I think a tremendous amount of writing so far this election season about the Presidential race shows primarily that the effect of social media on public discourse is increasingly dire. Here’s the thing: I would characterize the majority of what I have read as arguing that the convictions people have declared are only held by them because of some form of prior social ideology or consciousness, that they are not based on anything “real” in terms of a particular candidate’s likely policies, rhetoric or record.
When we’re dealing with large-scale voting patterns, a certain amount of sociological musing is completely appropriate, because that’s what the patterns make visible–that this group of people likes a certain person more or less, etc. At that level, sociological thinking is explanatory and it is also an important part of arguing for or against particular candidates in terms of reading what they mean and what they will do.
But when we bring that into an address that’s meant to speak to particular individuals to whom we are connected via social media, it feels, first of all, reductive: as if those individuals whom we have chosen to be connected to are no more than their sociologies. More importantly, the arguments we have at this point feel straight out of B.F. Skinner: many writers in social media treat other people as if they are something to be conditioned–to be pushed this way or that way with the proper framing. With the punishment of scolding and call outs if they’re being sociologically bad, with praise and attention if they’re expressing the proper selfhood. We begin to be the master of our own little Skinner boxes rather than as human beings in rich conversation with other human beings. We begin to think of each other person in our feeds as a person to be punished and rewarded, conditioned and shaped. We stop thinking of our own reasons why we believe in a particular candidate, why we think *or* feel what we think or feel. More importantly, we stop thinking of the reasons why someone else feels or thinks that way, and stop being curious about those reasons if they’re not being shared or enunciated. The difference in their views starts to be merely exasperating, the manifestation of an enemy sociality. Disagreement starts to be like an untrained puppy making messes in our space: we give treats, we hit noses with rolled-up newspaper. If the puppy doesn’t learn, we euthanize. We start thinking of “frames”, of rhetoric as the way to run our Skinner box. We don’t persuade or explain, we push and pull.
I think there’s a reason why formal debate named “ad hominem” as a logical fallacy. It’s not that arguments are not in fact a result of the personalities or sociologies of the people making them. We’ve all had to argue with people whose arguments are motivated by spite or some other emotional defect or are defenses of their social privileges. But it is that allowing ourselves the luxury of saying so during the discussion short-circuits our capacity to engage in future conversation–it becomes the default move we make. We start to have conversations only when someone who is a shining paragon of virtue in our eyes steps forward. (And that person increasingly may become someone who is emotionally and sociologically identical to ourselves.) One by one human beings around us vanish, and so too does evidence, inquiry, curiosity. We end up in a landscape of affirmation and disgust, of reaction to stimuli–e.g., as we Skinner box others, so too are we Skinner boxed.