is/ought

Today, Hamilton Nolan argued that Twitter is public. That is true. I mean this in the old fashioned sense, that is, it accurately reflects reality. I know because I have a web browser open right now and it enables me to access public Twitter feeds. Predictably, some people are mad at Nolan, calling him condescending or saying he lacks empathy. But Nolan links to some people who are under the impression that Twitter is not public, and so he is saying that Twitter is public. Ought to be is a separate question, although given the many ways to write privately, the many ways to communicate with others privately, and the fact that Twitter has an option that easily enables you to share your thoughts privately, I find it hard to be mad that Twitter is public. Setting that aside: if your Twitter is public, it’s public. Is, not ought to be.

You can’t yell at people for being condescending when there is controversy about what they are supposedly being condescending about. Take it from someone who has been routinely yelled at for quoting public Twitter feeds: this is not an obvious notion for many people.

The failure to distinguish “is” from “ought” is a large and growing problem for what you might call the online social justice movement. This was part of my point when I talked about the juvenile theory of the moral universe shared by those who think they can uncritically support the carceral state, when it comes to preventing sexual violence, without fear of contributing to the carceral state’s violence and oppression. It would be much better to live in a universe where that is true– it ought to be true. But it isn’t true. Likewise with those who question why it is the responsibility of those who are right to teach those who are wrong, the people who say that it shouldn’t be women who have to teach men not to be sexist or people of color who have to teach white people not to be racist. This is bizarre. It is up to good people to argue with the bad because otherwise bad wins. “Ought” does not enter it. There is no should. Good people have to do the political work of creating change or there will be no change.

I have been saying this for a long time: the myth is that the internet is by and for everybody. The reality is that the internet is by and for a tiny sliver of the world’s people. But that sliver believes in the myth. They believe it so, so much. And the myth enables them to hide from the fact that they are just a sliver, and that their concerns are not the world’s concerns, and that everyone in the world does not in fact share their assumptions. When people wonder why it is the responsibility of the good to argue against the bad, they betray a mindset that has mistaken the sliver for the world. Only someone who has lost perspective could imagine that the good people so outnumber the bad that we can safely say that it is not the responsibility of the good to argue with the bad. People argue about trigger warnings as if everyone agrees what behavior is permissible, and yet the large majority of the undergraduates I’ve taught treat words like “feminism” or “white supremacy” as their triggers, and I have taught many, and they are not some reactionary fringe.

I think, frankly, that the elect are mad because while they say they want their Twitter to be readable by everybody, what they really want is for their Twitter to be readable by every Somebody, and people like Nolan remind them that the great unwashed is out there in the public too. There is no button on Twitter to make your feed only readable by those with the right kind of zip code, no box to check that makes you invisible to that majority of people who don’t know the steps to the affluent dance.

Politics is not a way to create a perfect universe. It is a typically futile attempt to make a broken world just slightly less broken. The people in the sliver know that; they catalog the brokenness every day. Yet they forget that; they imagine that every “is” secretly hides an “ought.” And since they believe that the sliver is the world, they only need to burrow deeper into the sliver to avoid the wider world– until the brokenness of the world, inevitably, shakes their little house.

You can get mad at me, but I’m not saying that this is how it should be. I’m just saying it’s so.

3 Comments

  1. 1) Your anti-elite spin on this is okay, but it was about quoting people who had actually said something (describing their sexual assault) they might legitimately not have wanted going BuzzFeed-viral. I’m not even disagreeing with Nolan, it’s just more interesting of a case than people who have yelled at you.

    2) I doubt Nolan/Gawker really believe in the public/private distinction when it comes down to it. I’ll bet in all but the most sympathetic cases private expression exposes the *real* character of the person, and People Have A Right To Page-View.

  2. To me it just seems like the elect are being awfully obnoxious about how they’re arguing with Nolan’s larger point. I get the point being made (I think?), that Twitter isn’t public like a conversation on the sidewalk because it’s operated by a corporate entity and tweets are subject to the company’s terms of use; that news sites might not be on firm technical legal ground if they embed or quote tweets without asking permission, because individual Twitter users hold the rights to that content.

    But I’m not sure I get what Anil Dash and Mal Harris and others are arguing for. They come off as pretty bellicose if they’re just trying to point out that these issues are a little more complex than they appear at first blush. If they or anyone else are actually suggesting that journalists ought not to reproduce people’s tweets without permission (except — maybe? — in the case of public figures) — what’s the endpoint there? How do we not end up in a Kafkaesque place where everybody can see what someone has said on Twitter but our mass media have to go through convoluted contortions to discuss it publicly?

    Maybe there are good answers to those questions. But I felt like the counterpoints I saw on Twitter to Nolan’s post were pretty aloof and more interested in legalistic nitpickery than practical engagement.

  3. Freddie, I highly recommend Domestic Manners of the Americans by Fanny Trollope — written in the 1830s — gets to the heart of what you’re writing about re. the inability to distinguish “is” from “ought” in American culture.

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