I’m in a holiday mood, so I guess I’ll crank out a “get off my lawn” style post.
The inciting event, I guess, was Ophelia Benson’s post here, which isn’t much of an argument so much as a broadside against a Tweet from sociologist Sally Hines at Leeds. For context, I should explain that Ophelia is a gender critical feminist who I have long been friendly with. I should also explain that, for what it’s worth, my own view is that gender is a socially constructed thing. e.g., conceived as a gender, the ideal of being a man or boy has got less to do with evolutionary psychology and more to do with entrenched patterns or narratives that people who identify as men can hold as their own. So, I believe that trans-men are male. I also think men should defer to women in general to decide what counts as a woman, insofar as ‘woman’ is an intelligible concept that affects the plans and destinies of actual human beings who identify as women, and insofar as I’m not one of them. But, the upshot — I think the field gender studies is copacetic, just fine, and A-OK (as if anyone asked me), though it can be misrepresented by both hypervigilant detractors and overexcitable enthusiasts.
Speaking of which —
My post right now is not about gender politics or gender ontology or gender studies. It’s not even about Ophelia’s post, or Hines’s tweet. My post is about the rational futility of arguing with people on Twitter. I argue that, in general, we — the people who are not on Twitter, and who broadly endorse some approximation of the rational Enlightenment ideal of reason — should hold a moratorium on Twitter (by which I mean 280 character texts sent by tweet). I say this full well knowing that I’m not the first to say it, and this isn’t the first time it’s been heard, but in the hopes of giving this gentle reminder that Twitter has always sucked and still sucks and will probably suck until the end of inquiry.
There are at least two problems with diagnosing intellectual debates by responding to tweets (including tweets by academics). For one thing, because (to paraphrase comedian Joe Mande) Twitter is the informational equivalent of smoking formaldehyde. Here is what I mean. Suppose that the rational part of culture sets some kind of standard for the minimum shared units of rational thought, and the nature of Twitter is to share thoughts that are well below the minimum of what’s worth sharing. When we participate in the cycle, we make everything worse — even if, or perhaps especially if, we agree with the Tweet we’re sharing. For another thing, Twitter is an agonistic medium which encourages quickness and brevity over coherence and cooperation. The back-and-forth of up-to-the-minute opinion-mongering tends to level off into an equilibrium where the least reflective proposals get pushed to the front of the cultural queue. This happens even if you agree with what you’re sharing, or even especially if you agree.
The second point is probably quite obvious to everyone, so I’ll concentrate on the first one.
A tweet is a particular kind of speech act, and another name for the act is the ‘bland assertion’. And, in comparison to arguments, bland assertions are uninstructive. Assertions treat the reader like an idiot whose only job is to read and assent. Where an argument (in the philosopher’s sense) has the purpose of offering a rationally defensible position, the bland assertion only functions at minimum as an expression of the will in reference to some proposition. Most of the rational usefulness of an assertion can only be found in the context of actual or implicit arguments, i.e., where multiple assertions are thrown into the ring and forced to work together to establish a conclusion. Arguments are calculated attempts to persuade oneself and others to observe how thoughts may behave in an orderly fashion; bland assertions are calculated attempts to induce conformity. That’s Twitter. Me me me, here’s what I say, look at me saying it, now you say it too. It is lulling us, like sirens, into habits of uncritical discourse that are addictive.
There are plenty of interesting things happening in the world right now. Trans-gender rights! Felon President! Alt-right! Climate change! You might be tempted to go to Twitter to find out what these things are and what people have to say about the issues of the day. If you use Twitter yourself, as an author, that might be a fun exercise. But that’s only from the author’s point of view. From the consumer’s point of view, there is only one author — the Twitter Thing — with its characteristic style and verve and self-contradictions and mood swings. We listen to it closely, anthropomorphize it into a big malevolent god, and ask ourselves questions about its health and well-being. Is Twitter angry today? What’s Twitter up to? For non-users of Twitter, the answer to these question is basically always the same. Twitter is drunk. It is always drunk. It does not know what is happening.
So I really think we modernist Enlightenment types have to stop reading it. It is better to read and comment on articles, blogs, or essays. And when we do, I think we owe it to each other to read the whole thing; not to excise choice bits and fisk them. That way, when you recognize an argument you don’t like, call it what it is — an argument you don’t like, which can be diagnosed for its validity, soundness, and rational cogency.