Read: Twitter is not America
There can be something empowering, and even aesthetically pleasing, about the instant accountability meted out on social media. Who among us has not beamed with schadenfreude when a politician we loathe—or an inconsequential figure who has attracted our wrath for reasons principled or petty—has suffered his 15 minutes of public humiliation? Many a ratioed tweet is simply inane. And certainly widespread disapprobation is warranted in response to, say, hatred or bigotry, evident lies or obfuscations, and attempts to bully the weak.
But though I am hardly immune to the joys of a deserved ratio, I am worried about the kinds of incentives we put in place—and the kind of public culture we are creating—by equating the expression of unpopular opinion with failure.
Unless we believe ourselves to be the first generation in history to have discovered all of the correct opinions, we must stay alive to the possibility that plenty of arguments that are deeply unpopular today deserve to be aired—and perhaps even believed.
Seen from this angle, the ratioed tweet—or, for that matter, the widely panned op-ed—can claim a proud inheritance: that of the banned book, of the argument made before its time. If Socrates or Jesus or Copernicus had been able (and sufficiently imprudent) to tweet out their opinions, their contemporaries would almost certainly have administered a ratio. So it is possible that at least a small share of the tweets that are ratioed today express opinions we shall one day come to see as gospel.
Read: Twitter needs a pause button
Conversely, all those social-media users who never get ratioed should consider the possibility that they have nothing to brag about: They daily demonstrate a remarkable ability to move with the crowd. Perhaps they genuinely hold the same views as a majority of their followers at all times. Or perhaps they merely combine a strong sense of the way the wind is blowing with a consistent willingness to censor themselves whenever their opinions are less than fashionable. But does any writer whose talents are limited to synthesizing conventional wisdom deserve our admiration? And should we trust any politician—or, for that matter, any social-media personality—who has the determination and self-discipline to hide from view any thought that might prove unpopular?
A ratioed tweet is not an automatic indication of a serious failing that should make us doubt the author’s judgment; it might just be a mark of courage and integrity. Instead of quickly making fun of anybody who has suffered the misfortune of getting ratioed, we should wonder, instead, if we should applaud their willingness to take a metaphorical beating for sharing their convictions. If we want to have meaningful debates, online or off, it is incumbent on all of us to exonerate the ratioed tweet—or at least to pause before we condemn its author.