Tim McCormick posted an extremely interesting followup to my last post. If you haven’t read it, you should.

My comment on his post ran a bit out of control, and so I’m reproducing it here, in part so that I can continue thinking about this after tonight:

This is a great post, Tim. Here’s the thing, though: this is exactly the kind of public disagreement that I want the culture of online engagement to be able to foster; it is, as you point out, respectful, but it’s also serious. The problem is that I think this kind of dissensus is in danger as long as our mode of discourse falls so easily into snark, hostility, dismissiveness, and counterproductive incivility.

I don’t think it’s accidental that we are having this discussion via our blogs. I had time to sit with my post before I published it. You had time to read it and think about it before you responded. I’ve had time to consider this comment. And not just time — both of us have enough space to flesh out our thoughts. None of this means that by the end of the exchange we’re going to agree; in fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t. But it does mean that we’ve both given serious thought to the disagreement.

And this is what has me concerned about recent episodes on Twitter. Not that people disagree, but that there often isn’t enough room in either time or space for thought before responding, and thus that those responses so easily drift toward the most literally thoughtless. I’m not asking anybody not to say exactly what’s on their minds; by all means, do. I’m just asking that we all think about it a bit first.

And — if I could have anything — it would be for all of us to think about it not just from our own subject positions, but from the positions of the other people involved. This is where I get accused of wanting everybody to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, which is simply not it at all. Disagree! But recognize that there is the slightest possibility that you (not you, Tim; that general “you” out there) could be wrong, and that the other person might well have a point.

So in fact, here’s a point of agreement between the two of us: you say that we need to have “the widest possible disagreements,” and that “to be other-engaged, and world-engaged, we need to be always leaning in to the uncomfortable.” Exactly! But to say that, as a corollary, we have to permit uncivil speech, public insult, and shaming — that anyone who resists this kind of behavior is just demanding that everyone agree — is to say that only the person who is the target of such speech needs to be uncomfortable, that the person who utters it has no responsibility for pausing to consider that other’s position. And there, I disagree quite strongly. (As does, I think, Postel; being liberal in what you accept from others has to be matched by being conservative in what you do for the network to be robust.)

I do not think that it should be the sole responsibility of the listener to tune out hostility, or that, as a Twitter respondent said last night, that it’s the responsibility of one who has been publicly shamed simply to decide not to feel that shame. There’s an edge of blaming the victim there that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But I do think that we all need to do a far better job of listening to one another, and of taking one another seriously when we say that something’s just not okay. That, I think, is the real work that Ryan Cordell did in his fantastic blog post this morning. It’s way less important to me what the specific plan he’s developed for his future Tweeting is (though I think it’s awesome); it’s that he took the time to sit down with a person he’d hurt and find out what had happened from her perspective. It’s not at all incidental that they walked away from their conversation still disagreeing about the scholarly issues that set off their exchange — but with what sounds like a deeper respect for one another as colleagues.

This has all become a bit heavier than I want it to be. I have no interest in becoming the civility police. Twitter is fun, and funny, and irreverent, and playful, and I want it to stay that way. But I really resist the use of shame as a tool of either humor or criticism. Shame is corrosive to community. It shuts down discussion, rather than opening it up. And that’s my bottom line.


  1. Maybe the medium is new but the ethics are old, even older than Adorno who lived for disagreement. Aristotle’s agon was also about friendship, where there is “no need of justice,” by which he means, you should and often have an obligation to disagree, but there is a social contract in which one treats the other as a friend and citizen. It’s hard to know what kind of social contract exists on Twitter or what friendship and justice mean in these newer contexts.

  2. This conversation feels like a breath of air in a stale room. I think what happens on twitter–the point-scoring snarkiness, the implict plea for an RT in some quip, the GOTCHA (all of which I must admit, uncomfortably, I’ve done at one time or another) — these things are symptoms of a larger disease: the fear of being wrong. Somewhere along the line (perhaps when medals started being handed out at pre-school “soccer” games, to all & sundry, just for showing up) we’ve formed the idea that to be last to the punch instead of first, or to be mistaken, or to have to correct an assumption is terrifying, shameful and so people go to great lengths to avoid any possibility of incorrectness, including punishing those who might, by example, offer a different possibility. ..Look at Congress for a prime & inert example: paralyzed of making a misstep, all that can be done is name-calling. We encourage conformity rather than capaciousness and those who step out of bounds are smacked down. I wish I could say that academics were immune to this sort of attitude but I fear I would be…mistaken.

  3. It seems to me that there’s a bigger picture here. The problem isn’t people being snarky — folks have been snarky for a long time, and I don’t see this behavior really disappearing.

    The problem is that folks are interacting new ways. There’s a long tradition of not being overtly snarky to presenters in person, but people have not yet learned how to deal with this different way of sharing, where seemingly ephemeral, off-the-cuff remarks are in fact public and last forever (despite that Twitter ‘Delete’ button).

    My fervent hope for the Digital Humanities is that it will be able to bring some fresh tools to bear on exactly these kinds of problems with communicating in interesting new ways, while acknowledging the large community of folks who have been grappling with these problems for the last several decades.

  4. I love this conversation. I think that what has been happening in the academic sphere on Twitter is that we (academics) are attempting to find the appropriate ways of communicating in a new medium–one that already has some pretty established norms for communication. As Tim discussed in his post, there is a long tradition of permissiveness on the web in terms of what is considered the norm for communication. I think knee-jerk snark reactions have developed in certain realms of the web because anonymity creates a sort of level playing field and a chance for anyone to rise in esteem based on their ability to say things that are humorous or otherwise catch people’s attention. Clearly this is quite different than the accepted means of discourse in academia. As academics are exploring how to use and benefit from the web and social media, I think they are also experimenting with their voice in the new media. I don’t know what the right or appropriate tone for academic discourse is in these new environments, but I am glad that there are people thoughtfully and respectfully exploring this question.


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