Thinking hard about old tweets
Today a reporter reached out to me about some of my older tweets.
Specifically, she sent a list of tweets, from 2014 to 2017, which pertained mostly to gender identity — that is, to then-burgeoning policy debates related to gender identity, or to particular transgender people (Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner). She asked if I had any comments about those tweets, and how my views might affect my public work on constitutional issues.
Suffice it to say that trying to think hard about old tweets is is strange experience—trying to remember what occasioned the tweets, or what I meant by specific phrases.
Still, the reporter had asked me about them, and I thought that she deserved honest, thorough responses. And because she might not be the last reporter to ask me about them, I figured that my colleagues and students deserved honest, thorough responses, too. Since the emergence of often heated debates about gender identity and pronouns a few years ago, my core substantive views haven’t changed—but the way I think about those views, and the ways they inform my day to day life, has changed.
As with virtually every other cultural or political debate of our time, Twitter seems a terrific way to make everything even worse. At least, that was my experience with it, as evidenced by my often glib tweets on this subject and other subjects. (Which is why lately I’ve tried to tweet less and think more.) The more I’ve recognized that, and the more I’ve recognized the need to follow not just the Catholic Church’s teachings on any one particular issue but also the Catholic Church’s teachings on mercy, charity, and dignity in all respects of our life, the less I’ve wanted to tweet.
But I don’t generally delete old tweets, and so my old tweets are out there for anyone to see, for better or for worse. And for that reason, I thought I’ve give the reporter a full answer. And, having invested the time in sending that answer to her, I thought I’d post it here, too (minus a few opening words to the specific reporter).
So here it is:
[T]his is my best effort to answer your questions thoroughly and honestly.
Needless to say, these are complicated and sensitive subjects (which is why I long ago stopped tweeting about them, as I’ll explain further below). It is hard to do justice to them under your quick two-hour clock. So please pardon any typos, etc.
- In October 2014, I tweeted that the question of constitutional rights to same-sex marriage was effectively decided by the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear five cases involving states’ marriage laws. A few months later the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the Obergefell case and declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
- My September 2017 tweet regarding Chelsea Manning was in reference to her bizarre assertion that Harvard was part of a CIA “military/police/intel state” plot against her.
- My January 2017 tweet, regarding President Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s conviction for violating the Espionage Act, was a criticism of the politicization of a criminal case involving major national security issues. It is a grave mistake for elected officials to politicize the enforcement of national security laws.
- On January 13, 2017, I tweeted an observation that the New York Times’s account of Chelsea Manning used Manning’s chosen pronouns, instead of the pronouns reflecting her biological sex at birth. While such an approach is less controversial in 2021, it was highly controversial in 2017, as reflected by the New York Times’s own explanation of the subject in another story just a few weeks later. A friend, Mike Sacks, responded to my tweet, criticizing me as being insensitive toward LBTQ people; I replied and reiterated my position that gender is best understood as a matter of biological sex. While my view of the subject of gender pronouns has not changed since then, my view of how to relate to people has changed significantly. I concluded soon after those tweets that my tone in the tweets was glib and uncharitable; and that, whatever one’s views of the subject, it is important to treat all people with kindness and charity. Hence my use of people’s chosen pronouns more recently.
- To the best of my recollection (I had to go back and refresh my memory on this), my 2017 tweet about Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad was a glib reference to the fact that Pepsi Co. issued a public apology for her Pepsi ad, because that ad grossly trivialized Black Lives Matter; my allusion to Caitlyn Jenner was in reference to the criticism that she had recently received for her own political statements, including her support for President Trump and her attendance at his inauguration.
- The two tweets on June 2, 2015, regarding fact-checking one’s assertions of gender identity, reflected my view that if gender identity were to be separated from one’s sex at birth, then it would become largely subjective and thus difficult, if not impossible, to “fact-check” as a matter of journalism.
- I do not recall the context of my February 7, 2016 tweet asking about the term “LGBT inequality,” because the tweet I was responding to no longer exists. But my best guess is that I was surprised by the use of that specific term. By which I mean: while in February 2016 debates were well established regarding discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, my tweet reflected the fact that I was struck by a framing of those issues with the term “inequality,” which at the time was being used mostly in terms of economics, race, and sex. But, again, it is impossible for me to know exactly what news development I was replying to.
I noted at the start of my email that these are years-old tweets. In the years since then, it became clear to me that Twitter is a profoundly bad forum for debate, quips, or any kind of discussion; it rewards glib quips and personal attacks, at the cost of dignity, charity, and thoughtfulness. At least that’s how I experienced it, and for that reason, I’ve largely stopped using Twitter for anything other than links or announcements.
But more to the point: My views of gender identity remain largely unchanged, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But my view of how people should relate to one another in discussing this subject has changed. My change is itself inspired by the Church’s teachings on treating all people with grace, mercy, and kindness; and it also has been inspired by the sheer awfulness of the last few years’ political and cultural discourse in general.
Obviously, my old tweets are now becoming the subject of a news story because President Biden selected me for his bipartisan commission on the Supreme Court. I agreed to join that commission because I believe that bipartisan discourse and collegiality have never been more desperately needed, and that profoundly important constitutional issues such as the future of the Supreme Court must not be dominated by personal attacks and political demagoguery. To that end, for the last few years I’ve tried to do my part in recent years by hosting diverse, bipartisan dialogues in my own institutions.
And now I’m grateful for the chance to serve on the President’s commission, in no small part because I knew that President Biden’s decision to appoint conservatives to the commission would arouse significant criticism. I hope to do justice to its mission of bipartisanship and civil inquiry. Such things are needed now more than ever.