When We Stop Talking To Each Other, We All Lose.
Discourse is supposed to make us smarter, instead, the opposite is happening.
In his essay, Politics and the English language, George Orwell writes about the way that thoughts influence language and how language, in turn, influences thought:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure,and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
The criticism is as valid today as it was 1946 when it was originally written, but today the problem isn’t just the imprecise and bloated language that Orwell points to, it’s the fact that conversations carried out in 280 character bursts in the online lingua franca of outrage, will inevitably skew towards point-scoring instead of nuanced discussion.
In fact, to expedite the ability to make points without the trouble of making them (as well as avoiding the Twitter character limit) an entire vernacular of conversation ending shorthand has appeared.
Having a disagreement with somebody older than you? An “OK Boomer” should be enough to let them know you’re smarter than they are. Frustrated by the attitudes of somebody younger? No problem, just dismiss them as a “millennial”. Are you in a Twitter spat with someone who has more respect for women than you do? They’re obviously a “simp” or “white knight”. Arguing with somebody who doesn’t believe that masculinity is inherently toxic? The word you’re looking for is “incel” or perhaps “Boy, bye”.
“Privileged”, “toxic”, “entitled”, “troll”, once upon a time, some of these terms might actually have stood a chance of pointing to genuine issues. Now they’ve become nothing more than handy ways to disengage from a discussion without having to admit that you’re wrong or that your understanding of the issues you claim to care so deeply about is superficial at best.
This isn’t anything new. People have been resorting to name-calling since long before George Orwell’s day, but these tactics do something else too; they free the speaker of the obligation to make any reasoned points or arguments. Beginning a statement, or more likely a tweet, with something like: “Imagine feeling entitled to…” means that you can follow it with almost anything and claim the moral high ground. And this, in turn, leads the person making the statement to feel that their point of view has been validated. Especially if they receive the approval (virtual or otherwise) of other people.
This game of verbal checkers doesn’t even require its players to think of something to say, they can simply choose the correct opener, and then continue by parroting a subtle distortion of their opponent’s position back to them.
Take this twitter exchange that appeared on my feed this morning for example:
What does spiritual and material repentance look like? How is this person qualified to assess whether it has taken place, or even if it should? Where was there any judgement of the poor, the sick or the uncelebrated in the tweet that’s being replied to? The comment contains almost nothing of substance, yet it contains enough outrage and derision that hundreds of people (and presumably the author themselves) seem to believe that it does.
The problem with this kind of language game is that it’s a game so stupid that nobody in their right minds would choose to play it. And so we only hear from the people who aren’t in their right minds. The people who aren’t interested in nuance or inquiry or the possibility that there might be something more valuable to be gained than a zinger and some likes. The more commonplace this type of discourse becomes, the less likely anybody becomes to try to discuss serious issues seriously, and as a result, as Orwell points out, it becomes easier and easier for us to have foolish thoughts.