"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Twitter as the New Democracy?

June 16th, 2015 by

As a writing teacher, I hear arguments for and against technology all the time. Usually, technology is seen as responsible for bad student writing. People argued this way in the ’30s against radio and in ’60s against TV. Last week, I heard someone argue against texting and social media generally.

If we go back far enough, I can hear Plato hating the technology of writing because he thought it would destroy memory.

Clearly, arguments against technology are as old as technology itself, as old as the utopian-sounding praises sung in favor of new technologies.

The latest argument I read this morning is more of the same.

Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld have been in the news cycle (an image that always reminds me of doing my laundry) for being political incorrect. Whether they deserve this dunking and tossing or not is of less interest to me than what is being said in light of their poor comedic timing. For the record, I do think that Seinfeld’s reference to “gay French kings” is not funny. He didn’t even add, “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as he would have on his ‘90s sitcom.

Maybe he is getting old.

Seinfeld and the New PC
Seinfeld has decided to quit playing college campuses because, he says, college kids are “politically correct.” As evidence, he cites their flat reaction to his joke cited above about gay French kings.

This is not a good example. It doesn’t support his claim. But neither has Nathan Rabin, who cites Seinfeld and Maher in his column in the LA Times, done much better.

Rabin summarizes a domestic scene in the Seinfeld household. When Seinfeld’s wife tells their daughter that she should go to the city to meet boys, Seinfeld’s daughter calls his wife sexist. Seinfeld accuses his daughter of being PC. Rabin’s claim is that Seinfeld’s reaction allows for “no healthy exchange of ideas…Nothing is learned, nobody’s mind is opened.”

Granted, Seinfeld sounds like a pretty typical father. Fathers should be but often are not interested in dialogues with their kids. But Rabin’s take is no better.

Healthy Exchanges
Rabin’s main claim is that Seinfeld and Maher don’t want dialogue. They don’t want this “healthy exchange of ideas,” and he claims this is because of the “vastly different comedy environment” they came up in. Rabin claims it was one “in which the main people they had to answer to were bookers at clubs and television shows.” The bookers, he argues, were “overwhelmingly white, male, and heterosexual.”

But look. Rabin’s characterization of the old world is wrong. Both comedians had to face audiences also. The “white, male, heterosexual” bookers may have been gate keepers. But if they didn’t see and hear the laughs coming from audiences, the comedians would not have gone very far.

But there is also Rabin’s strange take on technology. “Now,” he writes, “everyone with a Twitter or Facebook account has a voice, at least in theory.” I’m glad he adds “at least in theory,” because many people still don’t have these accounts, some because of poverty. And not everyone with a Facebook account has a voice.

But this doesn’t prevent Rabin from arguing that Maher and Seinfeld fail with college students today because they fail to have “embraced Twitter and social media both as a medium for jokes and opinion but also as a forum for healthy debate.”

This is clear, Rabin notes, because, unlike talking to straight white male gate-keepers, “(c)ontemporary comedy often takes the form of a conversation rather than a one-way expression of ideas and information.”

Wait a minute. Seinfeld and Maher only had to talk to straight white guys? And if they had embraced Twitter, they would have been more democratic and more relevant to today’s kids?

Comedy is Dialogue
Comedy always has been a two-way street, at least. Rabin has to notice this when he quotes Seinfeld as saying, “comedy is where you can kind of feel…an opinion.” As a teacher who speaks and tries to create class discussions all the time, I’m quite sure that’s true. Even in an audience of 20, I can “kind of feel…an opinion” coming from my students.

This alone suggests that Seinfeld has always practiced, if not dialogue, then at least some form of listening to his audience.

But since when has Twitter, or for that matter, Facebook (or Pinterest, or Snapchat) become “a forum for healthy debate”?

If anything, social media are little more than car bumpers on which to hang favorite slogans. This is the practice that I spend 80% of my time teaching students to drop, if they really want to open their minds and learn about new opinions.

Social Media and the New Ad
Social media reinforce advertisement thinking and support consumer behaviors. They are not a place for the democratic practice of argument, though they can sometimes be seen supporting other “democratic” practices, for example, mob-mentality, peer coercion, and majority-bullying of minority-opinion.

What they don’t allow for is the kind of nuance that Rabin claims is going on. They don’t enhance the art of reason.

The practice of argument does, though. Learning something new and opening dialogue come from argument. But this is one of the assignments my college students have the greatest trouble with. In their early arguments, they often come off as dogmatic; any view they disagree with is in constant danger of being labeled racist, elitist, or terrorist. There are only extremes. And they make these accusations against people, not arguments. I should add that like Rabin, they are not afraid to dismiss an otherwise good argument because it is made by, well, someone who is “old.”

For the record, I don’t think that what I’ve said here supports Seinfeld’s claim that college students today are politically correct. Rather, I think it shows that they have not yet learned to argue.

Perhaps Maher is wrong, and Seinfeld is wrong. But so is Rabin. He is making an old argument about social media, the same old argument that people were making about the Internet in 1996, when the old sitcom Seinfeld was at its peak. Then, the grandiose claims were made about the transformative, democratic, dialogic nature of the new Internet.

It was going to change everything.

I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. But it still hasn’t happened, as far as I can see.

It hasn’t taught people how to argue.

Work Cited
Rabin, Nathan. “Cranky Comedians.” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 2015: A17.

Posted in Uncategorized| 7 Comments


Replies:

Comment by Joseph Bentz on June 16, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Tom, I read that same article in the L.A. Times this morning, and I wish that newspaper would publish your response to it. I think you should send this to them. I think your background in rhetoric gives a helpful perspective on these issues. I agree with you that Facebook, Twitter, etc., have not become effective forums for real argument. That’s why I stay away from certain issues on those platforms, because it’s so easy for ideas to get reduced to slogans or “Us versus Them” name-calling and oversimplification. I do see why comedians would have a tough time in today’s environment. People are not only easily offended, but they also seem to be looking for hidden offense in things–the hidden racism or sexism or white privilege, etc. From a comedian’s perspective, maybe audiences seem too worried to laugh for fear that laughter reveals some hidden prejudice that someone will be eager to accuse them of.

Comment by Tom on June 17, 2015 at 9:46 am

Joseph, thank you for this encouragement. Wasn’t that op-ed piece fraught with unsupported claims?

Comment by Caroline on June 16, 2015 at 9:32 pm

“Social media reinforce advertisement thinking and support consumer behaviors. They are not a place for the democratic practice of argument, though they can sometimes be seen supporting other “democratic” practices, for example, mob-mentality, peer coercion, and majority-bullying of minority-opinion.”

YES.

I agree with Joseph. This is important.

Comment by Tom on June 17, 2015 at 9:45 am

Thank you, Caroline. It’s great to hear from you. People have all sorts of ideas about what “democracy” looks and feels like.

Comment by Teresa on June 17, 2015 at 5:01 pm

It seems to me that the problem Seinfeld and Maher are having is that their audiences are no longer comfortable with their own racism/sexism/homophobia and can no longer laugh at it. In the 80’s and 90’s when they were in their heyday, subtle racism, sexism, etc. was totally acceptable and rampant. The way I see it is that racist/sexist/homophobic jokes were always offensive, but now htey are being called out for being inappropriate instead of silently endured. Social media has helped people of privilege become aware of things that they do or say that are offensive when they may not have otherwise known. And once they know (if they are good people) they stop the offensive behavior and don’t think it’s funny anymore. Social Media may not have taught people to argue, but it has allowed for a greater understanding of “the other side”. It is really easy for a straight, cis, white, male to say that people are looking for offense because when in their privileged life have they ever been on the receiving end? When have they been harassed by police for the color of their skin, told they are an abomination and should die of AIDS, been catcalled and groped by strangers who think it’s a complement, beaten/raped/murdered for the way they were born, etc.? These offenses aren’t imagined, and though they may seem hidden, they are no less real and always have been. The difference is that people are finally speaking up and saying STOP. People finally have a platform to say it’s not okay, and they aren’t going to sit back and suffer silently. Is Social Media the best place to come to resolution? No. But it is a great jumping off point, and I think it has changed everything.

Comment by Tom on June 17, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Teresa, Thanks for your insights. I suspect there is something to what you are saying. I would just argue that “subtle racism” hasn’t gone away. It is still there. Today’s social media users are not immune. I also suspect that when we say that social media have helped in some way, we are making technology too great a determiner in the mess. We are guilty of arguing in favor of technological determinism. I suspect that this isn’t the whole picture.

Comment by Maria on June 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm

One of the few remnants on humor in today’s PC generation is “irony”, a word they discover in High School and abuse more than their favorite Shakespeare quote (“2 B or not 2 B” twiiiiit!). “Isn’t it ironic that …” [fill-in-the-blank]? and no, it is generally not ironic; rather, it is evident, obvious, slapstickly plain.

The other remnant of humor that they have inherited (from the Millennials) is making fun of others that are either politically incorrect or old.

The final remnant, the hope left at the bottom of the TVbox, is self-deprecating humor, a healthy Anglo tradition all cultures should imitate (no irony here, I mean it). But then again, who says it? Me, the woman who still laughs with Bevis and Butthead.

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