When Bill Buckley met Gore Vidal in the summer of 1968, America’s conservative establishment came face-to-face with the counter culture. Over their many hours of courteous, if slightly heated, discussions, the exception was that moment when Buckley’s Cheshire cat grin gave way to an angry scowl and he threatened to punch Vidal in the face live on air. The point of the debates, well documented in the recent ﬁlm Best of Enemies, was to take to two competing world views in late 1960s America and give them some breathing spaced through calm, televised conversation. But today, it seems the exception has become the rule. TV debates are now the realm of media provocateurs, whose aim is to provoke rather than consider. Yet the presence of a mediator, who might point out a logical fallacy, or simply maintain some level of decency between the two ‘personalities’, is still too much for some. In short, speaking freely is more important than speaking responsibly.
Was there ever a better medium for the irresponsible voice than Twitter? Free from the constraints of moderation, 140 characters is the perfect platform for glib generalisations about something or someone we take a disliking to. It is defended regularly as the modern bastion of free speech. This is not the sophisticated freedom of expression, protecting the writer from censorship, or the protester from harm. It is rather the freedom to share misattributed quotations from presidential candidates, or the freedom to instigate hate campaigns against Hollywood actresses who have too much to say for themselves. It is no surprise that the King, or in his own words the Nero, of all irresponsible voices, Milo Yiannopoulos, was so outraged at his banning from the website. And he has now substituted the approval of a hundred thousand cheering egg proﬁles with a physical re-enactment of the Twitter dynamic, trotting around university campuses with a series of pre-prepared riﬀs on the usual topics (evil feminists, ‘social justice warriors’, and the new President) to the thunderous applause of his paying fans, who shout down any opposition. Only on campuses such as Berkeley, outside of cyberspace, can we appreciate the ugliness of much of Twitter, where people throw sticks and stones in place of the words that might have hurt online.
Twitter is often inaccurately termed an ‘echo chamber’. Though the institution of the retweet facilitates the bandying about of a single idea without nuance, there is still a palpable atmosphere of argument in the comments below many a viral tweet. In shrill rage, people talk over rather than with each other.
The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that Twitter was not conceived as a forum for serious discussion. In his documentary, How Videogames Changed the World, Charlie Brooker called the website one of the most innovative games of our time, but a game all the same. If we take Brooker’s analysis further, it seems that Twitter is incompatible with meaningful discussion. Not so much because of the character limit, which can be evaded with threaded tweets, but rather due to the system of reward on which the entire medium is predicated. All users are engaged in a search for likes, retweets, and followers. This is particularly the case for those journalists and commentators who understand the advantage a high Twitter following now brings to any job application, especially at publications with an increasing reliance on digital clicks. Generating content for an eagerly awaiting, but ultimately ﬁckle, group of followers takes precedence over thoughtful analysis.
In one of its many infamous front page splashes, a few years ago the Daily Mail ran a headline titled ‘The Man Who Hates Britain’, in reference to the then Leader of the Opposition’s late father Ralph Miliband. The piece, which claimed the eminent Marxist writer opposed British values, was based on a diary extract from a 17 year old Miliband, where he angrily raged against English nationalism. Further to this, he thoughtlessly wished that Britain might lose the Second World War to the far more nationalist Axis powers. The fact that this misguided comment from an angry teenager might have done acute damage to his son’s career decades later is a testament to the power of the irresponsible voice. Many of us have said things that we would rather forget, and cringed at the memory of a past faux pas. Yet it was only by chance that the Mail stumbled across Miliband’s juvenile polemic. Now, the Twitter user actively records all of their fatuous comments and half-baked reactions in an easily navigable online database, often from a much younger age than 17.
There doesn’t seem to be much chance of Twitter going away any time soon, and it seems likely that we will grow more accustomed to, and even involved in, the online shrieking contests that masquerade as debate. It will soon become necessary to decide whether digging through the Twitter feeds of political candidates really passes as investigative journalism. If we choose to say yes, then we could possibly be faced in the next few decades with the most dull and sterile governing class ever. Or we can choose to accept the role of irresponsible online voices as an ever-growing part of our earliest engagements with discourse.
Cherwell, May 2017