First let me note that I have been as guilty of what I’m about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something — something someone said or didn’t say, something that doesn’t work the way you want it to — you toss off a quick complaint, and you link to the offender so that they see it. You’re in a hurry, you’ve only got so much space, and (if you’re being honest with yourself) you’re hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be RT’d.
I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.
I am not going to suggest in what follows that there’s no room for critique, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to just join hands and express our wish for the ability to teach the world to sing. But I do want to argue that there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don’t know the difference, we — as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place — need to figure it out, and fast.
There are two problems working in confluence here, as far as I can tell. One is about technological affordances: Twitter’s odd mixture of intimacy and openness — the feeling that you’re talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in — combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced, performative brevity too frequently produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.
The other problem is academia. As David Damrosch has pointed out in another context, “In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.” Damrosch means to indicate that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he’s not wrong: we all live with guilt — about blown deadlines or dropped promises — all the time, and we so we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame — being publicly shown up as having failed, in a way that makes evident that we are failures — gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we’ll work to avoid.
And yet, it’s also something that we’re more than willing to dole out to one another. There’s a significant body of research out there — some of my favorite of it comes from Brené Brown — that demonstrates the profound damage that shame does not only to the individual but to all of the kinds of relationships that make up our culture. Not least among that damage is that, while a person who feels guilty often tries to avoid the behavior that produced the feeling, a person who feels shame too often responds by shaming others.
So, we’ve got on the one hand a technology that allows us, if we’re not mindful of how we’re using it, to lash out hastily — and publicly — at other people, for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by shaming others.
Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of it. I’ve been withdrawing from Twitter a bit over the last several months, and it’s taken me a while to figure out that this is why. I am feeling frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often incredibly rude complaints about products or services, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, I find myself missing all of the many positive aspects of the community there — the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are all way more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming way larger than it should.
So what I’m hoping is to start a conversation about how we might maximize those positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it’s gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of addressing complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment — and subject to the same kinds of pain — that we are?