Since Elon Musk took over Twitter last month there has been a raft of changes as he tries to reshape the platform and the company into something that not only turns profit, but also serves the moral function of being a town square with freedom of speech.
Musk describes himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’, perhaps a somewhat over-stated or under-considered perspective, as this Spectator piece points out. This perspective is no doubt behind Musk’s decision to allow the Twitter community to vote on whether Donald Trump can have his account back (he can, in case you missed that), and offering a general amnesty to suspended accounts. The question then, is whether a more open marketplace of ideas can lead to a greater understanding of difference, and be something of an antidote to the polarisation that social media seems to be driving?
That Twitter and other similar platforms have created more heat than light is not particularly surprising if you consider the medium; a platform for pithy comments, lacking nuance (and sometimes truth), and algorithmically charged to nurse your chosen perspectives. A medium which encourages speed over depth and impatience over understanding; a realm in which our cognitive bias is not so much drip fed as continually hosed down. It is not hard to understand why it is that Twitter has driven wedges between groups, rather than built bridges of understanding between them. Perhaps part of the issue is the dissonance between the apparently trivial 280 characters we might write, and the fact that the values tweets often espouse run very deep indeed.
Among the deluge of utterly innocuous tweets, there are many that have sharper teeth, and implicitly express what anthropologist Scott Atran calls ‘sacred values’. These are moral values for which we might make considerable sacrifices; they might concern the right to bear arms, birth control or freedom of speech. These are all hills that people are willing to die on, and many already have. Twitter might provide a cathartic vent for expressing such values, but it offers scant opportunity for increasing understanding across the values that divide us (something Elizabeth Oldfield seeks to do in her excellent podcast The Sacred). So what would it take for a platform like Twitter to encourage a greater understanding of difference, rather than tribal warfare?
To create a space where there is genuine freedom of speech that doesn’t descend into petty squabbling (or worse), there is a need to embody two crucially important principles. Firstly, we need to be able to humanise those from different perspectives – to extend a measure of empathy towards a different way of seeing the world. Secondly, and of equal importance, there needs to be a high value placed on truth. In a social media world which has often come adrift from facts, this entails a measure of scepticism.
Philosopher Martin Buber suggested that we live in a world where communication between people is increasingly ‘I-It’, rather than ‘I-Thou’. The former treats a person as an object, distinct and dehumanised. How easy it is to attend in this way when all we see of a person is their tweet, one which can be caricatured, then promptly dismissed, or lambasted. I-Thou communication is altogether different, attending to the other authentically and trying to recognise their common humanity. Again, this is a challenge if all you see of a person is a belief you dislike, shorn of the lived experience that led to that belief. Empathy, as much as we can extend it, makes way for an I-Thou mode of communication.
This demanding work of listening needs to be accompanied by a degree of scepticism. Ideas and claims need to be critically engaged with, including (perhaps especially), those ideas that support our bias. This is particularly challenging on social media – as scholar Maryanne Wolf demonstrates, the way we read online is superficial – we skim and are in a state of constant arousal, rather than engaging with the slower, more reflective work of critical engagement.
While these are principles that feel particularly acute for the 21st century world of Twitter, they are far from new. In the gospels we read of Jesus engaging with those who were most despised in his culture – the corrupt, the filthy and the morally abhorrent (21st century equivalence is not hard to find). Jesus attended to these people as inherently valuable, but this did not dilute his view of the true and the good, or stop him pointing people towards it. In his interactions with the tax collector or the prostitute, Jesus expresses both a high view of people and a high view of truth; we need to hold onto both.
This is uniquely challenging on social media; we did not evolve to play out our differences from behind a keyboard. As this Heineken advert brilliantly highlights, there is no worthy substitute for listening and discussing in the embodied presence of another. A more productive move than fleeing Twitter for Mastodon would be to look away from our screens, slow down, and engage with others in the physical ‘town squares’ that still exist in today.
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