In Defense of Civility on Twitter

Fear of tone-policing shouldn’t trump the basic norms that are crucial to a healthy public discourse.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

In his article on Twitter and the obstacles that it faces, my colleague Robinson Meyer persuasively argues that many people are alienated by the notion of speaking conversationally to their followers, only to have their words scrutinized in far-flung circles they never anticipated reaching, perhaps provoking an angry backlash.

He draws on the stellar work of Bonnie Stewart, whose keen insights I look forward to following in the future. But I want to disagree with one of her claims:

Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice.

At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks.

It’s just that very last sentence that I wanted to flag: “...calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks.”

I have a high tolerance for rough-and-tumble debate. The norms I'd prefer on Twitter would accomodate plenty of heated exchanges. But observing the platform these days, I’m very much of the opinion that informally pushing back against the most virulent incivility would be good for Twitter, its users, and digital culture. And I don’t understand the presumption that “victim-blaming” is sure to follow, especially if disproportionate incivility is, in fact, aimed at “any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations.”

If people who speak openly about getting a raw deal are the quintessential objects of incivility on Twitter, wouldn’t efforts to increase civility tend to benefit them?

Don’t get me wrong.

I see that participants in public discourse sometimes evade substantive critiques by focusing on alleged shortcomings in the way that they are expressed. And I see that this sometimes takes the form of “tone-policing,” where a person expressing anger, hurt, or other strong emotions about an injustice is assailed by interlocutors who ignore the substance of their complaints and shift the focus to their tone. I see apologists for the national-security state use this tactic to dismiss the often-stellar investigative commentary of Glenn Greenwald, who easily meets my civility threshold. During the Iraq War debate I saw it used to dismiss anti-war protestors. And I see it used now to deflect the critiques of Black Lives Matter.

The substance of complaints about injustice, oppression, or marginalization ought to be engaged whenever possible. But why not champion that standard and encourage a baseline degree of civility? For fear of excesses, must people refrain from objecting to words plainly offered to wound rather than to debate; to personal attacks that have no substance; to flagrant misrepresentations of their views; and to the most extreme vitriol?

I politely dissent!

The costs of incivility are trivial for me. At this point I’m more-or-less inured to it online. But I know that it weighs on a not-insignificant number of my fellow journalists; my perception is that women and minority journalists are particularly affected. This extreme incivility undeniably shrinks the number of people who are willing to participate in public discourse, particularly among members of the general public, who cannot be expected to become inured in the way that many journalists are; it makes important conversations more exhausting and less pleasant for those of us who still decide to have them; and it renders people much less likely to engage with the substance of what’s being said. A relatively small number of offenders are responsible for these outsized harms.

Those are all strong reasons to call for greater civility. And the notion that such calls “will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming” presumes, for reasons I cannot discern, that it’s impossible to avoid such pitfalls.

Here is a call for civility that avoids them: As listeners, we have an obligation to absorb and engage substantive claims, even when we don’t like the way that they’re expressed; as speakers, we have an obligation to maintain a baseline degree of civility. And both obligations persist whether or not our interlocutors meet theirs.

My preferred Twitter culture would bear critiques of tone-policing in mind.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes, “When someone communicates the factual and emotional truth of their experiences with oppression to you, it is not a malicious attack on you or your existence. Your discomfort is not their fault… it is the fault of the oppressive structure they are responding to, one which you may be benefiting from.”

Says a relevant Tumblr post, “Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.” And I agree, although I’d add that having interviewed scores of marginalized people, I’ve found literally all of them able to make their points civilly, and I’m uneasy with a world view that finds that to be counterintuitive or unexpected.

Here are some other beliefs that inform my views:

  • The vast majority of incivility on Twitter has nothing to do with communicating experiences of oppression.

  • The vast majority of people who do communicate experiences of oppression on Twitter easily meet every threshold of civility.

  • Abandoning all civility norms on Twitter is bad for everyone except jerks, and it is especially bad for marginalized groups.

  • The contrary position—that norms of civility are especially bad for marginalized groups—seems to implicitly presume that people of color and women are less civil than white people.

  • Insofar as some people are advocating for social justice while, say, levying profanity-laden screeds in all caps, I am baffled by the assumption that they're helping their cause. The fact that journalists like me try hard to glean insights from uncivil Tweets when possible doesn’t mean that’s how typical readers react, no matter what idealized standard I might urge as a model.

  • The notion that it’s never appropriate to hold anyone who has been oppressed to any standard of civility at all is not enlightened—it is hugely patronizing.

  • Concluding that marginalized people are frequently dismissed on the basis of illegitimate tone-policing seems to imply that those wrongheaded dismissals are identifiable—that they can be distinguished from other, legitimate critiques of incivility. And if the two can be told apart, then surely some norm of civility can be enforced.

That’s a happy conclusion.

The status quo, a near-constant stream of virulent incivility, is unfair to people in every identity group and harms public discourse. And it could improve with relatively small shifts in toward norms that we’ve already achieved in real space.

Qualified calls for that sort of civility should be offered unapologetically. And withholding the critique wouldn’t prevent any illegitimate tone-policing anyway.