Let’s get this out there right off the bat: I work in higher ed. I’m sometimes arrogant. And I’ve often been an asshole on social media. I’ve been blocked by at least 6 people for said arrogance and assholery on Facebook. During election season, for instance, I posted passive aggressive links to yourlogicalfallacyis.com on people’s statuses — if you want to get someone to block you, trolling them with this website is a sure-fire way to do so. After, I’d follow up my comments with “in case you’re thinking I’m committing the ‘fallacy fallacy,’ here are the rest of the reasons that you’re wrong.” That’s when the block usually happened.
So clearly, I’m hardly a perfect “academic” social media (primarily Facebook) user. But, after falling into one too many rabbit holes, I made three rules for myself:
- No more commenting on people’s statuses, posts, or articles unless positive or apolitical. In other words, no more “listening” just to respond.
- No intellectual masturbation. In other words, no posts for the sake of sounding smart without actually doing anything productive.
- If, and only if, it could be productive to discuss a topic, it must only be done in person or in a private conversation (Messenger, phone, etc.)
I still follow these rules, and for several reasons. One, this saves me quite a lot of grief. No more lying in wait for red numbers to notify me of new comments, no more blind rage at people’s “ignorance” or “stupidity” or (and this is rich) rigidity. No more distraction from more important things, like work or real, in person relationships. After implementing this rules, I feel free.
But one of the most important reasons I did this is that I started wondering what it’d be like to approach a conversation like a conversation instead of like an argument. I wondered what it’d be like to ask questions rather than fire off responses with a devilish grin and thinking “oh-ho-ho, I bet you can’t beat that!” I wondered what it’d be like to stop putting people on the defensive and to start treating them like equals. Like people, who are capable of thinking critically, making their own decisions, and understanding new things.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that social media is like driving. You don’t see people as people when you’re driving, you see them as cars. Think about it; you might say “that car really pissed me off!” or “Fuck that semi!” But if someone cuts in front of you in, say, Walmart, you don’t just run up on their heels with your cart or say, “fuck you, asshole!” unless you’re having a particularly bad day or need to call up your therapist. You usually just brush it off and move along. This seems to be what’s happening in social media — we’re treating people as caricatures or avatars rather than the complex beings they are, and therein lies the fodder for many arguments on social media. We all want to flip each other the emoji bird sometimes, even though we might not want to in real life.
To extend the shitty metaphor, academic social media users seem lately like people who think they are superior drivers because they own a Dodge Challenger or a Chevy Corvette. They’re the ones who blaze past at 120 mph because they “know how to drive” just because they’re privileged enough to have a fast car. If they notice the rusty cars, they’re likely calling them schmucks. And then they complain when they’re held accountable for their traffic infractions while the rusty bumper guy drives right on past feeling pure glee when he sees the cherries and berries.
Forgive the poor metaphor. I’ll say it straight: academics are assholes on Facebook, generally speaking, particularly about political issues that they should be pitching in a way that reaches people who don’t already agree with them. I saw this after the election, and I’m seeing it more and more frequently: academics talking down to “laypeople,” — people who have less education than them and who happen to disagree with their views (political or otherwise).
After the election, for example, criticisms of Trump supporters were less about their ideals and more about their personhood, which I find disgusting and frankly, no better than the actions of those who got Trump elected. Academics all over my Facebook feed were perpetuating the “backwoods ignorant redneck” stereotype and other stereotypes about poor whites. No wonder no Trump supporter believes in implicit biases or unconscious racism — they’ve come to believe that to be “racist” is always to be a violent or reprehensible human being. Obviously, sometimes it is, but we’re not going to get anywhere if we keep treating all Trump supporters as “deplorables.”
Case in point, and the reason I’m writing about this:
Tonight, I read a Facebook post from a wonderfully intelligent, caring, humanist. I expected it to be social justice-y, because usually, that’s what her posts are. What I read, though, to be honest, felt like a huge bitch slap, and probably felt even worse to her dissenters on Facebook. I’m not going to quote it because I don’t want to burn her at the online stake, but it was two paragraphs of essentially this:
“This is a reminder that I have a Ph.D and am an expert in my field. Don’t comment on my statuses about political, humanist issues unless you have a Ph.D too. My smart[er] academic friends and I have to bring you up to speed on things we’ve spent years learning and your ideas aren’t valid or new.”
Yes, these ideas were actually said (in a different, actually more condescending way), complete with pointing out the smarter friends. And, I really had to refrain from breaking any of my rules, because I was in a rage after reading it. Some of the people on her statuses asked genuine questions, only to be smitten by the All Knowing. I wondered what would happen if any of my family members were to ask her questions — many of my family members were Trump supporters and yes, not educated. I am the first person in my family to receive a graduate degree, and trust me, this makes for quite the existential crisis.
But the only way I’ve gotten anywhere is by asking questions, and not flying into a rage when someone says something problematic or even offensive. My grandparents, who are racist, “redneck” butchers who shoot deer out of their kitchen windows with big-ass shotguns, voted for Obama and told all of their friends that he’s not going to “take all of their f*cking guns.” They became convinced of Obama’s potential through respectful conversations in which they were treated like who they actually are: people.
In my family, Ph.D’s don’t get you anywhere, so talking down to people definitely doesn’t, either. It’s hard not to be angry when people say shitty, racist, misogynist, and offensive things, but last time I checked, you don’t need to convince people who already agree with you. I’m a rhetoric professor! I should know! (The sarcasm is intentional, here). Getting so upset that we can’t have respectful conversations, though, makes The All Knowing professoriate seem like a bunch of angry gods who want to flood the earth, save all the liberals in a big ark, and laugh as the conservatives drown.
Essentially, though, we’re just punching holes in our ark, and we’re going to drown with them if we don’t stop.
Saying “you can’t talk about this because you don’t have a Ph.D” is not only a crappy way to treat people, it’s also counterproductive — it takes important conversations out of the public forum and moves them right back into the ivory tower. Even though there are more Ph.D’s than ever, there are far more people without them, so there aren’t many ways, if any, to create effective change without reaching the so-called lay people. No wonder Trump is president. Who wants to listen to condescending people calling them ignorant? Certainly not me.
This all reminds me of “mansplaining,” except without the “explaining things we already know” part. It reminds me of it because some academics act like they’re better than the laypeople. They condescendingly explain what they think people should know or what they think people should think. Yes, we have authority on the subjects that we study. But humanists, in particular, need to check themselves and start practicing what they preach on Facebook — which last time I checked, is equality, and Trump supporters are included in that — otherwise, we’re just going to continue isolating ourselves and becoming a laughingstock to those who see us as snowflakes.
And why do they see us as snowflakes? Because when we act like we do toward Trump supporters, we do seem hypersensitive. We seem like whiny children throwing a tantrum because we aren’t getting what we want, and people have already stopped listening to us because of it.
I challenge you, then, my fellow academics, to this:
Start asking questions.
Stop stereotyping laypeople.
Stop giving into knee-jerk reactions.
Let’s put down our iPhones and our keyboards, and stop masturbating all over our social media posts.
Nobody wants to see that.