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.
I have thoughts about this . . . Having just left a long comment on your prior post I’ll try to be (relatively) brief. A couple months ago Corey Robin had a post in which he used the phrase “magical realism” in relationship to this election, and it got me thinking that, perhaps, the better phrase would be “magical thinking.”
In that, elections invite people to engage in two possible forms of “magical thinking” (1) “I can predict the future” and (2) “If we do or say or believe the right things we can control the future.” This is inevitable, to some degree, because the nature of elections are that politicians go around making their predictions for the future and telling us, as voters, that we have to make an important choice which will guide the direction of the country for the next X years.
But, given the prevalence of magical thinking, it’s really, really easy to feel like the people that one is debating with aren’t arguing in good faith.
That doesn’t explain why this election feels different from previous ones, however, and I both think that there are some unpleasant dynamics in terms of how that plays out on social media and am not personally smart enough about social media to have a good theory about the nature of those dynamics.
“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.”
ad hominem arguments are perfectly fine as long as they are persuasive. Here is one example that one site gives as an example as an “ad hominem”:
“William Bennett…, leader… of the antirap campaign…, [has] had no trouble finding antipolice and antiwomen lyrics to quote in support of [his] claim that “nothing less is at stake than civilization” if rappers are not rendered silent. So odious are the lyrics, that rarely do politicians or journalists stop to ask what qualifies Bennett to lead a moralistic crusade on behalf of America’s minority youth. Not only has he opposed funding for the nation’s leader in quality children’s programming (the Public Broadcasting Corporation), he has urged that “illegitimate” babies be taken from their mothers and put in orphanages.”
Moralists really are horrible people and we should not listen to them.
John Green has introduced (originally, as far as I can tell), a nice turn of phrase that I feel is relevant here – ‘failure to imagine the other complexly’. Not at all a new idea, he has used this verbiage to cleanly encapsulate a common deficiency humans tend to exhibit when behaving socially in contexts varying from fostering nationalist sentiments to contributing to Wikipedia talk pages.
I certainly don’t think that the political discourse I’ve seen throughout my adult life has done anything to help people imagine individuals that hold different views as anything other than self-interested schemers or ‘sheeple’ caught up in the rhetoric purveyed by self-interested schemers (the latter being ‘reduced to their mere sociologies’). As much as I think the satire by the likes of John Stuart and Stephen Colbert is a sophisticated and important contribution to the political conversation – it doesn’t make it any easier to imagine the GOP constituency as intelligent, well-intentioned individuals with different viewpoints that deserve respectful discussion. Watching Fox News may be even worse when it comes to fostering an image of non-conservatives that’s anything but cartoonish.
I’m rambling now, but I can’t help mentioning the episodes in the West Wing where the characters like Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) and Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner) are introduced. The greatest portion of the drama created in these episodes comes only from the very idea that that such intelligent, learned, good-hearted conservatives exist (and that the main characters are smart enough and have enough integrity to recognize them as such). And I think it’s entirely telling that the general audience of the show could easily be expected to think that this was a dramatic and exciting turn: conservatives who are people too? We might as well discover dogs that can talk.
As far as this election season goes, I really don’t see social media as doing anything other than enabling this trend to continue – we all know it’s easy to dehumanize people we encounter online. But I agree things are especially bad this year. And I think I know partly why. Where in the past it has often been hard to complexly imagine the constituency of candidates we oppose, for many people it’s now hard to imagine even the candidates as complex, real people. Trump already seems to many like a gross parody of a republican. And it’s hard to imagine he’s secretly disingenuous and cleverly manipulative. He seems more like the tail that’s now wagging the dog – someone who dumbly absorbed the popular rhetoric of the right and now mindlessly regurgitates it without any self-consciousness. And that really does ‘reduce him to no more than his sociology’. The views of Clinton from the right might afford the image of her some real agency, but probably only insofar as she could become a one-dimensional, self-interested schemer. And that’s hardly better than a talking hairpiece when it comes to ‘complexly imagining the other’. And with the failure to complexly imagine extended from only the opposition constituency to the opposition candidate (or for reluctant Clinton supporters, both candidates) it’s only natural that the problem also worsens in degree as well as extent. – Or that’s my 2 cents, in any case.