A number of recent incidents online have led me to believe that scholars need to have a serious conversation about civility. Particularly about Twitter and other social-media platforms. And about the potential damage wrought by our shame-oriented culture.
First, let me note that I have been as guilty of what I'm about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something, you toss off a quick tweet, and you link to the offender so that person sees it. Or worse, you don't link, using what's been called a "subtweet" to keep the offender out of the conversation. In either case, you're in a hurry, you've only got 140 characters, and (if you're being honest) you're hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be retweeted.
Conference papers get trashed, as do online articles—but worse, so do the speakers and authors themselves. I've engaged in such criticism, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I've also been on the receiving end, and I'm here to tell you: It's awful.
I am not suggesting that there's no room for criticism or disagreement, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to join hands and sing "Kumbaya." But there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming.
I believe that substantive public disagreement is one of the casualties of public shaming, as it works to silence those who fear being lashed out against. I do not want to suppress dissent; rather, I want to retain real dissensus, which is in danger as long as our online discourse falls so easily into snark, hostility, dismissiveness, and counterproductive incivility. And, frankly, if we don't know the difference between critique and shaming, we—as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly to help make the world a more thoughtful place—need to figure it out, and fast.
There are two problems working in confluence here. One is the environment Twitter affords, the odd mixture of intimacy and openness—the feeling that you're talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in—combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced performative brevity. Together, those factors can produce criticism that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.
Blogs, by contrast, often produce much more substantive, thoughtful critique. Authors have time to sit with a post before publishing it, and commenters have time to read it and think about it before responding. And not just time—both authors and commenters have enough space to flesh out their thoughts. None of that means that by the end of the exchange, they're going to agree. But it does mean that they'll have given some real thought to the disagreement.
But the problem isn't simply technological; it's also baked into academe. As David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, has pointed out in thinking about how to create greater accountability among dissertation advisers, "In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture." Damrosch means that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he's not wrong: We all live with guilt (about blown deadlines or dropped promises, for instance), and we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame—being publicly shown up as having failed—gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we'll work to avoid.
And yet, it's also something that we're more than willing to dole out to one another. There's a significant body of research on the profound damage that shame does not only to individuals, but also to the various relationships that make up our culture—between parents and children, between partners, and, of course, between colleagues. As the researcher Brené Brown explores in her work, people who experience shame frequently respond by withdrawing. Even worse, a person who feels shame often dispels that feeling by shaming others. Needless to say, both responses undermine our ability to conduct serious academic discussions.
So, on the one hand, we've got a technology that allows us, if we're not mindful of how we're using it, to lash out at people hastily—and publicly—for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by belittling others.
Over the last several months, I found myself withdrawing from Twitter a bit, and it took me a while to figure out why. I felt frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often-rude public complaints, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, as I withdrew, I found myself missing all of the many positive aspects of Twitter—the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming much larger than it should.
So I posted my concerns to my blog; in response, a few people accused me of wanting to stifle disagreement. That was, in fact, the opposite of what I was after. By all means disagree, and do so publicly. But recognize that there is the slightest possibility that you could be wrong, and that the other person might well have a point. To say that we have to permit uncivil speech, public insult, and shaming, and that anyone who resists that kind of behavior is just demanding that everyone agree, is to say that only the people who are the target of such speech should step out of their comfort zone, and that the people who utter abuse have no responsibility for pausing to consider another's position.
What I hope for is more public debate; I would like to have a serious, respectful conversation about how to maximize the positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it's gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of dealing with complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @-mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment—and subject to the same kinds of pain—that we are?
I do not want to become the civility police. Twitter is fun, and funny, and irreverent, and playful, and I want it to stay that way. But I 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.