clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why arguing on Twitter is so impossible

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of the most exhausting thing about arguing about politics and ethics and society on a regular basis is that disagreements often boil down to meta-disagreements, disagreements about what even counts as a valid argument for the purpose of the discussion at hand. And those meta-disagreements are rarely articulated, which makes resolving them, or arguing about the first-order issue at hand in spite of them, really really difficult. This Peli Grietzer post gets at this feeling extremely well. He's talking about Twitter specifically, but I think the problem is more general:

I get it the worst when I find some online-famous school of thought or art or politics or style ridiculous for its myopia but then learn that friends I love respect it, and I spend some time with it and I discover it articulates things no one else articulates, and these things are so real once they're articulated, and the people who see these things best, whom I'm dependent on to give me the articulations of these things, are adamant that you can't bring considerations from outside the world that they're articulating to the conversation (or the conversation in your head). It feels at a real fundamental level like I can't, not even in my mind, access the insights without taking up their terms, and I start crumbling into nothingness. And I'm not only talking about cultural-critique or avant-garde or Marxian or Wittgensteinian or social-justice types — try telling a Utilitarian that donates 90% of her income to economic development charities that "autonomy" or "liberation" or "community" or "creativity" or "justice" or "respect" are irreducibly important, you will feel so dumb. Dumb in the old sense, even. Like your words are trained defensive barks that don't refer to anything. Before the twitter era this would happen to me maybe once a year but now it happens two/three times a week. Twitter's a damn sky full of black holes.

I'm not a good enough person to donate 90 percent of my income but I identify strongly with the utilitarian mood Grietzer lays out here. And he's right. Things that sound like reasons to vast swaths of humanity get boiled down into utility-talk ("you think you have a right to privacy, but what's really going on is that a world where governments enforce a right to privacy is utility-improving relative to one where they don't") or else dismissed entirely. I can barely make it through one of Michael Sandel's suggestions that organ sales might be immoral because "we should not treat our bodies as instruments of profit, or as collections of spare parts" without rolling my eyes. Those just don't sound like reasons to me. They're things pretending to be reasons.

The eye-rolling isn't necessarily knee-jerk. Part of being a utilitarian is believing one must reduce or reject arguments that don't relate to actual peoples' well-being. Indeed, the case that we should reject our instinctive revulsion at the prospect of selling body parts is really strong, given that doing so has the potential to save hundreds or thousands of lives a year.

But we have to be able to live our lives in conversation with people with different comprehensive doctrines, who have sets of reasons they accept and reasons they reject. And it's just not productive, given that, to conduct every debate as if what needs to happen is for your interlocutor to just accept your whole worldview in its entirety. It's tempting to do that; when you want to convince someone of something, it's natural to appeal to the reasons you have for believing it. And if those reasons aren't persuasive to other people, it's natural to dig in and argue that they should be. But you're not going to convert everyone, certainly not in a medium like Twitter. And it's too much to lob even at those who are genuinely interested in listening to you and understanding your position. Here's Grietzer again:

When faced with extreme arguments from somebody that powerfully channels a mood, counter-arguments that aren’t immanent to that mood turn to ashes in your mouth. You still believe the things that you believe but you can’t find a reason for believing them, because their roots are all in parts of your experience that aren’t in the world this mood discloses, so your beliefs become this grotesque alienating fact about yourself.

I don't know if there's a way around this. The natural alternative to full-scale evangelism for your entire world view is to make arguments for specific positions in reference to other peoples' world views, arguments that, from you, are somewhat disingenuous, because they're appealing to norms and values you don't actually hold. And who knows if that's any better. But the feeling Grietzer describes here is very real.