#WeblogPoMo2024 - Thoughts on "Takes spread like wildfire"

An interesting post by Jason related to my recent discussions of manifestos and the general trend towards simple moral purity based statements (check this post and its links at the top if you’re curios). Some excerpts from Jason’s post:

Communities converge on an understanding of how they are supposed to feel about something very rapidly on the internet. It seems to take no time at all for influential voices to emphatically determine what views are Good and Right and what views are Wrong.[…]

This is not all bad.[…]But it does mean that there are many things that are not safe to share. […] [You can’t] “try out” an argument [anymore] or even an identity to see how it feels. […] It also means that sometimes when your peers and people you respect have all decided what the “right” view is, it’s very hard to comfortably express a less strident, more lukewarm, more timid, and possibly more complex or nuanced take, especially if you’re not ready, willing, and able to present a dissertation about your view point.

The way I’ve chosen to operate in this environment is to listen to the intensity of others. This almost always means one of two things:

  1. I will end up agreeing with them, but for various reasons, I need to listen more and more carefully to be convinced. My own mind and emotions take a lot more evidence to get to the same conclusion my peers made it to right away.
  2. Folks are jumping on a bandwagon and squashing nuances and loudly proclaiming the easy thing. Anything I add to the conversation will drain me of all kinds of energy, likely ending in the person I’m talking with claiming they held the same belief that I do the whole time. In both of these cases, I don’t need to speak. I can just listen. And eventually, I can decide that if we’re not heading toward the first case, I can stop listening. I can just opt out. It’s not a conversation, it’s a signaling competition.

I like this, even though I have my gripes with some of this. Not all of my notes are direct responses to Jason, but general thoughts to an imagined reader that tries to understand the implications of a post like this.

  • Trying on arguments and personas can be a highly questionable practice. People may get hurt. So the web today doesn’t owe you this. Doing this is at least in some ways related to tricking people. But so is telling stories without disclosing you’re telling stories, of course. I think it’s possible to flag posts that do this as experimental thinking or whatever. See Maggie Appleton’s Epistemic Disclosure.
  • More complex, subtle takes are not a problem in and of themselves, I’d say. A richer description of a situation can be very interesting and enlightening. The problem is often not the complexity of a take, but the take. For example: I can write a complex text about my feelings around climate change in which I deny that there is trustable evidence that climate change is even a thing. The incendiary part of a take like this is its general thrust (for people who care about climate change). Also: Subtle takes don’t magically free you from being misinterpreted/misrepresented either. Your text may end up being a completely reframed tool in somebody else’s texts. You can’t do anything against this. And you never could! But that is not a new development.
  • Not knowing where you stand yet is generally fine and can be super interesting (because vulnerability is interesting), as long as some preconditions are met: You are not claiming to not know where you stand but actually just use it as a defense for a questionable position. Again, you can flag that stuff appropriately.
  • As nobody owes you being okay with just letting you try out an opinion you actually don’t hold on them, nobody owes you not being criticized for what you put out in the public. In the best case you’re part of a community that will protect you and enforces a certain code of conduct and hopefully has values you can agree with, but the greater web doesn’t work like that because it’s basically social wilderness. That means the further your reach the more it is likely that you will encounter pushback.
  • Everything’s questionable. Using “The facts™” is often an attempt to state something as objectively as possible without realizing that its factualness is the result of negotiations. See Latour’s Modalities for a great concept handle for this.