If Twitter has vastly increased the average user’s exposure to rape threats, racist memes and anti-Semitic caricatures, it has also activated a kind of crowdsourced cultural auto-correct for policing less overtly offensive speech. In the ’90s, the college campus served as ground zero for the culture wars. As Rick Santorum once said of Satan, “The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first successful was in academia.” But now, academic language has spilled off campus and into online public spaces like Tumblr and Twitter, and the P.C. war is fought in a new theater.
Social media is rich with talk of microaggressions, privilege, trigger warnings and safe spaces. These buzzwords can serve as a helpful shorthand for discussing complicated dynamics of identity, history and power, but the smugness that ’80s liberals detected in their ranks can be spied here, too. The more pedantic forms of language scolding on Twitter can come across as coastal Ivy League whites trying to absolve themselves of their privilege by wielding it against poorer, less worldly and less educated white people. And the standards shift so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Clinton has herself assumed the cool posture of the in-the-know Twitter enforcer who shames people for their garbage posts: “Delete your account,” she tweeted at Trump in June. For people who have never actually set foot in a college classroom, this can all feel like a bad dream where you’re handed the final exam for a class you never attended.