The Twitter Puritans

Question: When did social media become a dystopian religion?

Answer: About four hundred years ago.

Call it the year of Tweeting badly. Rants on social media are now substituted for scientific reasoning. No one gets the final say until they are blocked. If you say anything that disagrees with the status quo a swarm attacks. Welcome to the dark and pernicious world of Twitter Puritans.

Last December, Vox Magazine published a lengthy profile on uncivil discourse on Twitter. There were so many examples it’s remarkable they met the deadline. One that caught my eye was a woman who “condemned for disclosing exercise habits on Instagram as the mere suggestion of outdoorsy life during the pandemic was insensitive.”

Insensitivity is in the mind of the scolder. Offenders, as we blithely refer to anyone who opposes holier-than-thou perspectives, must now apologize, perform penance, and grovel for mercy, or face expulsion by repulsive guardian angels.

Here are just a few of the gems people tweeted about this year:

  • When one scientist tweeted that the “most overhyped animal” was the roundworm, others compared his opinion to bias against marginalized groups.
  • Charcuterie boards were deemed “the definition of bourgeoisie decadence” and therefore “not part of leftist praxis.” (So were cast iron skillets.)
  • When the term “himbo,” or a hot and kind yet unintelligent man, went viral, one woman argued that the word was predatory because being interested in someone’s lack of intellect was comparable to being sexually attracted to children.
  • 16-year-old TikTok star Charli D’Amelio was told to commit suicide because she seemed rude in a video with a family friend.
  • People bemoaned the “erased queerness” of Anne Frank, whom some believed was bisexual.
  • One author argued that when someone is less interested in another person and still has sex with them, the sex was not consensual (later immortalized as the “ghosting is rape” tweet).
  • It was suggested that sex under communism should be considered mutual aid.

The issue, according to some, can be blamed on the pandemic.

According to that theory, if we survived, literally or financially, it heightened a desire to appear virtuous compared to our neighbors (e.g., more worthy of survival). We used to compete with the Joneses to feel better; now, we demonize them.

I hypothesize another avenue. We’re watching a rerun of an oldie but a goodie. Harsh moral criticism has had a long and illustrious history, popularized in Massachusetts four hundred years ago.

Puritan life was not a walk in the park. Punishments were not only severe but welcomed by those administering them and were designed to humiliate emotional or physical pain, although in extreme cases, the pain was unrestrained. Stocks and pillory, wearing letters, the ducking stool, whipping, and even executing children were common puritanical punishments. The objective was to create an incentive to revert to prescribed behaviors.

Perhaps H.L. Mencken said it best. “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” On Twitter, we have a resurgence of Puritanism.

Twitter Puritans do not find things funny or amusing. They prefer sad, sorrowful, and offensive. That is how Alison Leiby, a 37-year-old comedian and television writer, discovered the modern use of the term pillory: “a method of exposing oneself to public scorn or ridicule.” The word derives from Old French pilori, most likely from Provençal espilori, associated with the Catalan word for ‘peephole.’ That is how the term “pillory” came to refer to the Puritans’ “wooden frame for public punishment with holes for locking the head and hands.”

What so offended the Twitter Puritans was not a racist comment or fat-shaming, in fact, the opposite: Leiby confessed a craving for candy.

“People who live outside of NYC and don’t have bodegas,” she began, “so where do you go to buy two Diet Cokes, a roll of paper towels, and oh also lemme get some peanut butter m&ms since I’m here, why not.”

Over 21,000 people snarkily replied along this line: “Floridians have to wade miles through swamps and braving alligators to get to the nearest Publix.” The result was 25,000 outraged Twitter Puritans and their new pet peeve: #Bodegagate.”

The psychology is illustrated by this post: “I shared a beautiful spread of food, only to take it off my Instagram Stories a few hours later, lest it is seen as insensitive to those suffering from food insecurity. And even as I had that thought, I knew it wasn’t just that I was afraid of causing pain directly but also of appearing unaware that some people were experiencing food insecurity.”

Moralistic teaching distorts reality.

As one tweeter wrote regarding the infamous “gator” tweet in which a 2-year-old boy was killed by an alligator near a Disney World hotel in 2016, “I am so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m not really sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator bc his daddy ignored signs.” The 1600s with its fire and brimstone and witch burners have nothing on today’s Twitter Puritans.

Why does a comedian have to apologize to the social justice Gestapo for trying out a new stand-upline? Why are people so easily outraged? When sharing an outdoors photo, do we have to think about offending those who stay at home? If we post a pair of new shoes, do we owe an apology to those who walk barefoot? If we read a good book, what about the many who are illiterate?

The question begs a reason.

Looking to the Puritan experience as a template, let us refresh our memories. Who were the Puritans? Unlike the Mayflower Pilgrims with whom they are often confused, Puritans played it safe. The Pilgrims didn’t do well economically as they rejected the status quo and dissolved their social connections, while the Puritans played it right down the middle and became rich. Even their trip to the new world was occasioned by the desire for self-enhancement. They saw America as a land of opportunity, especially as landowners, and with the distance, they could create a new form of worship that appealed to anti-catholic views.

The Puritans settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, arriving in 17 ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers. In just10 years later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a Puritan stronghold of 20,000, while humble Plymouth was home to just 2,600 Pilgrims. Plymouth was entirely swallowed up by Mass Bay just a few decades later. A historian at San Francisco State University, Sarah Crabtree, regrets the myth that has grown up around the Puritans who “explicitly rejected religious freedom and never attempted to adopt the Pilgrims’ initial, fleeting cooperation with American Indians.”

The significant differences between the Pilgrims or Separatists and the Puritans are that the latter believed they could remain part of the Church of England (you see why “Remain” is a big deal) by forming smaller, community-led congregations in America. We call those churches Congregationalist today. They were reformists, not apostates.

In a Congregational (formerly Puritan) church, there is no prayer book, no formal creed or belief statement, and the head of the church isn’t a Pope or the King, but the scripture. Sabbath worship doesn’t include sermons and preaching but extemporaneous “testifying” by the Holy Spirit. As an organizing principle, congregational churches are bound together by a “covenant” and make decisions democratically, including religious leaders. One would think this was heaven on earth, but it is where the problem begins.

According to Winnipeg professor of history Bruce C. Daniels, an emphasis on community moral judgment means that “For over four centuries “puritan” has been a synonym for dour, joyless, repressed behavior…the image of the Puritan as killjoy has endured.” Most of us were schooled on the idea that Puritans and fun were anathemas. The very term “Puritan” has meant sourpuss, moralizing, stern, and repressive tendencies to control all forms of behavior except those done while kneeling. A killjoy results.

It is why comedians and Puritans are rarely found in the same sentence. If you look at social movements, Puritans were the early political rebels and the outcasts. Although today we define the Puritan ethos as moralistic repression, it would be more helpful to think of them as an early form of a “marginalized community.”

Most groups that become powerful and influential begin as marginalized. For example, the Catholic Church, Judaism, and Islam started this way. Not only do they suffer, but they gain from suffering. Persecution can be a powerful magnet for other disaffected people who feel a particular empathy and wish to offer help and support. The story crystallizes around a set of principles that begin as faith and end up as orthodoxy.

That is where the problem starts.

As the marginalized group rises in status and awareness, power shifts to advocates over skeptics. It leads to a fight for survival and the preservation of original principles is the overwhelming objective. This happened in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. This is why every marginalized minority tends to become “puritan” over time.

That leads to the danger of the tyranny of the majority, which our founding fathers declaimed. Skepticism is forbidden when the narrow elite controls the formerly marginalized group. Anyone who argues is accused of blasphemy or racism or gender phobia, and the result is cleavage to principles whose time has passed. And if the blasphemers don’t get the message right quick, Puritan attack dogs are sent to give them a warm reception.

Oh, that reminds me, I have to wrap this up so I can post on Twitter.

2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes

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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes

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