A short time ago, I heard of a composer named Daniel Elder who has thus far survived an attempted career assassination.
His crime? A single Instagram post that condemned the burning of the Nashville court house just a few blocks from where he resides.
Maybe the face masks were constricting oxygen and people couldn't think properly. Whatever the case may be, it got real ugly real quick.
Rob Soave gives a detailed account of how a single post on social media essentially ruined his promising career. Read about it here.
You may be wondering, "James, this is a trumpet podcast; why don't you just focus on trumpet, technique, history, forget all that stuff."
To that I say, "Get your head out of the stand, buddy."
Artists everywhere are terrified of one misstep on social media literally ending their careers. I think this is tragic, because art is the one medium of expression that is best suited to confront this type of groupthink.
Can you name one political speech that rivals the impact of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, some of John Lennon's stuff, Bob Dylan and the like.
At any rate, when I heard Daniel's story, I felt compelled to reach out and lend my support and ask if I could perhaps interview him about his experience. He replied that he would prefer not to do spoken interviews, but he would be happy to do a written interview so as to think carefully about what he says.
Add Daniel's experience to the ever-growing list of reasons to stay away from social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like are useful when used responsibly - but the end result seems to lead to the climate of fear Daniel experienced, and doubtless many folks who just want to provide for their families.
It's also reason #4365 to look for other options when it comes to social media. I've been experimenting with a new platform called Social Lair. It's in beta mode currently, but I'm accepting new members into my own lair.
If you're of the opinion like me that responsible adults should get to use social media too, send me an email and I'll in turn send you an invite.
What follows is the written interview between myself and Daniel Elder. I highly encourage you to visit his website and send a note of support should you feel so inclined.
JN: Can you give an account of what happened from your perspective (specifically about the IG post and the ensuing backlash)? Were you at all known for being outspoken on issues such as race, current affairs, etc.?
DE: As a creative artist I have learned how to be especially sensitive to the human mind. It is crucial if I am to effectively communicate my messages through music. I had become increasingly disenchanted with social media over the past several years as I witnessed groupthink overtake the public discourse. Not just groupthink, but highly controlling, judgemental, and bullying behavior. Those engaging the most in this behavior hypocritically shouted the loudest about tolerance. These behaviors deeply disturbed me. However I had tried my best not to be public in my condemnation of toxicity online. I wasn't outspoken on political or social issues—I was fairly conservative in risking my public image. When I did criticize I usually took great care to be subtle.
The hysteria that washed over my social sphere and the larger populace following the George Floyd incident was a breaking point for me. For the first time I saw a frightening mob mentality of reckless, desperate abandon, played out especially in the violent acts of rioters all across the country. That buildings were burning in my own city was but an extra, acute reminder that it was all very real. In my music I have written warnings on mob mentality. I watched my instagram feed flood with posts and stories suggesting racists lay in wait around every corner. I saw this hysteria as a fatal step too far in the gradual advancement of illiberalism, especially toxic to my artistic field.
I chose to make my post not in a moment of weakness, but as an important message to my brothers and sisters—YOU ARE LOSING YOURSELVES. I crafted it carefully. I tried to be generous but firm. I strove to convey insight. I wanted to help. (I had conveyed to my wife that I was recklessly tempted to go downtown to try and put myself between the rioters and police, to risk my safety to deescalate the situation. She was my voice of reason. I restlessly stayed put.) My risky post was important enough to me that I didn't mind if I got pushback for my words. I didn't expect to go viral, however. That was a symptom of the very hysteria I observed—that at the time real activists lay in wait to slay any racist demons they perceived. As it turns out, I stepped right into their trap.
I didn't apologize because I deeply felt I had nothing to apologize for. Coerced public apologies unfortunately do very little to assuage the online mob. Additionally, I felt it vital not to empower this mob further by validating their accusations. However, I did explain myself in a three-page document I sent to my colleagues at GIA Publications and a couple close friends. With my consent one of these friends leaked it to a choral Facebook group for public exposure. I clearly outlined what I intended with my words as well as what I didn't intend, additionally including a warning about the dangers of cancel culture and mob mentality. It had no effect. The next day GIA, having read my explanation, nevertheless issued their public condemnation. After that single attempt to reason with the public, I chose not to parley further. I have no regrets about not apologizing. I felt it was not only the right thing to do, but was a vital thing to do.
JN: Good on you for seeing the futility of issuing an apology that is clearly not yours nor sincere. That no doubt would have made you appear weak in the mind of “the mob”, and more important would have compromised your own artistic integrity...
I was especially troubled by the reaction of GIA Publications. It seems fear ruled the day. Perhaps they felt their own business and reputation was in danger because of the backlash you were receiving. It’s very difficult to think rationally when your nervous system is on high alert like that.
What is your take on their reaction, motives, etc. Were you at all surprised when they more or less coerced you into doing this? What do you think they thought they had to gain by taking this action?
DE: Exactly—Fear did rule the day. I believe GIA felt tremendous pressure because the online mob, in entirely predictable fashion, was starting to call for boycotts of my employers. GIA rushed their statement through very quickly. It was the same behavior a couple other colleagues demonstrated—an eagerness to wash their hands of guilt by association as quickly as possible. In this period of time in our country, everyone was terrified of bloodthirsty activists. GIA's intentions were not malicious. But I wish they had chosen patience over panic; our relationship was a lucrative one.
JN: You make it sound as though the attack on you was organized to some degree. Do you have any insights on the level of coordination that was required to carry this out? And what would anyone stand to gain by taking down a composer of sacred music who until that moment had no history of social activism and kept his social profile on the DL?
DE: All this new activism is organized. "Call out culture" thrives on the strategy of individuals publicly amassing others to target someone ("hold them accountable"). The coordination isn't complex—it merely takes the right facebook post or tweet to be widely shared, perhaps with my email address or website contact page, and a call to action. From my perspective outside social media the attacks always came in concentrated volleys, and so I have always assumed they tend to arise from small pockets of social media activity like a single particular post.
As to your second point, that's the particularly twisted way activism has morphed in the present. When George Floyd died (mind you, there was never any proof of racial motive) many people immediately took as fact that "Officer Chauvin is racist" and "racism is everywhere," therefore "racists must be everywhere," and finally "we must find who the racists are." Overnight innocent people became suspect of hidden racism. With this logic it doesn't take someone actually having a track record of any misdeeds; it just takes them satisfying one wrong present criterion.
JN: It's easy to get caught up in the emotions of something like this, fancy one's self as a white knight of sort and play the role of peacemaker. But the reality that many don't understand is that when a mob gets worked up into a frenzy, it's almost impossible to reason with them.
What advice do you have for those who feel a need to be a voice of reason, on or off social media, but to do so in a way that encourages honest dialogue. And what should one do should they find themselves in a predicament similar to what you endured?
DE: First, I agree it's ineffective to combat an online mob. One is best off remaining consistent and calm, and to not engage in fighting the criticism. I chose to combat the mob merely by remaining silent (and leaving social media was a major aid in this). My lack of apology was the only statement needed. I feel that's often the most effective strategy.
Second, my advice to any inspired to be a voice of reason is this: stay respectful, be patient, but don't compromise. Obviously I don't speak of having a curious and open mind; I refer to those beliefs that are foundational to ourselves. Those are the ideas being threatened by the mob, and they mustn't be surrendered.
If anyone should find themselves in a similar predicament to mine, all I can offer is the simple but ardent promise that taking the harder path is worth it in the end.
JN: What avenues of sharing your music, making a living etc. have you discovered since all this went down a year ago?
DE: The only avenue I've discovered and pursued in this time is the blog page I've started on my website. It isn't making me money, and it isn't adding to my music catalogue. However, it's served as a vital way for me to communicate certain deep messages I otherwise can't, considering this past year's lack of performance opportunities. I've used my blog to share poetry, opine on the critical issues of our field, and speak of my deepest visions for my art.
I landed in particularly hot water with my essay advocating equality of opportunity, but I regret not a word. It's my humble attempt to nurture the health of the arts—even and especially when unpopular. You could say this blog has become my temporary artistic outlet while music hasn't been possible.
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