Twitter is a great resource for the quick dissemination of information, and it is hard to imagine being without the sharing of links, ideas and resources on Edu-Twitter these days.
And then… there is the ‘debating’ value of Edu-Twitter….
According to Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s The Enigma of Reason, the power of human reasoning didn’t evolve in order to help us better conquer the world through problem solving, nor even to help establish for us the ‘truth’ of things. No, they contend that it evolved to close-down dissent, chase-out cheaters, and seal-up the ‘in-group’, thereby improving our ability to function, survive and thrive as a powerful group organism in a primitive world.
In other words, we have evolved and sharpened our thinking skills in order to be very good at quibbling, arguing the toss and separating people into ‘us and them’. (Gossiping is another evolved trait designed to bond-us together tightly with our kith and kin.) Additionally, we have honed our talent for ‘confirmation bias’ – attending to and celebrating those parts of arguments or bits of evidence which support our case – whilst being blind to the power or even existence of arguments or bits of evidence which don’t. I’m sure I’m falling victim to it right now (and probably so are you).
It’s true that, sometimes, some of us are in a position whereby we can shift our opinion and even our overall worldview if we do hear a really good logical case. We genuinely can hear a speech, read a book – or even a single article – which completely changes how we see things, but we normally require quite strong emotional preparedness, and probably a sufficient level of previous doubts, that we’re already waiting for the straw which will break the camel’s back. We then take on the super-reinforced mantle of ‘the convert’; it is much harder for us to shift back again.
Essentially, we very rarely keep an open mind on a big topic once we’ve come to a public decision on it, or have decided to adopt a particular worldview which gives us a sense of identity.
Over the past week or so there was yet another messy Edu-Twitter furore, which reminds me both of a truly unfortunate classic tragedy, and also of just how close to Mercier and Sperber’s picture of reasoning Twitter, and indeed Social Media as a whole, brings us.
It was absolutely classic ‘Us and Them’ tribal behaviour, and it thrived on a bit of initial naïve emotional ‘button pressing’ by a person writing a blog on one side, plus a corresponding emotionally charged misreading of exactly what had been said by those targeted on the other side. Their resulting righteous indignation – and urgent warnings that saying such things could land the writer in real trouble – was then taken by the initial provocateur as a sufficient threat for them to delete their blog and Twitter account.
In response, fellow members of the provocateur’s tribe leapt-in to defend her, escalating the Twitter sniping and leading to an increase in skirmishes with the initial ‘victims’ – now being pilloried as ‘persecutors’. These counter-attackers could have politely and clearly pointed-out the semantic misunderstanding [the initial criticism suggested that the accused had publicly ‘sneered at and denigrated’ the principles ‘espoused’ by a particular school, but this was misread as stating that they had ‘sneered at and denigrated’ the ACTUAL school – which they said they had never done, and which could consequently be defamation].
However, instead of pointing out this misunderstanding, and possibly getting-in a bit of teasing about this careless misreading, they decided to portray the overreaction as a deliberately knowing strategy to bully-out a supposedly vulnerable person who happened to publicly disagree with them.
Whilst the Twitter venom focused on decrying with increasing moral outrage the actions of individuals, a blog post was then launched by the rescuing side in order to take the offending incident, and the – now firmly interpreted as callous – actions of the isolated ‘victims-come-persecutors’ as something which could be GENERALISED to be something indicative of their tribe as a whole.
I got caught-up in the furore myself at this point – not quite knowing the full details, but not liking the smell of the rhetoric on the blog post, and suspecting that there was an attempt to make some political capital by blowing-up a much more nuanced situation.
And so…. here we are, with me trying to ‘step back a little’, and ponder just how much we can learn about ourselves from Twitter, the evolution of reasoning, and a distastefully messy ‘right-old classic tragedy’.
In a follow-up to this post, I discuss the dynamics involved when people seem to engage in debate on social media.