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Critics, contrarians, and trolls


There’s a theory going around that, when people like Marjorie Taylor Greene say or tweet remarkably sub-literate things like mangling the metaphor of a petri dish by describing it as a “peach tree dish,” this is all just some very elaborate ploy to troll the libs, i.e., they may look dumb but that’s just a disguise.

A related claim is that some Even the Liberal types post obnoxiously contrarian nonsense because it generates clicks, not because they believe it:

I suspect what’s going on here is somewhat multi-faceted. I think Donald Trump, MGT, et. al. are genuinely dumb people, who more or less unintentionally make silly linguistic mistakes of various types. For example I doubt that Trump’s random capitalization habits are some sort of ploy: it’s just the way somebody who can’t really write and has never bothered to learn tries to convey emphasis or importance or something.

On the other hand, Trump, MGT, and the rest of the army of right wing trolls realize on at least some feral level that it’s good publicity when their various malapropisms are called out by the snooty elite coastal brie and cream cheese-munching (remember that one? That one never made any sense at all to me. What do brie and cream cheese have in common, and why would anyone combine them? But for years it was the “brie and cream cheese” elites making fun of the common clay of the West etc.) grammar nerds, because engagement is the bitcoin of the Internet realm.

Analogously, I don’t doubt that one reason Yglesias does his well actshually contrarian schtick is because it generates engagement, even when it’s of a purely negative kind. But here again I suspect some complex factors are at work. Yglesias et. al. play at being contrarian truth speakers because they actually believe, at least to some extent, what they’re saying, and hey it’s not their fault that people get upset when they encounter the counter-intuitive truth.

There’s a spectrum here, that runs from completely legitimate social criticism that upsets people precisely because it’s correct, through hey look at me sort of true but annoyingly tactless contrarianism, (Yglesias’s asshole tweet on the day of the Uvalde murders), to pure trolling (pretty much the entire right wing “engagement” apparatus).

Asking whether the linguistic mistakes of people like Trump and MGT are intentional seems like the wrong question, or at least too simple of a question: These mistakes are, I think, both unintentional and intentional, in different ways.

Asking whether Yglesias is being sincere in his asshole contrarianism also seems like the wrong question: in one sense he’s being sincere — he believes what he’s saying is true — but in another he’s insincere: he says what he believes in a way and at a time that he knows will upset people, because as Lindsay Beyerstein points out, that’s his business model.

In short, the Internet is a land of contrasts.

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