I was a precocious kid. Or I aspired to be, which is almost the same thing. I needed to impress adults and distinguish myself from other children. I delighted in being called “articulate,” “well-mannered,” “so sensitive for a boy.” I looked up words in my mother’s huge Merriam-Webster dictionary and hoped she would see me flipping through its wispy pages. In second grade, I learned to spell “anesthesiologist” and often did so aloud. I taped the Prairie Home Companion joke show off the radio and memorized the jokes, especially the suggestive ones I didn’t understand. I was the sort of kid who would come over for a play-date and talk to your mom, compliment her clothing, address her by her first name. “I love that scarf, Gina. Is it silk?” I was, to put it mildly, an annoying little shit.
Most of all, though, I collected opinions. This was my ace in the hole. Nothing, I found, reliably raised adult eyebrows like a tastefully idiosyncratic political or cultural viewpoint. Before the age of eleven, I’d cultivated opinions about: the Lewinsky affair (Monica, a victim; Ken Starr, a monster), O.J. Simpson (guilty but the LAPD was dirty), the Bosnian intervention (sadly, necessary), Yoko Ono (her music is bad, but it’s sexist to blame her for breaking up the Beatles), and Cuban diplomacy (normalize relations). I didn’t aim to scandalize my parents’ liberal friends. Ideal opinions were superficially counterintuitive but not radical; they flattered the sentiments of the adults I shared them with. They were parlor tricks. I couldn’t have sustained a conversation about them. They fizzled brightly in the air and then vanished from view.
Nine-year old me would have been well suited for Twitter. The internet inaugurated a new golden age of self-congratulatory opinion-having, a new way to escape the self by projecting outward one that is legible to others (much the same strategy I would later find in writing). Now, opinions are everywhere, and we wear them like luxury brands, expressing not what we think but who we are. Twitter — most of all — nurtures our instinct to treat opinion as a carefully calibrated social gambit, a constellation of signifiers, a fashion item designed to please a certain audience or communicate our affiliation with it. We’ve regressed. Not just to adolescent pretense, but back further, to the juvenile expectation of being celebrated for having opinions at all. We’re little Sams at the grownup party, explaining too loudly why we think Elian Gonzalez should live with his dad, smiling and awaiting applause.
This cloying, claustrophobic aspect of online discourse, the feeling that we have been algorithmically organized into communities of mutually-reassuring yes-men and women, also produces the flipside of pleasing, appeasing online posture. This other genre has gone by many names over the years: the Slate Pitch, the hot take, and now, because ours is an age of gormless literalism, the unpopular opinion. Unlike other online utterances — calibrated to pander — the unpopular opinion invites opprobrium, aims for infamy over fame. To express an unpopular opinion is to excommunicate oneself from the simpering crowd, to go it alone. That sexist stationary bike commercial? Actually good. Jeffrey Epstein? Kind of hot. Overrated things? Underrated. Underrated things? Overrated. The Beatles? Forgettable. Frosting? Fuck frosting.
Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t. https://t.co/NGOUtRUCUN— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) November 23, 2019
I just returned to this realization today.— Kyle Kashuv (@KyleKashuv) March 8, 2019
Music is enjoyable don't get me wrong.
But your time is much better spent listening to a podcast.
Contraception, IVF and abortion are all eugenic practices. Funny how people don’t describe them as such.— Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon) December 29, 2019
One of the radical promises of the internet was to highlight the diversity of human experience, to expand our creative and moral horizons through encounters with difference. Ironically, by sluicing us into like-minded groups of consumers, the contemporary internet tends to remind us how depressingly similar we all are — watching the same shows, reading the same books, getting angry at the same politicians. In this sense, the unpopular opinion is a harmless reclamation of individualism, a half-hearted revolt against algorithmic conformity. And yet, the recent deluge of “quote tweet this with your unpopular opinion about X” memes has been more nuisance than rebellion. In the end, the unpopular opinion serves much the same purpose as its popular, retweetable counterpart: another opportunity to self brand, to project not just a boutique cultural preference but an admirable willingness to risk the scorn of the obsequious masses. Unfashionable opinions are in fashion.
Not that unpopular opinions can’t serve more insidious ends. If the viral tweet is the mark of success by the norms of the popular, it is the ratio — a tweet that receives many times more angry replies than likes or retweets — that most honors the anti-norms of the unpopular. Among political pundits, the Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk has argued, the ratio should be seen as “a mark of courage and integrity.” The ratioed tweet, Mounk tells us, joins a proud line of admirable anti-plaudits, contra-indicators of groupthink: “that of the banned book, of the argument made before its time.” Socrates, Jesus, Copernicus, he says, would surely have earned their fair share of ratios. (Mounk, having faced his own digital lapidations, places himself in this lineage too. Naturally.)
Please share this defense of being ratioed to encourage the expression of unpopular views on Twitter (and elsewhere)!— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) October 21, 2019
And please feel free to share your opinion about my argument👇.
Pretty sure this thread is getting ratioed anyway.
For centrist figures like Mounk, a political scientist-cum-pundit whose greatest talent is prescribing solutions to the world’s crises that flatter and appease the rich and powerful, the Unpopular Opinion has a specific function: laundering conventional wisdom into brave truth-telling. Mounk’s “controversial” insights — that populist movements (left and right) threaten democracy; that identity politics has gone “too far;” that winning elections requires appealing to the center — are all widely held shibboleths among the global elite. They’re more bromide sparklers than truth bombs. Statements in support of elite convention are not interesting, they rarely summon admiration or hostility. Defenses of the status quo must dress themselves in novelty — and preemptive self-victimization — in order to be heard.
Mounk, in the end, is not a contrarian but a pleaser, earning ratios from rose-emoji leftists while elaborately toadying to the sort of credulous, upper-crust liberals who read the Atlantic and hand out endowed chairs at institutes and universities. But there’s a deeper, parallel current of unpopular opinion that has a darker hue. The feeling of sameness, of suffocating consensus aggravated by social media leads some to grimmer conclusions. If the Good Opinion-haver is the precocious child, anxious to please, the Bad Opinion-haver is his bully: maladjusted, cruel, contrary. He thrives on negative attention. You know him. He is the edge-lord, the Pepe, the young Republican who lives by a mandate to “own the libs,” the left-wing podcaster who insists on using the term “retard,” the Quillette contributor. For them, the appearance of unanimity is inherently suspect. If someone can be culturally rewarded for holding a certain opinion (say, that ablest language is unkind and unnecessary), that opinion must be aligned with the reigning status quo. And that which offends the sensibilities of the blandly popular must be a dangerous truth.
The internet generates these illusions of hegemony. If a tweet expressing solidarity with victims of transphobia or police violence or Trump’s border policies earns a thousand retweets, how vulnerable can such victims be? If racist or antisemititic or homophobic opinions are marginalized, forced onto alternative platforms like 4chan or 8chan or Gab, are they not the samizdat of our time — or as Mounk would have it, the equivalent of the banned book, the heretical tract? The misapprehension shared by the internet’s Bad Kids is that popular culture’s valorization of liberal sensibilities means the structures which enable the oppression of migrants, racial minorities, and gender subversives have already been toppled. Rather, it is them, the hold-outs from liberal group-think, who are resisting the forces of conformity, who deserve admiration for their brave and lonesome stand.
Of course, there are those who cynically mobilize superficially “woke” opinions for social benefit. Such figures deserve suspicion. We’ve built a digital public square that rewards childishness, one that elevates, as Jia Tolentino has argued, the importance of righteous self-expression while diminishing the time, proximity, and attention needed to cultivate the kind of human connection that enables righteous action. But this is precisely why the appearance of pop cultural momentum around a radical political belief should not be taken as evidence of radical change. Opportunities to express what is wrong with the world have proliferated as the democratic means for fixing it have dwindled.
And so should we be sensitive to the fact that sometimes a consensus forms because an argument has been won. Sometimes, opinions are not “unpopular” but “discredited.” Cultural norms are enforced by social punishment and social reward. Polite people stop using slurs when those on the receiving end come to wield sufficient social power to exact a social cost for doing so. That’s how it always works. Yes, you may be ostracized and vilified for saying certain words or holding certain beliefs, but that doesn’t make you an iconoclast or a martyr. It might just make you an asshole.