The mutual symbiosis of a “regressive left” and a “reactionary right”

It’s not insightful to say that social media are probably unrepresentative of what the common person thinks, nor that platforms like Twitter encourage hyperbole and argument.

I do however think that the hyperbole is an expression of the same lack of charity and unwillingness to find a middle ground that we see in newspaper coverage of contentious issues such as Hilary vs. Bernie, whether Trump is a fascist or not, or whether South African students need to be applauded or pilloried.

It’s possible for us to disagree with each other, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t caricature, and that doesn’t disincentivise any future attempts at debate. And, there is of course little chance of persauding someone that they are wrong, if they are no longer talking to you.

That last point is why last night, I tweeted:

Consider this example, from yesterday’s Washington Post, titled “College students run crying to Daddy Administrator“. I’m sometimes as annoyed by students as anyone could be – it’s difficult to avoid being so when you deal with 1 500 of them a year. They can be lazy, oversensitive, rude, and so forth.

But, they are also inexperienced at being a small anonymous cog in a large machine that isn’t necessarily geared for giving them personal attention, or for allowing them the time to discover, and explain, what it is that feels alienating, oppressive or offensive.

They also, quite simply, haven’t necessarily learned the conventions and language of what it is to negotiate in good faith in a civil society – why would they have, having grown up on discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook?

Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.

They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.

That (from the Washington Post piece) is all true. But I think it’s also true that calling people “babies”, or mocking them for taking offense too easily, can serve to simply validate their concerns.

Likewise, insisting that everyone who disagrees with you – no matter whether their disagreement is polite and thoughtful (even if wrong or confused, by your lights) is a member of some out-group like the “regressive left” can serve to simply confirm to them that you’re part of some “reactionary right” – and neither side is then left feeling that there is any point in talking to the other.

It is indeed a problem that people can have overly thin skins, because robust debate and disagreement is necessary to improve our arguments and our characters. But it’s also a problem when you have concerns (even if they might be trivial or unjustified concerns to others), and those you express the concerns to respond with ridicule.

Both these extremes are a problem, and there’s no reason you have to choose either of them.


Also published on Medium.

  • Murray McKechnie

    I have one problem with this – Yesterday you tweeted an article and specifically referred to the part likening people who support Brexit to having a mental health disorder. Maybe I missed some of the context (didn’t read the entire article), but surely this is an example of doing exactly what you just warned against here?