Why Jonathan Chait says outrageous things
The political economy of ChaitGPT
Some months ago, Jonathan Chait wasn’t happy with a side-comment I made about his incentives as a pundit.
And now, he’s at the fearless truthtelling again, with a piece that certainly doesn’t flatter his “readers’ preconceptions.” Instead, Chait is provoking apoplexy among his liberal and left-leaning readers by arguing that:
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The weak point in [the Colorado Supreme Court’s] argument [that Trump ought be denied ballot access] is the finding that Trump’s behavior constitutes “insurrection.” This is a defensible shorthand for January 6, one I’ve used frequently myself. But it’s not the most precise term. When I have the chance to use a longer description, I generally say that Trump attempted to secure an unelected second term in office.
This is a bold statement. It’s especially bold since it doesn’t engage at all with the Court’s arguments about why Trump’s actions contributed to insurrection. So is Chait bravely contradicting his readers’ preconceptions, disregarding the certain costs to his career? I don’t think so. Bluntly put, and contrary to his self-flattering theory of how the attention economy works, you can make a good living from outraging the sensibilities of your readers (NB though: while his theory is one dimensional, it is not entirely wrong).
Chait’s implicit theory of the political economy of opinion journalism seems to be that the true path to success is to flatter your readers’ prejudices. The implication of Chait’s sarcastic rejoinder to me is that those who split their audience, such as, to take a random example, Chait himself, are less likely to be rewarded. Furthermore, people like me, who argue to the contrary, are wrong (maybe even idiots). Matt Yglesias, in a follow on comment, says that “I think it’s probably true that a lot of journalists suppress their own heterodox views (most journalists are left or center but few people are totally dogmatic) in a way that’s bad for their careers in response to informal social pressure from peers.”
The argument (especially in its more explicit Yglesias formulation) that there are incentives to flatter the beliefs of your own side, and to downplay the points of disagreement, is not at all wrong. Social pressure is real, and there is a lot of evidence, whether anecdotal, personal-universal (I imagine that pretty well everyone with a bare minimum of social skills has regularly kept quiet about what they really think on some controversial topic in order to avoid friction), and experimental (the notorious though often misinterpreted Asch conformity experiments), to back this intuition up.
Cognitive psychology provides a lot of evidence to back up the notion that we are coalitional animals. More political scientists and sociologists should read books like Pascal Boyer’s Minds Make Society. As Boyer discusses, we very easily discern the coalitional dynamics implicit in information we have been given, and tend to focus on it:
There is no social history or ethnography of any human community that does not mention people joining forces for common goals, creating and maintaining rival alliances, and punishing defections. This is so pervasive in human interaction that the point seems banal
When people hear conversations, they find it far easier to recall the implied information about who is allied with whom than the actual content of discussion. In short, we have specialized cognitive mechanisms for keeping track of coalitional politics, and a lot of what we say and think is driven by these mechanisms.
That helps explain why people sometimes repress what they actually think. But it also plausibly helps explain why being a professional controversialist can be a good career move.
If we have cognitive mechanisms that draw us to pay particular attention to fights and disagreements, then the attention economy isn’t just going to reward people who tell their audience what they want to hear. It is also going to reward people who say challenging, provocative and outrageous things.
Contrary to what Chait implies, splitting your audience, and outraging the norms of a perceived community – so that people generate pile-ons, counter-pile-ons and so on, is a path to success. Indeed, Chait himself has indirectly acknowledged that this is part of his journalistic appeal in a past spat with Crooked Timber, a blog that I contribute to.
the story … in the print edition, asked, “Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We’re sure you’ll let us know.” This was my editors’ playful way to provocatively anticipate the firestorm the piece would set off.
“provocatively anticipate the firestorm” and “We’re sure you’ll let us know”are telling phrases. Chait’s editors (apparently endorsed by Chait himself) foresee and celebrate the fact that he is going to get an enormous outraged response. This is a very big part of the Jonathan Chait business model.
Notably, this is the same logic that inspires conservative activists to invite Milo onto campus – “The left-wing riots were not the price or the downside of inviting Yiannopoulos—they were the attraction.” Similarly, Chait has more or less told us that he and his editors at New York Magazine anticipate and want howls of outrage from angry liberals and the left. That’s what pulls the punters in.
I’m guessing that a lot of (perhaps most?) readers who’ve gotten to this point, have been sucked in because this starts like another “Why Jonathan Chait Is Wrong” piece, with snarky title and lengthy argumentation. I’ve written other such pieces in the past, but I’m not now sure that this is a useful way to think about things. The particularities of Jonathan Chait are not, after all, a question of urgent importance: what matters is the subtitle rather than title. As the earlier post suggested, what is more important is the broader political economy that rewards and reinforces certain kinds of ways of participating in the public, while demotivating others.
For me, the big question isn’t whether Jonathan Chait (or Glenn Greenwald, or name any other extremely online person who you think is a controversialist or party hack) is an innately terrible human being. It’s why we have a media architecture that creates feedback loops that reinforce certain behaviors (whether it’s being hackish, or stirring shit for the sake of attention, or some combination) with attention and engagement. My hypothesis is that the dynamics of social media and the coalitional aspects of our cognitive architectures have come to reinforce each other in increasingly unfortunate ways, so that people reliably get attention by either reinforcing or outraging political sensibilities rather than saying actually interesting things.1
We can disagree about whether particular people started out in a bad place, or whether they broke bad over time – and we probably don’t have data to figure out any good answers. But I think people are more likely to agree to the surmise that we are in a world where it is much easier than it ought to be for people’s worst tendencies to feed on themselves, once they’ve reached a certain degree of online fame. It’s like climate change – we can disagree over whether individual weather events are the result of global climate change, but fighting about the particulars of this or that hurricane is missing the point about the deeper and more structural changes.
We live in a climate, where once people are Internet famous, they get rapid and large scale attention. Some of them like it, and/or can make careers from it. They keep on pressing the button for that dopamine hit or increase in engagement, and if they aren’t careful, they end up becoming caricatures of themselves.
In short: we live in a media ecology that creates incentives for Internet famous people to become crude approximations of themselves if they want to keep on being Internet famous. Some of them play to their crowd. Some of them embrace the role of Bold Contrarian Truthteller (playing to one crowd, while outraging another). Both tend to play up what gets attention. Both have incentives to double down on error rather than admitting it.
It’s hard to avoid this trap, and maybe easier to get out while the going is good. One of the really great things about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ early blogging was that he was able to talk openly about the things he didn’t know and wanted to learn. He clearly took enormous joy in open-ended conversation. Then, at a certain point, he became Ta-Nehisi Coates, and figured out that he needed to leave social media. When you occupy the headspace of millions of people, you don’t have any “room to maneuver or margin for error.” Coates did what he had to do – but he has had to abandon a big part of what made him so wonderful to read.
We live in an attention economy that either forces the successful to get out, or traps them in feedback loops that make it increasingly difficult for them to learn, and increasingly easy to become a crude approximation of themselves if they aren’t possessed of exceptional self-control. I’ve joked that Large Language Models were creating a reverse Turing Test, where it would be increasingly difficult to distinguish certain prominent op-ed columnists from the vectorized clouds of statistical associations between text-tokens that might be used to model them. To the extent that this is true, it’s the product of a media political economy that selects on some kinds of communication and reinforces them, while not selecting on others. This isn’t just the product of social media but it has arguably gotten worse.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Iain Banks’ sf novel, Feersum Endjinn, which depicts a far future in which some people, but not others, are resurrected after death into afterlife in a digital “crypt.” In Banks’ description:
As the saying had it: the crypt was deep and the human soul was shallow. And the shallower the soul, the less of it survived as any sort of independent entity within the data corpus; somebody whose only opinions were received opinions and whose originality quotient was effectively zero would dissolve almost entirely within the oceanic depths of the crypt’s precedent-saturated data streams and leave only a thin froth of memories and a brief description of the exact shape of their hollowness behind, the redundancy of their beings annihilated by the crypt’s abhorrence of over-duplication.
My objection to most professional contrarians isn’t that they outrage my core beliefs, but that they don’t do so in particularly interesting ways.2 It’s much harder to distinguish Chait from ChaitGPT than it ought be. If you’ve read even a moderate amount of his previous work, you’ll be able to predict, with a very high degree of accuracy, what he is going to write when the next Chait-friendly controversy hits. The media economy’s incentive structure has led him to converge upon his statistical approximation, to the extent that I wouldn’t fancy his chances much in Iain Banks’ imaginary future (this implies a hand-wavey equivalent to Shannon information for public commentators – the element of surprise roughly approximating the difference between what they say, and what their ChatGPT models would predict they will say).
But much more importantly, I wouldn’t particularly fancy the chances of many of the rest of us either. We aren’t subject to quite the same selective pressures as the Internet famous, but we still live in a world that’s straining out diversity and condensing our opinions and beliefs into crude summaries and simplifications. Fixing that – rather than bagging on any one individual opinionator, however annoying– seems to me the bigger problem.³
1 This is a different claim than the more common one that engagement maximizing dynamics are the primary cause of deranged beliefs. One of these days soon, Cosma Shalizi and I will have our piece in Communications of the ACM that sets out our understanding of this.
2 By corollary, I try to be tolerant of contrarians, even if offensive, to the extent that they actually come up with interesting and unexpected ideas. Your own mileage may vary.
³ You may reasonably ask how I was able to write a lengthy post with lots of cognitive psychology so soon after the latest Chait scandal broke. The depressing answer is that this post is a slightly updated version of a piece I wrote for the Crooked Timber academic blog, some eight months ago. Treat either as evidence that this is a recurring problem, or of my own lack of originality, as you prefer. Next week’s post will also be a reheat, it being a holiday and all.
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