Opinions are the currency of Twitter, in much the same way that videos of dogs licking babies and “which member of the Brady Bunch are you” polls are the currency of Facebook. There’s no reason to be there unless you’re interested in people’s perspectives on everything from current political events to sports to popular culture, unless you’re just really into Taco Bell promoting its new breakfast.
The nature of Twitter is such that these opinions will be brief, punchy and not particularly deep. Articulating nuance is not a 140-characters-or-fewer enterprise. Yet there seems to be nothing that people enjoy more than breaking down everything a tweet is missing, or willfully ignoring, or not providing sufficient footnotes for. It becomes a game of turning response into a click-bait headline: “40 Things This Tweet Gets Wrong About the Way Ebola Paranoia Is Going to Kill Your Stock Portfolio.”
You also learn a few things about the world when you look at the way people respond to social-media comments. Recently, after reading a news item about the casting of Hailee Steinfeld in a film adaptation of the young-adult novel The Statistical Improbability of Love at First Sight, I observed on Twitter, “The YA lit adaptation boom may result in the best time ever in American cinema to be a 17- to-24-year-old female & get lead roles.” I thought it was a fairly noncontroversial thing to say, and in fact an expression of optimism about the future prospects for young women onscreen as the driving force in a story rather than as “the girlfriend.” Whatever one thinks about The Hunger Games, Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars—either in literary or cinematic form—you certainly can’t argue that they’re encouraging feminine passivity.
Yet among the responses I received to that tweet was one that took me a bit by surprise: “… for the same handful of five white women.” Technically, there was nothing inaccurate about the response; Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and a couple of other peers are going to get first look at every script, in the same way that the hot young actors of the moment have always gotten the first look at every script. And yes, they’re demographically homogenous, in the same way that the hot young actors of the moment have generally been demographically homogenous.
What seemed noteworthy was that the response was all about where progress had not been notable, rather than where it had been notable. In the most simplistic terms possible—certainly not a way that Twitter has ever been used before—I believed I was looking at the glass-half-full of increased opportunities for young women to play primary rather than secondary roles in Hollywood movies, while my respondent was looking at the glass-half-empty of the absence of diversity among those young women.
It strikes me that this response is pretty much in keeping with the echo chambers of extremity in which too many of us tend to spend our lives. Well-intentioned people—and sure, some who are not so well-intentioned—have a vision of The Way Things Ought to Be, whether it’s what the American health-care system should look like, or how we should reduce our carbon footprint, or how many comic-book movies should feature main characters who aren’t white men. And they become incapable of appreciating an incremental rate of change. Anything less than the ideal is capitulation, and by God, we’re going to be loud about our principled refusal to compromise.
Sometimes, this phenomenon is made most evident by its opposite, as with the general reaction of gay-rights advocates to the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear appeals to lower court decisions overturning states’ bans on gay marriage. It would have been easy for supporters of marriage equality to focus on what hadn’t happened: The Supreme Court had left the question open in several other states, leaving a fragmented series of state laws on the subject. But instead, there was joy. The ultimate goal was one step closer. More people in more states were being recognized as legally married. This was a good thing.
Maybe there’s something about the increased speed of the modern world that makes it hard to tolerate anything that takes more than a few moments to develop. Louis C.K.’s stand-up routine about frustration with bad cell-phone reception—“It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?”—has spilled over into too many other reactions. You’re not doing your cause any favors if the only way you can react to the guy who’s just starting his first “Meatless Monday” is to express outrage that he hasn’t immediately recognized the horrors of the animal agriculture complex. The dude can still taste the bacon from this morning’s breakfast; he’s less likely to go vegan than to think that you’re just being a dick.
A well-known quote by Voltaire is commonly translated as, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” It’s good to remember sometimes that a small step can be worth a nod of acknowledgement, and that paying too much attention to the emptiness of that glass can turn us into the good’s biggest enemy.