We have reached a fraught moment in the digital age. A fascinating phenomenon has arisen whereby the perception is that in order to win an argument, one only need only show the deficiencies of the character of the other person. Deficiencies indeed that may only be agreed upon within a very small subculture! This, of course, is a long-known logical fallacy for anyone who has studied basic critical thinking, but it has become surprisingly common and the deficiencies have become rather far-fetched!
Once, upon trying to correctly define the term ‘Islamist’ in a Facebook debate, I linked to a YouTube video of the founding chairman of the Quilliam Foundation (a UK-based counter-terrorism organisation) Maajid Nawaz presenting the Foundation’s definition of the term. I should have known better — my ‘opponent’ pounced.
“Your explanation is a Youtube video!”.
Whilst I myself was calmly trying to explain that content of the video was far more important than medium by which it was delivered, my opponent had given up any pretence of trying to have a rational discussion. Copying his friends in, he quickly replied:
“Hey guys, look how blinkered this guy is!”
The friends offered affirmation of the claim.
From all of their perspectives, my choice of medium degraded my character enough to render me totally stupid and I had therefore ‘lost the argument’. My protests fell of deaf ears and I swiftly gave up on the idea of a productive conversation beyond this and moved on.
This effect multiplies on Twitter, due to the speed at which ideas can spread. It is ten-times more effective to get likes, followers and re-tweets by accusation than it is by coherent argument. No matter your political tribe, straying from one orthodoxy or another will generate this response. We’ve generated a digital economy in which people are incentivised to see the worst in people — to look for racism, snowflakery or stupidity where none exists and reap the dopamine benefits of the online approval.
There are, of course, times when these accusations are actually correct (what we should do in these cases, I hope to discuss in a later article). There are of course also cases where the criticism is entirely false, but those have been very well documented by persons other than I. My concern here pertains to those cases that one could consider mistakes, or errors in judgement — whether immediate or revealed by further evidence over a longer period of time.
The ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude taken up by so many online activists and fueled by social media’s incentive models is very damaging. In order to think one has to be able to risk being wrong, or worse offensive. To expose your views to public criticism allows one to correct those issues much more quickly. It was John Stuart Mill who decried that ‘the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach’, slowing the generation and evaluation of ideas. We should aim to be wrong and self-correct as quickly as possible. If I need to comb over every tweet to ensure there’s not a hint of any ‘isms’ in it before posting, our feedback loop for discussing ideas becomes that much slower. Some topics may end up being not discussed at all for fear of being too toxic and too difficult to toe a line on.
Social media really is another world in this regard. Which of us have not had a discussion with our friends, in which we proffered an overly-authoritarian solution to a problem only to retract very quickly, or have phrased something incorrectly on a delicate topic and had to offer an immediate correction? Social media users have no such luck, we can post almost as fast as we could have a verbal conversation, but the Twitter-sphere won’t be nearly as generous as our friends would. Once written something is instantly shared, screen-shotted and even if you managed to get a retraction or an apology out before you went to sleep that night — those sharing the original post will not be as kind as to offer the full context of what you said.
Piling on top of all that, people can trawl through the things you said five years ago! Those who published before the internet had relative freedom from their past. Someone would have to go digging through newspaper archives (or have a very extensive historical collection) in order to find a view you aired publicly five years ago. Persisted thought was confined to books, which were rigorously reviewed before publishing. Now all your social media is searchable in a number of seconds. It is true that one particular view can look perfectly reasonable in the absence of scientific finding, or the absence of one new invention that then renders that same view abhorrent. It is also true that people tend to say sillier things when they are younger that they later learn aren’t all that acceptable.
Needless to say — in the face of all of this deliberate misinterpretation, we as a society need to re-embrace a couple of concepts that appear to have been forgotten recently — namely forgiveness and redemption. We need to establish well-trodden paths to redemption for those who have made mistakes, to have a pattern for apology that guarantees that the majority of society will drop a crusade against an individual if a mistake is correctly atoned for, this must cover two cases:
- In the case where someone tweets something that they didn’t realise was offensive, or otherwise was a terrible idea, people should be given a grace period (perhaps a few days) to retract the comment with no required explanation. Just as one might do when having a conversation with friends – as a society we should accept the retraction with no further repercussions
- The case where someone has written an opinion 5 years ago and has had a chance to review their opinion based on evidence. The person should have a chance to follow-up on their previous comment, explaining their current opinion on the topic is. This should then be respected by other members of society and journalists when representing that figure.
A couple of recent examples have clarified the need for such a culture of forgiveness to be formed. In particular, regarding (1), a recent case in which British Football pundit Danny Baker was fired over tweeting a picture of a chimpanzee in a suit with the caption ‘Royal Baby Leaves Hospital’. Much had been made in the media in the preceding months that the wife of Prince Harry, Meghan Markle is mixed-race. Baker claims that he intended to compare the media reaction to the birth as a circus show, although other commentators rightly pointed out that the comparison of black people to Chimpanzees is an old racist trope. Baker apologised as soon as he realised the other potential connotation and retracted the photo, yet was still fired by the BBC. The worrying thing here is that if someone really had been trying to make the circus point and was naive enough of the specifics of this image and it’s ties to racism in America, they would have acted no differently to how Baker did. They would also be fired. No doubt, if others people they might be treated like this even if entirely innocent, that will lead to self-censorship and the stifling of free thought and new ideas.
It’s natural to ask about the ambiguous case here. What if Danny Baker really is a raging racist and was attempting to dog-whistle to other racists and we then went ahead and forgave him? I would posit that if Baker really is a raging racist, we should be able to find more destructive effects of his racism than a disputable Twitter post if we really want to prove him guilty. It’s necessary for a free society to consider people innocent until proven guilty — it seems natural that to have a free-thinking society, the same must be applied to public discourse.
The other necessary path came into stark contrast during a recent viral interview of the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro by the British journalist Andrew Neil. Despite the interview being a car-crash for Shapiro for a number of reasons, one thing Shapiro was rightly irked by was Neil’s referencing of a number of Tweets of Shapiro’s from a number of years ago. These were tweets that Shapiro has renounced many times verbally, to the extent where he has personally written an article issuing retractions or corrections to a number of things he’s said in the past that he now disagrees with. It is, of course, not at all beneficial to the public discourse to continue to rake up old graves like this and internet users should be allowed some freedom to detach themselves from their ill-thought out past. That interview would have been much better spent on things that Shapiro now believes — many of which still require rigorous questioning.
Free thought has given the West the edge over the rest of the World ever since the enlightenment. The great promise of the internet was to give us further license to express ourselves, to connect and to integrate. This promise has been delivered in many ways, but this new technologies has also uncovered some of the worse devils of our nature. Just as in public debate we had to learn to correctly manage the tribal instinct that sits within every one of us, whether that be through self-control or through creating institutions that can withstand those forces. The same we must do with the internet — it begins with recognition of the problem and will collaboration between users and platform providers to create the internet environment that best encourages free thought. Forgiveness and Redemption are a huge part of this.