade has given rise to a culture of permanent protest, from teachers’ strikes to climate change protests to all manner of direct action over the current administration’s immigration policies. As the trajectory of inequality seems unlikely to reverse course anytime soon, one should expect that anger, and the concomitant desire to make some necessary trouble, to rise as well. It will be important, then, to distinguish casual meanness from acts of justifiable rage. You can be certain that those who benefit from the unequal status quo will be out on the scene equating the two, and complaining, “Oh, dear, how rude!”