The Outrage Antidote
Writer and recovering Twitter-holic Robyn Kanner on social media call-out culture and making a human connection
As recently as two years ago, Robyn Kanner was a lot of people’s worst nightmare on Twitter. A political progressive with a personal stake in trans activism — Kanner herself is a trans woman — she called out people for the slightest missteps outside the lines of social justice purity. She joined in on pile-ons of people whose supposed sins she didn’t even fully grasp at the time, for instance the journalist Katie Herzog, who Kanner called “trash” for writing an article about people who had once identified as transgender but later detransitioned.
In February of this year, Kanner was on the receiving end of the same kind of Twitter invective. Her crime: writing a New York Times op-ed expressing compassion for Ryan Morgan, a 17-year-old Wisconsin boy profiled in a much-maligned Esquire cover story about the difficulties of growing up white, male, middle-class, and conservative (his parents support President Trump) in the era of #MeToo, MAGA and and “toxic masculinity.” The magazine itself was criticized for the story but Morgan himself also became a target of online invective.
“I have an embarrassing secret,” Kanner wrote in her essay. “In 2004, I campaigned for George W. Bush.”
Like Morgan, Kanner had once been a teenager growing up in a mostly white community — in rural Maine — and identifying as a conservative. And while she says she can’t presume to know if or when Morgan’s views will change, she worries about the story’s digital footprint. “If in 2020, [Morgan] chooses to go to college, the Esquire story and the reaction to it will come up during his interview,” Kanner wrote. “If in 2025 he finds himself online dating, it will be right there, on Google, for any potential dates to find. People change, pictures don’t.”
Unsurprisingly, some members of the progressive purity police then attacked Kanner for showing empathy for Morgan. The irony was not lost on her. She was being digitally shamed for issuing a call against digital shaming. Exasperated, she decided to tweet out her phone number and invite critics to call her personally.
Not only has the result, which she wrote about in a recent Wired article, restored some of her faith in humanity. She said it’s helped her recapture a sense of romance about life that she lost long ago — probably right around the time she started yelling at people on Twitter. (She says she has since deleted most of the tweets she sent during those years.) I spoke to Kanner on the phone not long ago. We talked about her upbringing in small-town Maine, her relatively recent sobriety and what she learned from her dad, who died when Robyn was 19. At the time of our conversation, Kanner said she’d probably received about a hundred calls.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Meghan Daum: I don’t like the term Social Justice Warrior, since it’s so often used in bad faith by the political right. But it sounds like you were joining in on a lot of social media fights perpetuated by so-called SJWs. In retrospect, would you say you were of that ilk?
Robyn Kanner: I don’t know if I was that ilk. What was happening was that I didn’t know how to take up space. Social media was a place to puke out my feelings. Twitter was a place to not be lonely. Somehow over the years it ended up making me lonelier. That’s not a dig on Twitter as much as it’s a dig on how I used it.
Did your approach change over time?
I would say that between 2009 and 2013 I used it as a place not to be lonely. The calling out started around 2014 or 2015. Before that, I was interacting with a dialogue that was of the culture at the moment. It was everything from Obama’s reelection to gay marriage to environmental issues. I was moved to comment about how we live. When I was young there was such a romantic quality about life. At 21 I was romantic about everything. I was romantic about being in a room watching people feel things from a guitar riff! When I was yelling online, I lost that romance. And it turns out for me that that romance is a really important quality for stabilizing myself as a human being.
In the days when you were doing things like calling Katie Herzog trash, what was going on in your life, and what were you hoping to accomplish?
I was drunk when I did that. Point blank. And I was angry with my own life. I actually didn’t read the article — I read maybe the first paragraph. I mostly called her trash because somebody else close to me called her trash. And Katie and I have talked about this. A reason why I apologized to her, why I made amends to her, is that I wasn’t listening to her when I called her trash. And that’s a thing that I regret.
How did you get the idea to ask people to call you on the phone?
It was multiple things. My dad was an op-ed writer. He wrote a lot of letters to the editor and opinion articles that he’d send to local newspapers. This last Christmas I went home to visit my mom and my sister and her kids and I was downstairs in the basement and I saw this box that had a pile of op-eds that he had written. We’re talking from the 1980s here. And I noticed that the vast majority of them had either his phone number or address at the bottom of the piece. I just thought it was an interesting way to be human, so I put my phone number online.
You sent a tweet asking people to call you.
About a half hour after I sent the tweet, I got a call. It was this librarian who was very upbeat and didn’t want to talk about the article at all. She just wanted to talk about her relationship, the man she was dating. It was kind of wonderful. I had gone into this conversation kind of prepping for war, and here was this person who was just wanting to talk.
Tell me about some of the other callers.
There’s a man in a federal prison who’s been calling me. And we’ve had some nice conversations about the weather. Some Republicans have called to say thank you. A pastor in Iowa called just to say hello and say he thought the piece was interesting and then he went off to church. Someone called me because they were bored driving and just wanted to talk to somebody. Somebody called me because they had just moved to the United States and they were lonely.
Has anyone ever been nasty?
One person called with no caller ID and told me I was an idiot and hung up. It was no big deal. I was just in the middle of watching a movie.
It’s interesting that you connect getting sober with coming to recognize some of the limitations of digital outrage. Do you think you would have arrived at this place even without that element?
When I was younger there were a lot of boxes people wanted to put me in. And as I got older I found new boxes. When I stopped yelling it was because I realized I don’t need a box. I can just be me. I’m just me and I’m allowed to talk about things that are important to me. And I’m allowed to not be angry about things that other people might be angry about.
Allowed not to be angry about the stuff everyone else is angry about. It’s amazing what a radical statement that is!
For me it’s very difficult to say, “Anybody who voted for Donald Trump is a bad person.” And a big reason for that is that I know people who voted for Donald Trump. And I know that other people screaming online about Donald Trump also personally know people who voted for him. They eat with them at Thanksgiving or they go home and see them at Christmas.
When I was younger my first job was baling hay for this guy who owned a farm. My dad had multiple sclerosis and because of that a lot of men who were older in my life tried to take on a father role with me. And this guy was one of those people, who tried to teach me the ropes of how to be a person. And I remember being very angry with him at the time that he was trying to assume this role. But as I got older and thought back on things, I was like “Man, that guy wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was just trying to help me out. He was a person who was trying to teach me how to stack a bale of hay, which was a trade, which was worth knowing how to do.” I can pretty much assume that he was a conservative but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good person. Because he was.
Do you see any end to this moment of outrage?
It’s hard to say. But I don’t necessarily see the outrage as bad. It’s very important for me to say this. I think it would be cheap to say that all internet rage is bad. It has done good things. Like look what happened at the airports when people pushed back on the Muslim ban. The problem is when the outrage limits your ability to change things.
You see this, too, with the idea of being “marginalized.” I think on the internet specifically that word has been weaponized. The idea is that it gives you the tools to fight back, but it also gives you tools to be angry. And to me those aren’t tools I want to use. Ultimately it’s not my place to say whether yelling online is good or bad. It’s my place to say I don’t think calling Katie Herzog trash was right. I don’t think that a teen in Esquire should have gotten the vitriol that he did. I’m not really saying much more than that.
It can be hard to make a small, specific point without being accused of making a sweeping, broad point.
You know, even before doing this interview I had people literally telling me not to do it. They felt that it was a way of endorsing you. But I don’t fully endorse anybody! And let’s be real about this. If you and I were sitting in 7-Eleven and someone came in and started shooting, I would not care about your politics. I would care that we both got out safe. And that to me is a metaphor for how we need to think about things in 2019.
Do you hang out at 7-Elevens lot?
I’m from Maine! I’ve been to a lot of 7-Elevens. And Cumberland Farms, too. They can be great places to hang out.