Sunday, 23 September 2018

Social media and the cultural elites

There are many “elites” in our society. If you are an executive with a company that funds building construction you are part of a economic elite. If you are a journalist or the adviser to a politician you are part of the political elite. And if you are a university teacher you are part of the cultural elite.

A construction company executive might have the same tastes as many of the construction workers his company pays a wage to. He might like the rugby league and he might go to the pub on the weekend and gamble on the pokies, or else make his way to the casino for a discrete flutter on the velvet-covered tables that are set up there. But the cultural elites make their living by participating in the process of creating culture, including in the form of education for people who want to understand it and so use it for some purpose that we think to be central to our identity as members of the dominant global civilisation.

Like anyone else, the cultural elites are involved in public discourse in many ways, including through social media. But the problem is that the way they use the new tools is antithetical, in many instances, to the spirit of enquiry that has animated their ilk from at least the age of Dante and Petrarch. The rules and, more importantly, the tone of social media, have decisively pulled the rug out from underneath them as they try to come to grips with the contemporary public sphere. They have fallen and there is no-one out there with the strength, apart from  themselves, to put them back on their feet.

I was talking not long ago with someone I know who teaches at a university and he was describing a program his institution was promoting for academics in order to get them to expand their reach in the broader community. Ideas were to be described on a platform the university had built and promoted in the community to garner support in order to work out which projects would receive funding so that they could go ahead. Like voting in a GoFundMe campaign. In his voice there was an intimation of incredulity as he detailed the ways that the institution’s management had short-circuited the collegiate nature of academia. Nowadays it seemed, you had to participate in a popularity contest in order to get money to back your ideas.

But academics have on the other hand enthusiastically embraced the censorious vernacular of social media. One man on whose Facebook feed I was debating the economics of agriculture in Australia quietly asked me to stop commenting because I wouldn’t accept his reading of history. I had been suggesting that agriculture had been central to the economy for much of the nation’s early history but his understanding was at variance with mine, and he thought that most people employed on the land in the colonial period had experienced unalloyed hardship. I had put forward a different case but he wasn’t interested in debating the details. He had his theories and he wasn’t going to be diverted from his course as he relied on them to make his points. I obligingly retired from the field.

On another occasion, on Twitter, a woman whose handle contains the name of a famous French postmodernist theoretician made statements about the correlations she had observed between Germany in the 1930s and contemporary America. I commented that I thought that the facts of the cases were different and gave my reasons why. She replied saying that I was “mansplaining” to her and further informed me that she was a teacher of sociology as it involved Germany and that she thought my arguments were incorrect.

Back on Facebook, an academic I am connected to was posting stories about the University of Sydney’s involvement with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. He objected to any alliance between the organisations on the basis that to open up a dialogue between them would, he thought, lend credibility to an ideologically-driven conservative body with a stale agenda antithetical to the ideals of progress at the centre of the university’s identity. I posted a blogpost I had written about the origins of modern technology and democracy, which said that these innovations had arisen in Europe at certain periods in history for certain reasons. The academic had read the post, I am sure of it, because he ‘liked’ another comment I made on the same thread, but he made no mention of my blogpost or of the ideas it contained. He clearly believed that democracy and modern technology were universal both in origin and in application and had decided to belittle my observations pointing to a contrary finding. His studied evasion in the face of the content I had put forward to advance certain ideas central to the debate told me much about the vaunted academic freedoms he was trying to protect.

Again on Facebook, I read a story published in The Conversation that a contemporary artist I was connected to had put up to provoke debate. It was about Australian women artists. I said that there had been no major Australian artists, either men or women, before WWII and gave the reasoning behind my statements. His reply was merely that I was “impressively ignorant”. I had been a follower of the art world from my teens and had been thought a good artist when I was young. I attended art school for a period of time and had studied fine arts at university for two years as part of my undergraduate degree. I had also followed the art industry with interest for my entire life. For certain I was not ignorant, but the tone of debate demanded that I be silenced, so I unfollowed this man quietly and went about my business.

On Twitter I read an article that had been published in The Economist by a young Australian writer which had been broadcast by a doctoral student at the Australian National University. I read the article and thought its ideas were half-baked and commented that I thought it was “amateurish”. The doctoral student rebuked me, telling me that my language was “unnecessarily harsh”. The article’s author told me that since she and I appeared to have irreconcilable differences she chose not to pursue the argument any further. I stayed silent faced with this opposition.

Journalists have the same basic goal as academics: to present the fact in an objective way. Accurate conclusions can be drawn from facts presented truthfully but there is even a word for the kind of bias you often find academics using online in their social media discourse. This is teleology: the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. This sort of anti-intellectual behaviour does violence to the facts but is commonplace on social media where the aim is merely to win the argument by any means necessary, often at the cost of the truth.

What all of this unpleasantness tells me is that the cultural elites are enthusiastic proponents of social media and use it as aggressively as your average (left-wing or right-wing) troll in order to promote their favourite views regardless how narrow these might be. They are not babes in the wood, nor are they merely subject to unwarranted censure by an ignorant rabble. They are participating with eyes wide open in a system of communication that encourages verbal abuse at worst and at least an ugly contempt for opponents.


Matt Moore said...

1. These people are posting as private citizens rather than official representatives of organizations.
2. No one is obligated to conduct discussions with you on social media. No one is obligated to reply. I post a lot of ****. And most of my comments do not generate responses. And that is OK.
3. You might review your own style of interacting with people and explore why you get the reactions that you do. Most of us are blissfully unaware of the effect that we have on others.
4. It's always other people who are "elites". I don't think a post-doc running from contract to contract or a journo who has seen half her colleagues fired and deals with PR staff paid many multiples of her salary feel particularly "elite-y".

Am I saying that in every interaction you list above, you are wrong and the others are right? No. But I do want to "complicate your narrative"...

Matthew da Silva said...

I take your point about people not always grasping the effect they might have on others, but as a general rule people on social media are increasingly brittle and unwilling to engage in the kind of robust debate that we need in order to have a healthy public sphere. You see this especially with journalists and commentators who block you for merely asking them a question. Their assumption is that your question is going to escalate to abuse but this is only true in a few rare cases. Most people just want to talk. I will be publishing another similar blogpost soon about "femmesplaining" which might get some reaction from some people. Discussion is the aim.