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Free Speech Morality

Twitter, where obnoxious guests can gatecrash any party

twitter-bird-white-on-blueOne of the alleged sorts of “troll” that has been taxonomised on the Interwebs is the “tone troll” – someone who, lacking an argument, counters their opponent’s claims through pointing out that said opponent is being obnoxious, rude, or shrill (etc.). While I agree that tone can’t invalidate an argument, it certainly can make the argument difficult to hear. Also, it can make the speaker come across as either a reasonable person or not, depending on what sort of tone they employ.

There’s the risk of a false choice here, in other words, in that some invocations of the idea of tone trolling like to suggest that tone should never be relevant, and others like to suggest that we should never be rude or aggressive. The truth lies somewhere in between, as is so often the case. Ideally, we’d be such high-minded creatures that we’d be able to hear the argument, and assess it on its own merits, regardless of tone. And ideally, we’d perhaps be able to restrain ourselves from being rude or aggressive, except in truly exceptional circumstances.

(Of course, the problem with rude or aggressive folk is sometimes exactly that they think most situations are exceptional, and that you are exactly that sort of idiot that they should be able to yell at, most of the time.)

The false choice obscures the fact that tone matters on a psychological and political level, regardless of the truth or falsity of what someone might be saying. Consider an analogy, outside of social media and the web: when considering our circle of friends, or when drawing up a guest list for a party, I’d think it a common experience for all of us to know of someone who, while interesting, is a boorish character.

Perhaps they are too self-important, too loud, too sweary, etc. And perhaps they simply don’t fit the context under consideration, in that while you might invite them to one sort of party, you wouldn’t invite them to another sort (the loud, drunken occasion for dance, versus the dinner table, for example).

There’s no logical obstacle that I can see for wanting your Facebook or Twitter conversations, and your website comment spaces, to have a certain character. You might imagine yourself to be part of some sort of libertine Internet community, where people can do as they please, or perhaps you’re on a particular space because you value interesting – and even potentially civil – discussion with people you’ve never met in (physical) person.

If you’re of the latter sort, and you (politely) point out that that’s the sort of conversation you prefer, then people who ignore that request or signal are surely simply rude, lacking in certain basic social graces? And (here’s the conservative bit, I guess) surely that is still something we’d like to describe as wrong? Even in this world of virtual people and micro-opinions on Twitter, surely having basic manners can still be a thing?

Instead, it sometimes seems the case that on Twitter, you can gatecrash any party, and be as boorish a guest as you like. At some point you might be asked to leave, sure – but by the time that happens, you’ll often already have compromised the party for the rest of us. I’m not talking about simply seeing people in your timeline that annoy you – you’re of course free to unfollow, and thus not see that which annoys you. I’m talking more about the people who butt into your conversations with others, or who simply butt in, to say their piece, giving little thought to whether what they are saying is at all relevant to you.

One can ignore these interjections, yes. But a) that’s a (minimal, to be sure) burden I shouldn’t have to endure. I could ignore them, but I shouldn’t have to. More and more, it seems to me that we define our moral standards by reference to the lowest common denominator. So, people troll you on Twitter – toughen up! So, you encounter sexist abuse – come on, they aren’t serious! Despite the fact that we can sometimes be oversensitive, the fact remains that the basic wrongness lies with the troll or the rude gatecrasher – regardless of what we do to cope with them, they can’t be allowed to forget that we’d like them to learn some manners.

There was an (a) up there. The (b) is about how persistent they can be. It’s sometimes not just one interjection when you and someone else are talking about something, but an incessant expressing of a view on a conversation that you’re both not part of, and where you’ve been given every indication (in this case, consisting of the indication that nobody has replied to you, ever) that you should gracefully exit, closing the door behind you.

During a quite therapeutic rant with a friend over private message the other day, he confessed that Twitter was radicalising him, in that the endless stream of often vacuous pronouncements on things sometimes makes one want to disagree on principle, even if you’d ordinarily be inclined to sympathy with the cause or issue. This is simply because the sentiment you’re rebelling against is expressed in such a mindless or reactionary way, and so often by the same people.

In South Africa, it’s often around racial politics, and party politics, where a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the Democratic Alliance doing something which (could, at an uninformed stretch of the imagination) be construed as exclusively anti-poor (thus, anti-black), with no prospect of it being part of some longer-term strategy that might or might not be defensible, in the minds of people who have spend many hours/days/weeks debating it. Likewise, a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the ANC doing something which fits (however spuriously) a narrative of corruption or incompetence.

A larger problem, and not the point of this post, is that the deck is stacked against one set of critics, of course, in that criticising the DA is relatively safe, in that you can’t easily be accused of racism. So, a whole cottage industry of banal criticism has sprung up, where indignant opinionistas turn their postmodern attentions to the latest sins committed by the demonic DA.

The critics are often right – but they are never told that (or when) they are wrong, because to do so opens you up to various accusations (chief among these, the charge of racism) that make it easy for the opinionista to slide off the hook. And because these opinionistas are too rarely told that they are wrong, they have little opportunity to improve their arguments, and confirmation bias rules supreme.

So as you can see, Twitter is perhaps radicalizing me also, but perhaps also inducing a sort of bemused smugness, which doesn’t seem very healthy either. I had meant to offer some examples of the sorts of Twitter folk that I’m now starting to block, rather than ignore, but this post has gone on long enough. So I’ll get to that in future, and in the meanwhile, point you to something that makes similar points to those I had intended to make, namely Daniel Fincke talking about how he enforces civility on Facebook.