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The Good Twitter Does

Twitter gets a lot of criticism, and a lot of it is well-deserved. But Twitter’s also an amazing place, where strangers can become friends, and where we can learn much from people we’d never have encountered otherwise.

It was a death that made me fully grasp the scope of that.

My friend @MeadBadger died on Sunday. His real name was Brock Cusick, and he sometimes went by Adam Blackstone, but he was always @MeadBadger. We’d known each other for years, and in that time we’d discussed politics, religious faith, technology, Dungeons & Dragons, and so much more. Knowing him enriched me and I valued our friendship immensely.

I never met him in person.

It was one of those stumble across each other on Twitter things. A mutual follow retweets, one person appears in the other’s mentions, you get to talking. You know nothing about each other except for a username, a quippy bio. In real life, a chance meeting like that, at a bar, a networking event, whatever, would be the end of it. Hi, a quick conversation, move on. But Twitter has that follow button and it’s so easy and costless to press, you can take chances without the risk of real life baggage.

Here’s a person, he seems maybe pretty interesting, so I’ll click follow and now he’s there, every day, his thoughts scrolling up my phone or in a tab in my browser or in an app in the corner of the desktop. That random person is now a presence, and a frequent one.

Then years go by and in that time, this person has become someone you interact with weekly, daily, throughout the day. Even if it’s just a like, an acknowledgment that they heard what you said or you heard what they said.

This, I think, makes Twitter friendships sneak up on you. That follow is so easy, sending a reply or hitting like so quick, that you don’t really realize how much the people there become presences in your life. Until they aren’t. Until they stop. That @MeadBadger was my friend I obviously knew that before his death, but online friendship is something we’re still all getting used to. There have been pen pals before, and that’s similar, but the immediacy, the shared stream of consciousness, makes Twitter different.

I’ve caught myself, several times since Sunday, wondering how @MeadBadger will respond to this thing I’m about to tweet. Because such responses are a baked in part of the whole Twitter experience. People who you just get used to hearing from and might at any time.

I guess I only fully understood the depth of these sorts of relationships when he died. When the always on, enriching, more valuable than I can say interaction with a man I never met but who made me, over the years, a better person through his example and words, just stopped.

I miss @MeadBadger deeply. I wish I could tell him, in a tweet, how much his friendship meant to me. And I’m glad, more than I knew until now, that this silly and frustrating and amazing Twitter platform exists to make friendships like ours possible.

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“Should Twitter Ban Donald Trump?” is Really a Question About Government Legitimacy

Donald Trump has, on more than one occasion, used his Twitter account to threaten violence on a scale the rest of us, not being presidents ourselves, can never hope to achieve. You and I don’t have a nuclear button on our desks — even a very small one. Even when he’s not telling North Korea how close he is to incinerating them, however, he’s making explicit threats against political rivals, threats his position in the chain of command and his access to men with guns make a good deal more credible than when an angry video gamer all-caps shouts at a female Twitter celebrity.

In light of all this, many have pointed out that, well, Twitter has a policy against such behavior. In fact, Twitter routinely bans users for making far more minor and far less credible threats than those ejaculated daily, 280 characters at a time, by our president. Yet his account persists.

Why?

Why does Donald Trump get away with threatening violence, while we don’t? Why does he suffer no consequences for his actions, while you or I would be swiftly banned? Why, in short, does President Donald Trump of the United States live by a different set of rules than the rest of us?

The first, and easiest, answer is “Because Twitter says so.” It’s their platform, they can police it as they like, and in December, Twitter updated its terms of service to include a specific carve out in its “Violence and Physical Harm” policies for “military or government entities.” Trump, as the head of the Executive Branch, is exempt from Twitter’s rules regarding threats.

But that’s too easy an answer, and not just because the “military and government entities” exemption didn’t exist before December 2017. No, it’s too easy because this isn’t a question about Donald Trump and Twitter, but one muchbigger, about the very nature of the state itself.

Put simply, the state is, by definition, an organization that claims a geographic monopoly on the right to make threats and carry out violence. Law, written into regulations, legislation, and court decisions, is nothing more than a command and a threat to carry out violence against those who disobey. Without violence, you don’t have a state. Without threats of violence, you don’t have governments in any recognizable form. Donald Trump’s Twitter account is only an avatar of this most basic principle.

Thus the real question when we argue about whether Trump should get to make threats the rest of us can’t is whether that geographic monopoly on such behavior is permissible in the first place. Whether there’s something different about the state — and its agents — that allows it to legitimately and morally engage in behavior that would be seen as immoral, even monstrous, if any of us did the same.

That’s not a question to brush aside. The answer isn’t obvious, especially if you take the position that state violence is okay. It’s a question I’ve writtenand talked about at length here on Libertarianism.org. I believe the answer is “No.” No, we can’t meaningfully justify a special exemption from basic morality for state violence. No, it’s not okay for agents of government to behave in ways impermissible for the rest of us. It’s a deep, and difficult, aspect of thinking about government, and one we ignore at our peril.

If you genuinely believe Donald Trump’s threats of violence should be treated like any other threats of violence, and that threats of violence are never permissible, then congratulations, you’re an anarchist. But if you think it’s not okay for the president to threaten violence on Twitter, but it is okay for him to threaten and carry out violence via diplomatic channels, signed legislation, drone strikes, SWAT teams, ICE agents pounding on doors, business regulations, minimum wage laws, or IRS agents demanding jail time unless we hand over cash for the welfare state, then it’s likely you don’t have a realistic understanding of just what government is, or how its very existence depends on the threat and exercise of violence.

Originally published on Libertarianism.org.

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How Aristotle Predicted Twitter and the Alt-Right


Moral development can’t begin until the passions are under control

I’m rereading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the umpteenth time for a book club with some of my colleagues, and a passage early on struck me as informative about much that’s going on in American culture today. It comes in Book 1 of the Ethics, and for those classics nerds among you, falls at 1095a.

It’s important to note that Aristotle sees his project, in the Ethics, as providing not just a moral theory — as philosophical texts on ethics do today — but a broader guide to leading a good life. The Ethics is an instruction manual, meaning it’s meant to be used by an audience. Thus, in the passage, Aristotle is setting out who that audience is.

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of [these] lectures…; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be in vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

Think about that passage in the context of contemporary debates about what’s going on on college campuses with free speech, safe spaces, the airing and censoring of disfavored ideas, etc. Or in regards to the negative reactions to NFL players kneeling during the anthem, the backlash to taking down of Confederate statues, or, on the technology front, the shaming and call-out culture we see on Twitter.

Aristotle believes children — which isn’t age limited, as it can mean also childish adults — aren’t ready to study ethics, which for him means something broader than morality, something closer to the principles of how to lead a good life. Children lack the life experience to understand what ethics aims at. And they’re too ruled by their passions, for which the end is action, not knowledge. Children want to live in their passions and operationalize them, but they’re too ruled by them to care much about the how and why of their exercise.

It struck me that this sheds light on the behaviors mentioned above, all of which seem to have in common the embrace of simple “feelings,” which are trusted and acted upon without critical examination, and with a lashing out at anyone who would ask us to consider more carefully their source or the actions that ought to flow from them.

In a sense, then, these aspects of culture might be the result of a lack of moral growth on the part of a range of American subcultures. Made worse, perhaps, by the incentives that exist in the online world (chasing likes and retweets, or the fun of joining a Twitter mob), which actively discourage the kind of reflection on passions and ends Aristotle thinks is necessary for the study of ethics.

In other words, I’ve come to think that quite a lot of what’s wrong with American culture — or at least some of its most vocal subcultures — is that we’re stuck in an indefinite adolescence. We’ve become uninterested in rationally examining our beliefs and behaviors so as to learn how to lead good and ethical lives, and instead are interested only in living out our (unexamined) passions.

America, I fear, is becoming a nation of unethical children.


I’ve written a follow-up to this post, exploring one of the ways this has played out in American political culture:

View at Medium.com