Twitter has been central to a number of controversial cases that have tested the definitions and the limits of academic freedom. The brevity and compression of tweets means that they exist outside of any fixed context and they are therefore very frequently totally ambiguous. What seems very provocative or even outrageous to one reader may seem edgily ironic or just mildly sarcastic to another.
Yet, the one thing that tweets share with other types of written–and oral–communication is that if you have to start explaining what you intended, you are already in trouble.
It does not require the prophetic gifts attributed to Nostradamus to predict that Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Twitter and his often unrestrained and seemingly impulsive use of the medium are going to make these kinds of issues a central part of our public discourse for at least the next four years. The core issue for academics may end up amounting to whether or not we are going to be held to a higher standard of discourse or of civility than that to which the President of the United States is being held.
The polarization of our politics has, of course, already turned most of our public discourse into exercises in competing polemics. There is such a compulsive interest in—or a seeming need for– the exposure of the faults of those on the other side that we no longer seem to recognize that our impulse to identify and to escalate controversies has eroded any sense of what is actually controversial. Indeed, the impulse to vilify our opponents has also made us deaf to the tonal complexities in almost all of our responses to personal and public circumstances—never mind our responses to highly charged political, social, and cultural issues.
Consider the following short and seemingly innocuous, if curious, item, written by Peter Wade for Esquire:
“If You Named Your Dog Scarface, Maybe Don’t Make Him Wear a Dumb Sweater”
It seemed like fun and games until things turned ugly. Brenda Guerrero and her husband Ismael Guerrero tried to put a sweater on their dog, a pitbull mix named Scarface, but Scarface was not pleased.
The dog transformed into his namesake, attacking Brenda and acting like a coked up Tony Montana at the end of Scarface when he refused to go down without a fight. Ismael tried to pull the dog off of her but couldn’t do it. Their son, Antoine Harris, then tried to stab Scarface in the head but to no avail.
Police were called, but even the authorities had trouble sedating the dog. “Officers responding said the dog was pretty aggressive,” Tampa police officer Eddy Durkin said. “When they tazed the dog the dog was still pulling away and was able to release the prongs from the tazer.”
Animal Control finally came with a tranquilizer gun and deployed a bean bag gun. Finally, Animal Control was able to capture the dog with a “catch pole” that looped around the dog’s neck.
Brenda was taken to Tampa General Hospital with severe bites on her arm. She was in stable condition. There was no word as to whether the dog will be put down, but one thing’s for sure: no one will ever try to make him wear a stupid sweater again.
What is an appropriate response to this anecdotal report of an incident that escalated preposterously from a very common holiday-photo meme to the point where police and animal-control professionals needed to be called to the home, at least one person ultimately required hospitalization, and a family pet is now quarantined and very likely to be euthanized? Or perhaps the more precise question here is what is a safe response to this story?
Let’s start with just one basic set of possibilities. If I find the story hysterically funny, does that mean that I am some sort of unempathetic prick? Or, oppositely, if I insist that I did not find anything even mildly amusing about the story, does that make me implausibly or even very weirdly tone deaf? Or perhaps even a calculating liar? And which of those three possibilities would be—or should be–most troubling?
One could say that the answers to these questions simply do not matter because the topic is trivial. But as soon as I write about the topic in a forum such as this, I am asserting that it is not actually trivial—or, at the very least, someone could reasonably assert that that is the case.
Two nights ago, in response to Meryl Streep’s critical remarks at the Golden Globes, Donald Trump tweeted that she is a “very overrated” actress. If I were to reproduce a list of the awards and award nominations that she has received over the course of her long career, would I be demonstrating that Trump is a very thin-skinned idiot? Or would I be demonstrating that I am an idiot for responding at length to a thought that he probably formulated as he was typing the 140 characters? And if I am behaving idiotically, does that make his behavior somehow less idiotic?
One could say that the length and substance with which one addresses a topic should be appropriate or proportionate to the topic’s seriousness. But, in this post-factual, post-intellectual period, words that begin in a medium that minimalizes context often accrue a context after the fact–and sometimes very long after the fact because nothing ever really disappears from the Web–and that context may or may not have very much to do with the initial topic explored or the opinion expressed.
If I were to assert that only an idiot would try to put a sweater on a pit bull, I am fairly certain that trollers representing a broad spectrum of interests—and, yes, ideologies–would seize the opportunity to put me properly in my place, if not to shame and even to shun me in the most public way. But, even worse than that likely possibility, there is no predicting the route that the attacks might take–which of the hundreds of posts that I have contributed to this blog and others, shielded by my own obscurity, might suddenly make me notorious, if not despicable.
So, we may be finally left to ask what level of discourse is possible when serious and trivial topics are treated with equivalent seriousness and, therefore, with what amounts to equivalent disregard.
We are left to ask what level of discourse is possible when just about anything can be said and seemingly demand to be heard, but when almost nothing can be settled with words.