Twitter Bully

Posted by Roger Whitson on February 1st, 2013

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been following the ongoing conversation about civility on Twitter. Initially, I did not agree with the assessments about bullying on Twitter that I read from my colleagues. Then I read this article from Lee Bessette, yesterday:

I think we, as a community, need to firmly take a stand against bullying. We cannot just rely on the institution (who, let’s face it, has allowed this kind of bullying to happen, but behind closed doors) for a long, long time. If we, as a community of connected academics, don’t stand up for Tressie and stand against this kind of behavior online, it will keep happening. Too many academics from traditionally unrepresented demographics have been silenced (through fear and intimidation) in the institution, and we cannot let the institution re-create that environment online.

She was reacting to a recent post by Tressie McMillan Cottom, in which the latter details how a U of Chicago graduate student threatened her with blackmail. I’m as disgusted as Lee. As an educator, I’m a big believer in having my students engage in public discourse. But if Tressie, one of the most ethical and thoughtful public scholars I know, can have this done to her – what about my students? Should I continue to have them engage in work that shows up online when they – too – can be blackmailed by any bully who comes along?No, as Lee said, this cannot stand. I’m joining my voice to the calls already out there by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Ryan Cordell for a real discussion about what academic values we share on Twitter. While critique, and even heated debate, can (and should) be the hallmark of academic discourse, we can certainly engage in such debate and discussion in a reasoned and respectful manner. We can also support one another while disagreeing. Dissensus doesn’t mean shaming, it doesn’t mean name-calling, and it certainly doesn’t mean blackmail.

I also think it is wise to separate the cultural reasons why something like this can happen from a technological determinism that would suggest Twitter is just another part of the internet and that the internet – as a technology – inspires meanness. As Matt Lewis points out (h/t Ernesto Prego) Twitter began as a tool designed to introduce civility into discourse. But it has “become like high school, where the mean kids say something hurtful to boost their self-esteem and to see if others will laugh and join in. Aside from trolling for victims after some tragedy, Twitter isn’t used for reporting anymore, but it is used for snark.” As Fitzpatrick argues in Professional Obsolescence, technology does not – alone – determine culture. “The author is not operating–and has never operated–in a vacuum ” Fitzpatrick argues, “but has always been a participant in an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the interactions made possible by new network technologies may seem daunting or alarming to us today, but in the long run, used with care, they’ll provide significant possibilities for the kind of knowledge advancement we all seek, which requires a broad communal framework.” Fitzpatrick’s key phrase here is “used with care.” Certainly any technology can be used poorly. Art can be used for Nazi propaganda. Novels and films can be used to further the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan. Radio and television can be used to spread neo-conservative doctrine. The important thing to remember is that, while media impact us in ways that are unexpected, we can still make certain choices about how we use them.

What “care” means is, of course, more difficult to determine. It may mean that situations like this erupt from time to time, and force us to discuss what it is we value as a community. It may mean adopting rules of civility. Yes, it’s not a good idea to police thought – but academic conversations already have norms and rules even if they are implicit. Most scholars won’t take arguments seriously that are not backed up with close reading, data, or historical evidence. We teach our students all the time to distinguish between so-called popular sources and peer-reviewed ones, and to not use the former in argumentative writing. I have requirements in my courses that no participant engage in ad hominem attacks, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism. Why should we not hold ourselves up to the same standards that we hold our students?

I fully believe we can build the kind of community we all value. The important thing is to not be afraid to stand for something.

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