Twitter and the death of reason

Twitter can be quite useful for providing links to news items, reports, and so on. It can also be quite fun for quips, jokes, and off the cuff remarks. It is also useful for stating the obvious, which sometimes needs to be done. But it is not much use for anything else. In particular, it’s pretty rubbish for advancing complex arguments. Because complex arguments are, well, complex.

Now, a tweet might contribute to a complex argument, if only there was a general cultural recognition that arguments about most things that matter and which are controversial actually are complex. But strangely, this recognition seems to be lacking. I am so perturbed by this that in the small hours I sometimes even catch myself wondering if there is something in the water that is turning people stupid, producing a particular kind of stupidity that stops people from seeing that most arguments are complex edifices of reason and evidence, which need to be carefully crafted and pieced together in a certain way, rather than consisting of one-off shots fired, often with considerable venom, at a perceived ‘enemy’. But seriously to hold that there is actually something in the water which is  turning our brains soft like this, would be to advance a conspiracy theory for which I have no evidence, and heaven knows, I don’t want to do that. (Oops, better not use the turn of phrase ‘heaven knows’, or someone reading this will imagine I’m a religious nut, – possibly making a myriad unfounded assumptions about what kind of religious nut along the way – and fire venom at me for that {see below}.)

No, there probably isn’t something in the water turning people stupid (I brace myself for those who will call me ‘naïve’ for denying that ‘they’ are doing precisely this). But there are a number of things which are encouraging the kind of thinking about complex topics which leads people to act as if they imagine they can argue as if they were playing a game of Jenga by removing 50 pieces all in one go and expecting the one remaining piece to hang there in the air totally unsupported. Because that’s how many people use twitter. Now, as I’ve said, if people generally realise that one tweet, one thought, one reason, one piece of Jenga, is not intended to be seen in isolation, that would be okay. But the more we use quick-fire media such as twitter, the more we are in danger of turning ourselves into bird-brains.

Twitter, and other such avenues, can help encourage the intellectual vice of isolating complex arguments into tiny, useless fragments. It can also help encourage another intellectual vice – what’s known in the logic textbooks as ‘ad hominem arguments’. A tweet, one thought usually, comes from an account belonging to a person (well, very often, a person disguised under some daft pseudonym) or a specific organisation. So, aided and abetted by the (ludicrous) notion that an argument consists in slanging one idea at a time against another lone idea, these ideas are then hurled at a specific account, a specific person. And to defeat a person in this one-thought-at-a-time intellectual game, you can do it via hurling an actual thought – or, because it’s a person, you can also defeat them by hurling an insult or attacking some other feature of that person. Both work, because in the end, it’s the person you are attacking, not an actual edifice of reason and evidence.

And because complexity of argument is being eroded, this in turn also makes ad hominem arguments easier to pass off. Simply find something that that person has said, done, is affiliated with, (or, very often, focus on what that person looks like, especially if she is female), dredge that up, attack them for it, and, hey presto, you can magically attack every single thing they ever tweet.

It works for broad groups as well. Somebody sends a tweet wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’? Simply provide a link to an article somewhere on the internet which argues that because Anders Behring Breivik described himself as a cultural Christian (whatever that is), he perpetrated terrorism in the name of Christianity, or that Timothy McVeigh only actually renounced Catholicism so it looks like maybe he was a Christian too, (and what’s more, those who say he isn’t Christian are just extremists anyway so their views can be dismissed), and you can denounce everything that that wretched ‘Merry Christmas’ tweeter supporter of ‘Christian terrorism’ ever says.

Of course, this is only a short blog, so I hasten to add that these remarks only scratch the surface of the moronic level of discussion and the slanging matches that take place online. I’m going to make some porridge now. Which says nothing at all, please note, about whether or not I am a supporter of Scottish Independence.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.