It’s getting really bad out there. Americans, including very intelligent, thoughtful ones, simply cannot abide the mere presence of someone they don’t agree with. How else to explain the spectacle of allegedly reasonable people scurrying to punish The New York Times for hiring Bret Stephens to write op-eds? Stephens, his critics charge, is a climate change denier. He’s not, though he does think jumpy journalists and apocalyptic politicians need to chill. Not good enough. A slice of NYT progressive readership wants the paper to choose; it’s Bret Stephens or their subscriptions.

As he is wont to do, Alan Jacobs gets right to the point:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps?…The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won’t happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.

This is exactly right. Sometimes conservatives talk as if bias in the media exists merely because “elites” want it to. There’s some truth to that, of course, but it’s a very incomplete truth. Bias in media exists because people with money hand it to those in control of the media and say, “You know what I want to see, right?” Whether these people with money are cloistered suits wielding enormous, anonymous power, or whether they are just paying customers–it doesn’t make a difference. This is how it all works. If the NYT’s readership decides they don’t like Bret Stephens and their checkbooks don’t either, Bret Stephens is gone.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to journalism. The idea that the customer is always right pervades almost every institution in our culture, including the church. As a pastor’s kid, I have seen firsthand the efforts of “major tithers” to exercise a huge amount of control over the leadership and direction of a church. Often even well-meaning pastors and elders don’t know how to address this situation; one member clearly does not have ruling power of a church, but what are you going to do without that weekly check?

Same goes in education, too. As Tom Nichols writes about in The Death of Expertise, universities see students as clients. They’re willing to pay for a degree? Give it to them! Dumb classes down. Make “A” stand for “Average.” Yield to student protesters’ every demands. Don’t cross your customers with antiquated stuff like authority, hierarchy, and leadership. The customer is always right.

And it comes in subtler varieties too. A version of “the customer is always right” is “the person with the personal story is always right.” The logic is that if you have a narrative, if you have firsthand experience of how people you disagree with on issue X really are all obnoxious jerks, then you win the debate. You don’t have to say anything else, because any response that someone would mount to your story amounts to denying your existence and erasing your humanity. This is the cultural equivalent of manipulating an organization through money. For many millennials, the currency that matters in the exchange of ideas is your story. If you have more currency than the next person, congratulations. The experiencer is always right.

Polarization has become weaponized. Nobody wants to hear from people they disagree with. If I don’t like your Facebook posts, I’ll unfriend you. If I don’t like your column, I’ll boycott the paper until they fire you. I want to hear from good people who think and talk and live like me. That’s polarization. And polarization meets weaponization because many in our culture are willing to use whatever they have, whatever they can leverage, to make this polarization work for them–whether money, friends, jobs, hobbies, even sports. There are lots and lots of folks willing to blow up their lives to make sure there’s no presence of the people and ideas they hate.

I’m not sure how to counteract this trend. Increasingly, I’m suspicious that doing so is impossible without radical steps in regards to technology. As long as social media and TV news make us feel like we’re actually engaging with others (when we’re simply at the control panel of our echo chamber), there is no cure. No one looks in the mirror and says, “I think I’m an easily-outraged person.” All of us that fall into this mentality do so having no clue it’s happening. That, perhaps, is the worst part.


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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James serves in the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. You can follow him on Twitter @samueld_james.