Why Writers (and Think Tankers) Feud So Viciously

Some of the things that make “the discourse” terrible are new to social media—especially Twitter. But not all. Some other problems are very, very old. Perhaps the best guide to today’s Twitter beefs was written near three centuries ago.  Listen here to one Adam Smith, theorist of moral sentiments. Our journey begins with an observation:

The agreement or disagreement both of the sentiments and judgments of other people with our own, is, in all cases, it must be observed, of more or less importance to us, exactly in proportion as we ourselves are more or less uncertain about the propriety of our own sentiments, about the accuracy of our own judgments. [1]

This problem of self-doubt may be an artifact of  personality. It may reflect past mistakes. But often it is a problem are inherent to the thing being judged. “There are some very noble and beautiful arts,” Smith reminds us, “in which the degree of excellence can be determined only by a certain nicety of taste, of which the decisions, however, appear always, in some measure, uncertain.”[2] Those who produce these arts will find it difficult to be secure in their work. Consider the insecurity of Western Europe’s great poets:

 The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

 To this Smith contrasts the equanimity of the mathematician:

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity. [3]

This fact does not just affect their personal sense of “security and tranquility,” however, but defines their relationship with other members of their class. As night turns to dawn, so insecurity leads to feud and faction:

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals

In France, Despreaux and Racine did not think it below them to set themselves at the head of a literary cabal, in order to depress the reputation, first of Quinault and Perreault, and afterwards of Fontenelle and La Motte, and even to treat the good La Fontaine with a species of most disrespectful kindness. In England, the amiable Mr Addison did not think it unworthy of his gentle and modest character to set himself at the head of a little cabal of the same kind, in order to keep down the rising reputation of Mr Pope. Mr Fontenelle, in writing the lives and characters of the members of the academy of sciences, a society of mathematicians and natural philosophers, has frequent opportunities of celebrating the amiable simplicity of their manners; a quality which, he observes, was so universal among them as to be characteristical, rather of that whole class of men of letters, than of any individual. Mr D’Alembert, in writing the lives and characters of the members of the French academy, a society of poets and fine writers, or of those who are supposed to be such, seems not to have had such frequent opportunities of making any remark of this kind, and nowhere pretends to represent this amiable quality as characteristical of that class of men of letters whom he celebrates. [4]

 What Smith said of 18th century poets can be said of much creative class work today. I’ve read a great deal over the last few months how journalists at prestige publications like The New York Times or The New Yorker stir up controversy for the clicks. This simply isn’t true. Prestige journalists, like most other writers, do not judge the quality of their work by clicks (or even paychecks) but through the praise and censure of other writers and journalists. While few of them would say outright, “I am writing so that other writers will admire my work,” they have no other meaningful way to measure whether their work passes muster. They judge themselves through the opinions of others. 

I do not exempt myself from this, and will freely admit to being more crushed by malicious attacks on my writing than by far harsher criticism in other aspects of my life. In those other realms there are other ways to judge the rightness or the wrongness of my actions. But when it comes to my writing, there is nothing but the subjective judgements of my readers to stand on. It is a weak foundation for one’s self worth! 

But this is true for a wide variety of creative class careers. It likely accounts entirely for why the DC think tank space can be such a toxic social scene: it is a world where one’s reputation rests on little more than reputation itself. “Objective” measures of value are as difficult to find in policy wonkery as in any other creative endeavor. The consequences are predictable. 

This is why Twitter fights are so savage—and so common. Twitter is full of feuding, backbiting, public meltdowns, and vicious back-and-forths because the value added by chattering class professionals is all subjective. It is a matter of taste and judgement. Those with similar sensibilities clique together and feud against the rest. This tale is as old as Adam Smith. Twitter’s only innovation is to metastasize these feuds until thousands of people from different corners of the internet are caught up in their outcome.  


Readers who enjoyed this post might find my other takes on internet discourse of interest: see the posts “The World Twitter Made,” “On the Angst of the American Journalist,” and “Public Intellectuals Have a Short Shelf Life — But Why?  Others might be interested in my last look at 18th century parallels to modern life: “Signal Likes its 1711.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), part III, chapter I. Available at marxists.org.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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lol maybe blogging about china and being a certified china hater was a bad move. like lol no chinese will read but maybe u can work at aei you can work at heritage jk u can work in ur moms basement

Mathematician are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another's reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause?

IMHO Mr. Smith is rather naive in his opinion of mathematicians here.

Newton, for example, was known to be fearful of criticism and feuded extensively with Leibnitz:


I have been writing on the internet for over thirty years, Although I value poetry and have some poetic sensibilities, I write mostly prose, and mostly in conversations with others. My specialty is the short form: the sentence, the phrase, even the word. I like expressions that make an idea memorable and mnemonic – expressions that put an idea into a form that seems so natural that most people will have no idea that it was ever consciously conceived, but that it just sort of happened. I like ideas that will seem intuitive and obvious to those who use them, even though no one used them before I did.

Over the years I have seen some of the phrases I invented become common, some of the words I coined become standard, and some of the ideas I first conceived become widely implemented. It is not infrequent that some of these things come back to me in meme form from people I have just met.

None, or almost none of these things are widely known to be connected to me, much less originating with me, and that's how I like it. In some cases I used pseudonyms, in other cases the people I was talking to just didn't think to put a name with the ideas, and in a few cases I have specifically avoided a name. I am gratified to see the best come back, and though I suspect some of my better phrases have been neglected because the few who saw them did not understand them and so did not pass them on, that is just how things go sometimes. Not everything works out, and whether or not it was a failure on my part or not is irrelevant. It is all part of a language and a culture and a social operating system evolving.

And of course I am just one person like this. I have doubtless contributed more new ideas than most, but I am just one of many. Millions of ordinary people do this on a small scale every day in their own circles, and deserve respect for the quiet contributions they have made. I was merely gifted with a larger canvas when I arrived as an early pioneer on the internet.

I am pleased to be,