In proto-democratic Athens, there was a square called the Agora where citizens gathered after dinner to talk politics and ideas. A marketplace that was also a civic space, the Agora was where the social business of the city got done. News, ideas and gossip were exchanged. Philosophers like Socrates expounded arguments, each one preceded by a shout of THREAD into the night air.
OK I made the last bit up, but the point is this: Twitter is meant to be the global Agora. Its former CEO, Dick Costolo, said so in a speech he gave in 2012. The Agora, he observed, was “how political discourse happened.” Now, “Along comes Twitter, and Twitter reinvents the Agora.”
It’s a nice thought, which in 2017 reads as rather over-optimistic. Twitter can seem more like a Fight Club than a debating forum.
Dick Costolo was not being foolish. Twitter can be an Agora. It brings all sorts of people together (it’s much more diverse than the historical Agora). At its best, it makes your thinking better through challenge and debate. It gives you easy access to relevant expertise and arcane information. Perhaps most importantly, it humanises members of other political and cultural tribes. That fat Tory bastard you hate turns out to make you chuckle on a daily basis.
This makes Twitter — potentially — a massive boon for democracy. Democracy is a way of enabling us to live with people who disagree with us but also of making those disagreements productive. It works best when tribes, and individuals, listen to and learn from each other, if only to improve their own thinking.
But instead of people with different world-views mixing and mingling, Twitter is becoming a place where people come to bond with their in-group and attack the out-group.
Poisonous abuse is rife, targeted, in particular, at high-profile female journalists and politicians who dare to have opinions. But even ‘normal’ discourse on Twitter is being coarsened and degraded by bad manners and tribalist conflict by people who should know better. Since so many journalists and politicians hang out on Twitter, this feeds into the political culture as a whole.
The principle is this: we shouldn’t only care about how our side is doing, but about the quality of discourse in the Agora overall. What follows are rules that only a few of us will follow, and then only imperfectly; I’ve certainly broken them and no doubt will do so again. And of course, whatever we do will be swamped by the army of dickwads online whose sole joy in life is to piss people off. But still, we can each do our bit to make Twitter safe for politics — and to make politics a little better.
- Listen to your opponents. We all know about filter bubbles; at least, all my friends do. So we dutifully have one or two people from the opposite side of the political spectrum in our feeds. But it’s one thing to have them there and another to take their points of view seriously. This is hard, especially if you can’t stand them. The mistake people sometimes make is to follow people who are bound to piss them off, because they always state their views in the most adversarial and provocative ways possible, naming no names Toby Young, so then they ditch the experiment altogether. The solution is to identify the most thoughtful and fair minded advocates of the other tribes, and follow them. They will still annoy and provoke you because different views have that effect on us, but you’re more likely to hear them out.
- Stand up for your opponents. One way to raise the quality of public debate is to signal that you apply the same standards of fairness and care to everyone, regardless of political tribe. When someone on your side is on the end of abuse, of course you should stand up for them. But you’ll actually make more of a difference to the quality of political discourse overall by loudly standing up for people from opposing tribes when they get dumped on. Then you’re engendering a spirit of fairness rather than just engaging in political battle. You’re also demonstrating your integrity, which makes you more likely to be listened to the next time you complain about someone from another tribe abusing one of your own.
- Address your opponents’ strongest arguments. A very common problem with political discourse on Twitter is that people attack their opponents for arguments they’re not making. An example is people arguing against the renewal of Trident by stating that they don’t want to see millions of lives destroyed. Well guess what, neither do supporters of a nuclear deterrent (we can go a few more layers down the argument tree until we get to the really meaty part of the debate, although by then most people have lost interest). If you find yourself doing this, pause and ask yourself — really, honestly — if that’s what your opponent is arguing. Then ask yourself, who is the smartest person on that side of the debate, and how do they argue for it? If you can truly engage with that argument and still come away convinced you’re right, then it’s probably because you have modified and thereby strengthened your own argument. (Or you may even come to agree with them. This should not be a horrifying prospect. I think the reason people don’t like to engage with strong arguments on the other side is analogous to the homophobe’s suspicion that he might ‘turn gay’ if he is friendly with a gay man. First, you probably won’t; second if you do, so what.)
- Beware the righting reflex. In the field of addiction counselling, it’s well established that when counsellors explicitly tell their patients to stop drinking (or whatever it is), they usually produce the opposite effect, since the patient immediately thinks of all the reasons he wants to carry on. Nevertheless, resisting the urge to tell the patient what to do is very hard, because we all have this instinct to put people right - hence the “righting reflex”. Similarly in political debate, we fantasise that by telling someone with opposite views to our why they’re wrong, they’ll suddenly agree with us. That never happens. They just dig in further, because they feel that they’re being bossed around, and they’re often correct: the righting reflex conceals a will to dominate. It stops us examining the flaws in our own position, and pushes our interlocutors away. It’s also just bloody annoying to be on the receiving end of, as any woman who has been mansplained to recently will tell you. Many are the tweets generated by the righting reflex. It isn’t an entirely ignoble instinct (of course we should want to persuade people, it’s just that it requires a less direct approach) but it is something to be wary of. Are you really trying to help, inform or persuade that person - or are you just pleasing yourself?
- Call out media bias only when the bias favours your side. I’m sick of people on left and right bitching and moaning about the media. When trust in journalism declines, good things do not follow. You want people to lose faith in the ‘MSM’? Funny that — so does Trump, so does Le Pen, so does Farage. Of course, it’s good — essential - to read reporting or anything else sceptically. But if you help to destroy trust in the possibility of reasonably objective news, you’re giving an assist to the darkest forces in society. If you’re calling out bias, do it because you care about objectivity, not because you’re trying to advance your own tribe’s interests. If you see a media report that is dishonestly biased towards your tribe, and you call it out, then you’re actually performing a public service. (And almost as a blanket rule, don’t bash the BBC. There are plenty of people who are going to do that anyway. The BBC is about the only thing standing between post-Brexit Britain and a Trump-style reality-free culture war.)
- Beware the moral surge. The moral surge is the rush of pleasure you get — the dopamine hit — when you assert your moral integrity in public. A certain kind of columnist lives for it; much of social media is driven by it. Virtue signalling is its outer manifestation, but I’m talking about an inner mechanism. We’re all subject to it, and that’s not a bad thing in itself — it makes sense that we should feel good for ‘doing the right thing’ in the eyes of our group. But when you ingest too much of this drug, or get dependent on it, you end up giving your own bad behaviour a pass. When you’re addicted to the moral surge, personal abuse begins to seem like nothing when measured against high principles. ‘Anything I say to or about that person, however nasty or dehumanising, is justified, because they voted for austerity, which murders people,’ (the more apocalyptic your public language, the purer the hit). Letting your tribe see you condemn others feels good — so good that it degrades your own moral machinery. Viciousness becomes a virtue. Don’t let this happen to you: recognise your susceptibility to the moral surge, and be wary of it.
- Don’t be a dick. The ur-rule. The only rule we need, really. Your brain is very good at justifying your own dickness (see above) so this rule is much harder to follow than it seems. But don’t be a dick, and you’ll find people are less likely to be a dick to you.