I thought this relatively harmless tweet would go unnoticed this morning:
Hobby Lobby wins. I look forward to thoughtful commentary on the case. I think that means I should stay off of Twitter until Wednesday.
— Noah J. Toly (@noahtoly) June 30, 2014
But it didn’t go unnoticed. A few folks favorited it. A few retweeted it. And a few took some offense. I’ve received several concerned responses through Twitter and email.
One email noted 1) that the Hobby Lobby ruling is indeed already ripe for commentary because the issues have been on the table and open to reflection for a long time and 2) that joking about waiting for years to read thoughtful commentary on the ruling was an expression of moral superiority all too common among academics.
I’ve pasted an ever-so-slightly redacted version of my reply below (all revisions were made to maintain the confidentiality of the person who emailed me). Consider this an open letter on the felt needs and cultivated opportunities to express our opinions immediately.
Well, I would agree with your first point about the fact that many of the issues have been open to reflection and “mooted endlessly.” As I put it to someone else on Twitter, this is precisely why I’m going to be waiting to read good reflective pieces about the ruling. As it stands, I’ve read a lot—no one can claim with any credibility to have read it all—about the issues surrounding the case. So none of the immediate commentary from folks who had not read the ruling actually provided anything new to me at all. There is a point of diminishing, and even negative, marginal return on new information and commentary, and we reached that some time ago, I think.
So, then, what am I waiting for? I’m waiting for really thoughtful commentary about the ruling—not the case. The ruling is new. It is complex. There is a majority opinion, and then Kennedy’s concurring opinion, and then at least one, maybe two, opinions from the minority. At the time of our discussion this morning, I’m pretty confident that no one had read all of that, or even just the majority opinion. I think that the quality of commentary on these, which are the only new news, will be much higher if I’m able to sift through these things in two weeks.
As for the matter of academic self-righteousness, I can say that I still disagree. First of all, [Alan Jacobs’] comment about [waiting for five years before reading any commentary], and my endorsement of it, was, as you note, a joke. This should have been obvious by the fact that I said I would read on “Wednesday” or mid-July, upon return from a bit of work in a place without decent cell or wifi coverage. Moreover, it was not a joke about the ruling, but a joke about Twitter. I remain convinced that while Twitter is helpful (this is why I’m on it, after all), it contributes to a culture in which people feel the need to weigh in very quickly. This often results in commentary that, at best, isn’t new news (as I point out above), or, at worst, is shallower than we deserve. (One might say, “But you yourself weighed in immediately about the ruling!” I didn’t. I weighed in about Twitter. You say yourself that Twitter’s waters are “shallow.”) I hope this is more, rather than less, evident in my own writing. Take, for example, my recent “Postcard from the Global Cities Summit.” I could have written it *from the summit.* It would have been quicker. It might have been picked up by the media covering the summit. But it was a better piece because I wrote it a couple of weeks later.
Nor is it that academics are of necessity somehow out of touch with this as a matter of grave significance. As you note, my own institution is one with a lot riding on the ruling. I have quite the personal interest in how this works out, not to mention my own principled concerns about religion and government. There is no smug, ivory tower detachment problem here. It is, as you say, a matter of grave significance even to me, and yet I still cannot imagine that I wouldn’t benefit by letting the dust settle before digging into the commentary on the ruling.
So I really don’t know what to say to suggestions that my commitments to and hopes for slower engagement amount to, emerge from, or exemplify a “sense of moral superiority that is distressingly common among academics.” If saying we would all be better off slowing down and taking our time to write and read better, clearer, more incisive commentary than our current ecosystem of social media platforms encourages, then I suppose I’m guilty. If that’s not your point, then feel free to clarify, as I’ve tried to do here.
In a related bit of commentary, see the Poynter Institute’s discussion of the NYT’s “remarkable display of caution” in waiting 41 minutes to tweet the outcome of the case.