Brief History of a Twitter Spat or How Not to Argue Online

Twitter has proven an exceptionally useful platform for me. Through my activity there, I have made new real life friends and interacted with people from all walks of life and all over the world. I’ve had my mind changed; I’ve been able to clarify my thinking; I’ve had in-depth discussions with people I would probably never have come into contact with otherwise. It has been life enriching. The brevity of statement the 280-character limit requires can lead to gnomic insights of a witty and sometimes poetic nature. But it also encourages modes of writing and thinking that are needlessly inflammatory and divisive, and rewards performative indignation and moral righteousness both real and fake. It can bring out the best in people: their willingness to empathize deeply with complete strangers, sometimes without even seeing their faces or knowing their names. But it can also feed some of our worst tendencies.

In this article, I will analyze a very negative interaction I recently had on the platform, trace how it reached a stage of such bitterness, and suggest ways of defusing tension and framing things better. I am not proud of my part in this angry online dialogue. But I have not removed the tweets, as I want the history of the debate to remain clear. Full disclosure: much of what I write here has also been sent as a private message to my interlocutor. I see no reason to believe he is a bad person or unprofessional in his life outside Twitter. Just as I believe I am neither. But the pressure cooker atmosphere of Twitter makes the kind of exchange we had all too common. The altercation itself is completely unimportant in the larger scheme of things. But it has valuable lessons to teach us. As my friend Rabbi Josh Yuter has pointed out, in Judaism every mea culpa provides the material for a good sermon, a phenomenon known as giving mussar to oneself. I am not Jewish and no preacher, but that idea inspired this article. It will, of necessity, be more personal than articles in this publication usually are.

The Original Tweet Thread That Began the Argument

The disagreement began with a tweet thread about the fans of Steven Pinker’s work, especially Enlightenment Now (of which there is a particularly well-written review here) and of Sam Harris, in particular of his Waking Up podcast, I assume. When I was an academic, the Enlightenment, which I believe was largely characterised by twin commitments to the free exchange of ideas and of goods, was my period of speciality. I loved Pinker’s take on those values and I am in almost complete agreement with the book’s central thesis: while, locally, some situations are worsening, in general, over the long term, the world has steadily become a better place and we can ensure it continues on that path, if we vigilantly defend the secular, liberal values and scientific advances which have made it that way. I characterize myself as a Pinkerian optimist for that reason. I have disagreements with Harris, but continue to find him a valuable thinker, and am a $1-per-month subscriber to his podcast.

As I now understand it, what the writer, Matthew A. Sears, intended to convey was probably something like the following. Improvements in material circumstances are not a good proxy for human happiness and there may be no accurate way of quantifying human flourishing and therefore asserting that a greater proportion of people are living happy fulfilling lives today than in the past. Even if true, dwelling on the ways in which life has, on average, improved may encourage not action, but complacency. I disagree with both these arguments. While perhaps happiness is intrinsic to character and not dependent on external circumstances, I cannot find any better proxy for improving welfare than improving the material conditions of life, nor any better yardstick with which to measure than the health, longevity and freedom from danger, hunger and physical suffering of individuals. And I believe tempered, cautious optimism (vigilance is still necessary) is more motivating than pessimism. But these are arguable points of view and, had the writer made those points in that manner, I would probably not have responded with the vehemence I used.

Instead of laying out arguments, the tweet thread focuses on people: “the fans of Pinker, Harris, et al.,” whom the writer conflates as part of “the whole ‘skeptic’ movement.” Since I don’t consider myself part of such a movement, I should have stopped reading at this point, but I still felt identified. I felt that, in addressing the fans of Pinker and Harris, he was addressing me. And describing me—and others like me—as intellectually shallow (prone to swallowing down “pablum” and “generic food fed to babies whose stomachs can’t handle anything else”); cowardly and smug people, “scared of a world changing in ways that might not advantage them”; racist people “soothed by ‘data’ that says they really are the best”; even, arguably, white supremacists who want to preserve a world “in which white and whiggish types are on top because of ‘evolution’ and ‘enlightenment.’ ” The capitalized “ME”s in the final tweet seemed, rhetorically to address me directly.

How I Related It to My Own Situation and Views

As so often happens when commentators indulge in this kind of lumping, I could not recognize myself in any part of this description. I’m mixed race and I believe we are all genetic mongrels—and that’s a good thing. I’m living in India. And I am a progressive, who would like to see the world continue to change for the better.

As I write, floods have created a major humanitarian crisis in Kerala. This could probably have been largely prevented or mitigated by proper storm protection and drainage—i.e. by the technologies of modernity. But, instead, more than two hundred people have already died and thousands more are without clean drinking water. Local doctors are warning of an epidemic. And many people have lost their homes and all their possessions—many of them people who can ill afford to lose them. A not insignificant minority of Indian commentators are claiming, to a chorus of social media likes and approval (see, for example, here) that the floods were caused by the admission of menstruating women to a local temple at Sabrimala.

This, to me, is a clear conflict between enlightened and benighted thinking. I do believe such views, all too common here, deserve mockery, though I would not do so with the glee the writer ascribes to Pinkerian mockery of religion. On the contrary, I do so with heartbreak. Enlightenment values most recently flourished in the West, but they are the birthright of humanity, including the full fifth of humanity who live on this dangling diamond of land in Asia. I believe, despite local flare-ups, benighted superstitions are moribund here too and we can continue to nudge people in the direction of prosperity, rationality and secularism.

My Intemperate Response

So this was the context in which I responded to his tweets. But I did so blinded by anger and a sense of injustice at having been mischaracterized, and framed my disagreement in a way almost guaranteed to incense the writer.

First of all, I chose to quote tweet. This is a useful tool that allows readers to refer back to the argument you are refuting. But it is double edged since, unlike the original tweets, which alluded to a nebulous group, the quote tweet I sent out directly placed the focus on Matthew A. Sears himself, as the original poster. So by its nature it seemed like a personal attack. And then I chose to counter him with a series of angry, rhetorical questions. I meant these to highlight how wrong he was in not believing that the world is, on the whole, a better place than it has been at any time in history on most metrics. I wanted to stress the terrible things which used to be commonplace, which are now far less frequent. But, by putting this in the form of such an aggressive series of questions, I sounded as though I were attributing support for those atrocities to him. I also mischaracterized his view as nostalgic, and therefore regressive. In fact, his original tweets left no reason to assume that and it was quite inaccurate, as he later made crystal clear.

Looking back on the discussion, I realise I made two huge mistakes here. The first was to assume that, by talking about Harris and Pinker fans, the writer was addressing me, even though I am in a completely different demographic from those he probably had in mind when he composed that series of tweets. It’s extremely common to tweet out generalities about an ideological group of some kind when what you mean is not the entire group is like this but a few especially annoying members of this group are like this. This is a lazy—though occasionally comic—way of tweeting that I myself employ on many occasions. If the description does not fit you and you have not been personally addressed, it is both silly and counterproductive to turn the debate personal by responding as if you had been singled out and targeted.

The second is—especially, when quote tweeting—it’s important to stay impersonal. It’s ideas we are discussing here, not people. There is nothing atypical about the writer’s ideas. His dislike of Harris and Pinker and their defenders is common, especially among the social justice left. There was no justification whatsoever for making this personal. I lost an opportunity here: to reach out, to attempt to persuade, to put the opposite point of view. And I made assumptions about my interlocutor’s stance: shallow, hasty assumptions which unnecessarily drove a wedge between me and someone with whom dialogue might have been possible. This furthered the polarization of discourse online. We were both at fault in this exchange, but especially me.

And, unfortunately, there is no easy way to remedy this. If I delete the tweets in question, my interlocutor’s responses will seem overblown and unnecessarily vindictive. They only make sense in the context of my tweet thread. I’ve issued a retraction, but it’s likely more people will see the original tweets. Ideally, Twitter should institute an option which allows users to flag their own tweets as retracted, when they contain false information or unfair accusations.

The Golden Rule, Applied to Twitter

I know that, had a personal friend tweeted out the same thread, I would have shaken my head in disagreement and scrolled on past, leaving any discussion of the issues to a cooler-headed moment, giving him the benefit of the doubt, on the basis of my affection for him. Why could I not do that here? One of the things I most love about Twitter is that, on that platform, strangers from the other ends of the earth can so quickly feel like friends. I failed to follow a cardinal rule we must follow, except in the most egregious cases—of which this was definitely not one—if you disagree, disagree as you would do with a friend. With a fellow fallible human being. I hope this will serve as a reminder and lead me to do this less often (I cannot promise never to, as I am an impulsive tweeter). Perhaps it can serve as a reminder to all of us.

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9 comments

    1. Ah, no. The difference between this and the Maoist style of self-criticism is that (1) this was not coerced — I will NOT apologise in response to coercion & (2) the apology goes this far and no further (I’m not admitting any further guilt).

      It’s just old fashioned introspection.

  1. Of course you censored my comment. Areo is slowly revealing its mission to be the same as that of Quillette: attempt to rebrand the alt-right as “centrist.”

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  2. Iona – you’re beating yourself up WAY TOO MUCH. There’s nothing wrong with being human = being imperfect = being intemperate on this occasion. “Saints” are the scary ones. If you don’t mind my suggesting it, have a look at Orwell’s essay on Ghandi…

    1. I am not a fan of Gandhi! So I look forward to the essay. 🙂
      Maybe it’s the tone, but actually I don’t see this as “beating myself up.” More like holding myself to higher standards. When they go low, we go high…

  3. I think it highly unlikely that he’s read the book or listened to or read much of Harris. But I was quite interested in how this made me lapse into bad behaviour online. That’s to be avoided.

  4. After reading Mr. Sears’ postings earlier today, I had the distinct impression that he hadn’t actually read Steven Pinker’s book, but probably has read or heard some unfavorable reviews. In “Enlightenment”, Pinker cautions, many times, that the whole thing could quickly take a bad turn, but there can be little doubt of the general trends in human well-being.

    I also wondered how much he’s actually read or listened to Sam Harris.

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