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You Can Always Shut Up

The man who publicly decried Indian food on Twitter could have stopped there. He did not.

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An illustration of a 19th century man writing at his desk, with clutter and curtains in the background. Hein Nouwens/Shutterstock

Twitter can be a good website if you’re looking to respond to a joke that turns out to be several days old thanks to the algorithm, or if you are someone who enjoys harassing women from an anonymous account with a Pepe avatar. Fall outside of either camp, and you likely recognize Twitter as general cesspool, where good thoughts and opinions get swallowed up and human centipede’d by our unspoken collective agreement to ruin everything with our own terrible opinions. Conversation prompts quickly devolve into bad responses, which then devolve even further, sometimes even resulting in — horror of horrors — an op-ed in USA Today.

The most recent example of this comes from Tom Nichols, opinion columnist. In response to a prompt by a baseball commentator named Jon Becker — “Please quote tweet this with your most controversial food opinion, I love controversial food opinions” — Nichols tweeted, “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t.”

Understandably, Nichols’ tweet was met with pushback, with critics fairly pointing out that India is a country with over 1.3 billion people, 29 states, and seven union territories — all with their own unique cuisines. “Indian” food could mean a litany of things. Some also took issue with Nichols’s use of “we,” as it begs the question who exactly “we” consists of. The royal we? His friends? Everyone? Simply meant or not, it does indeed play into a colonialist mindset that assumes Nichols’s point of view is shared by everyone. As goes the punitive justice of Twitter, Nichols was dragged for saying something ignorant. If that amounted to justice in the real world, that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, Nichols was only just revving up his bad idea vroom vroom wagon and on Tuesday published an op-ed headlined, “I tweeted that I couldn’t stand Indian cuisine and started an international food fight.”

It’s clear that Nichols is proud of himself. First he recounts the initial “good-natured” responses he received from his peers and even celebrity Padma Lakshmi, who tweeted, “Do you not have tastebuds?” But how he differs between good-natured and “unhinged” seems tied to how important he deems his critics:

Other well-meaning but misguided people listed dozens of dishes made in the many regions of India and suggested that if I tried them all I would see the light. I doubt it: I have been dragged along to numerous Indian restaurants in the United States, and I even went, on my own, to one of the top Indian restaurants in London on the recommendation of a friend and asked the waiter to guide me. I didn’t like any of it.

Others, however, saw a darker motive behind my inclusion of the expression “we pretend it isn’t.” I was accused, in various states of unhinged fury, of playing into stereotypes about Indians and furthering a history of oppression. One woman raised Churchill and colonialism and the treatment of Indians in the British Empire.

If Nichols feels unfairly maligned by reactions to his tweet, he does little to refute them, instead pointing out that he’s tried Indian food more than once — in fact, he’s been to “numerous” Indian restaurants in the U.S. AND one in the United Kingdom. (Looks like we’ve got the next Anthony Bourdain over here!) Furthermore, he says, “I was serious only in trying to tweak the pretentious foodies among Americans whom I often suspect of suffering through meals they don’t like for the sake of saying they are engaging in ‘authentic’ cuisine.”

It’s not abnormal for people to read something on Twitter in bad faith; it’s practically the norm. However, this is not one of those instances. Nichols knows that because he is the only bad faith actor here. It becomes more and more evident as the writer devotes inches to how the reaction to his trivial tweet indicates a failing on the part of society, but entirely fails to explore his own role in it. Does he believe anyone actually cares whether or not he likes Indian food? I sure don’t, particularly as I have no plans to dine with him. But phrasing it as a statement (“Indian food is bad”) instead of an opinion (“I don’t like Indian food”) was intentional and meant to stir people up, resulting in what he opines as our current state of affairs: “Planet Seinfeld arguing over nothing.”

This type of behavioral pattern — you get to say something controversial, and rude, then anyone who responds similarly is “unhinged” and reactionary — speaks to something far more dangerous than the pettiness of “Planet Seinfeld.” It’s what creates the delineation of who gets power (and space in a national newspaper) and who doesn’t; of whose opinions are valuable and whose are valueless.

Based on the argument he puts forward in his op-ed, I’m sure Nichols would say that I’m taking this far too seriously, but to that I say: Please, shut up. I don’t mean always. He’s a professor of national security affairs at the Harvard Extension School and surely has lots of valuable knowledge to impart on the world. He’s even written a book called The Death of Expertise, which considers how “all voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism,” an argument that I find sometimes fair and other times not.

What also contributes to this cacophony of ridiculous voices is the rush we dummies have to validate our own world views and opinions when, again, we could just shut up. Sure, Nichols said something tremendously stupid when he tweeted, “Indian food is terrible and we pretend that it isn’t.” We all say stupid stuff every single day and I’ve probably said a dozen dumb things in this very blog. One way to get through it, however, is to learn to shut up, an ability we all have and should practice more. No one needed a follow up on why Nichols had every right to say Indian food is terrible. Of course, he did. And everyone who replied had the right to call him a doofus who — maybe unwittingly — is perpetuating a European colonialist mindset that assumes it comes from the most objective place when, in fact, it’s anything but.

So it’s something good to remember: Whether you’re expressing a simple bad food opinion or running headfirst into controversy, shutting up is always an option. An option I will take right now.