It seems I'm not the only person who thinks the most noticeable thing about Twitter is the amount and level of venom it seems to produce, very often in combination with stupidity. I freely admit that this is unfair on my part, because I'm not on Twitter, and so all I hear about for the most part is the controversies that spill out onto the Internet at large--the "Twitter mobs," as they are aptly called, which form and attack someone who has attracted their hostility. But the other day I saw a graphic associating various "social media" platforms with one of the seven deadly sins, and whoever composed it assigned Wrath to Twitter.
I know it isn't all bad. Much of it is harmless, and some of it is probably good. My wife the archivist occasionally mentions Twitter posts from archivists, or from museums or libraries, which contain interesting bits of lore. The Archbishop of Mobile uses it to tell the world that, for instance, he will be in Thomasville doing confirmations this weekend. I've seen jokes from Twitter that were actually funny.
But none of that changes my basic animosity toward it, which pre-dates any of the pathological phenomena. I was ill-disposed to it from the moment I heard of it, because of its name and because what one does with it is to "tweet." I took this as an open declaration that it was designed to be a vehicle for noisy, frequent, and trivial remarks. "Venomous" did not immediately occur to me as a likely possibility, though it probably should have; it's not as though the Internet was an altogether benign place before Twitter.
I had an instant conviction that it was not for me and that it was to be ignored, and I noticed with mild horror as it grew over the years and became one of that very small group of Internet platforms that, taken together, almost seem to define the net itself: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. My disdain has even extended to a reluctance to refer to it at all, and a great resistance to beginning a sentence with "So-and-so tweeted that...." How can you possibly take seriously anything that follows those words? It's like saying "So-and-so yapped...." "So-and-so grunted...." "So-and-so belched..."
Never of course did it cross my mind that a duly-elected president of these tenuously-united states would use Twitter as his favored means of addressing the nation and its problems (to say nothing of his own personal grudges) and that he would do it every day, so that no day would pass without a news story beginning "The president tweeted that...."
I found myself unwilling to use the word "tweet," whether noun or verb, in a sentence, without putting it in quotation marks. To do otherwise seemed to give it some kind of legitimacy that it didn't deserve, to suggest that I was somehow approving of it as a means of rational conversation. But this week I've had a slight change of heart. Very slight. I'm giving up the quotation marks.
This change was catalyzed by a case you probably heard of: a nutty professor who took the occasion of Barbara Bush's death to tweet (there, I've done it) that the former First Lady was, among other bad bad things, an "amazing racist," and that her death was an occasion for joy. A great furor immediately erupted, of course, including, apparently, a length exchange of hostilities between the professor, Randa Jarrar of Fresno State University, and people who criticized her. If you have somehow managed to remain ignorant of it, this Washington Post story has the basics. And it struck me: why should I feel any need to find a word more serious than "tweet" for this sort of jibber-jabber? Tweeting is appropriate and pleasant from a goldfinch. Coming from a human being it's ridiculous. If people are going to use this medium which makes them appear bird-brained, why should I try to dignify their twittering with a less silly-sounding word?
Almost as striking to me as the professor's charge of racism was the way she used the word "amazing." This is a verbal tic which I associate with teen-aged girls, who seem to use it as a sort of all-purpose positive hyperbole, the way they used to use "awesome" (maybe they still do). Anyone the teenager likes is "an amazing person." To enjoy oneself is to have "an amazing time." She just ate"an amazing apple." And so on. I think this is the first time I've heard it used in a negative sense, though I suppose the word itself is just as applicable to something amazingly bad as amazingly good.
Actually, looking more closely at what the professor said, I'm not sure that she meant "amazing" as negative. Her words were "Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist." What exactly does "amazing" mean there? Positive, but ironic? But then, who cares? It was a tweet.
I can't say I was much surprised to learn that what the professor professes is creative writing. Maybe she can write. Who knows, and, again, who cares? I don't plan to find out. I was actually a little surprised to find that her title is in fact "professor." The news media tend to use that word for anyone who teaches at the university level, though it is in fact a specific title, coveted and respected.
Naturally there have been calls, loud calls, for her firing. Some conservatives have spoken against that and I think they're right. In truth Jarrar seems like a rather pathetic person, who would be more pitiable than anything else if she didn't have such a mean streak.
Here is Kevin Williamson's summary of the role of Twitter in his firing from The Atlantic.
Where my writing appears is not a very important or interesting question. What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism. Twitter is about offering markers of affiliation or markers of disaffiliation. The Left shouts RACIST!, and the Right shouts FAKE NEWS! There isn’t much that can be done about this other than treating social media with the low regard it deserves.
You may be able to read his side of the whole story here at The Wall Street Journal. (Thanks to Grumpy for the link.) I found that from my phone that link was blocked as being subscriber-only, but from my laptop it wasn't.
Speaking of people shouting "RACIST!": a month or two ago I stepped briefly into a discussion on Facebook in which Rod Dreher was being taken to task for having a "race problem." This seems to be what you say when you want to call someone a racist but don't have enough evidence to justify that word and are not, as someone like the professor above is, willing to use it anyway. Dreher had linked, in one of his many, many columns, to an article in which a former Peace Corps volunteer who had once spent a year in Ethiopia talked about how much she had disliked it. The context was Trump's alleged remark about not wanting immigrants from "s**thole" countries; Dreher was thinking aloud, as he often does, about whether some countries are in fact very messed-up places whose emigrants might not be desirable.
I didn't think Dreher's link was evidence of racism, especially considering that Dreher has written often and sympathetically about the situation of black people, and said so, remarking that the charge of racism is becoming meaningless. That was immediately taken to mean that I was denying the existence of racism. I of course intended for "meaningless" to apply to the making of the charge, not to the existence of the thing itself. It rankled me that I was being misunderstood, but there were at least a couple of people in the conversation who seemed very eager to make the charge, and it looked to me like any attempt to clear things up would only result in my acquiring a "race problem," if in fact I hadn't already, if only because I was defending Dreher. So I made a sort of quick intuitive cost-benefit, risk-reward assessment and dropped out of the discussion.
In our current polemical environment, to attempt to defend yourself from a charge of racism is one of the dumbest things you can do. It's like blood in the water for the attackers, and you cannot win. The more you protest your innocence, the guiltier you will look to them. Best to just walk away.
Why am I even relating this little incident? Because it did rankle, and it gives me some sort of satisfaction to say publicly and clearly what I meant. Why didn't I say it then and there? Because of the factors I've already mentioned, and because it was Facebook, and I don't personally know any of the people involved. I have no reason to think any of them reads this blog, but if they want to argue with me here, I can require a level of respect and decorum that I can't on someone else's Facebook post. In all the years I've been blogging I don't think I've deleted more than two comments, but I like having the tool available.
And speaking of Dreher: I have often criticized his overly-agitated approach, and in fact have for long periods not read him at all. Lately I've gotten into the habit of reading him regularly. That's not altogether a good thing, because he does focus on all the bad things that are happening, and specifically on the deteriorating situation of Christianity in this country and in Europe. But though those are not the whole story, they are happening, and it's well to keep an eye on What Is Actually Happening.
I don't know whether this is referring to some of the German bishops or what.