“O what can ail thee, sat-at-home,
Alone and palely tweeting?
The charm has withered from this site,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, sat-at-home,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
Our culture’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
“I joined this website long ago,
Full beautiful — it made me glad,
When tweets were short, and tone was light,
And fun was to be had.
It found me links of relish sweet,
And breaking news, and punning-dew,
And sure in language strange it said —
‘What else is new?’
It came part of my daily rote.
But now it’s changed — Ah! woes umpteen! —
The latest tweet I ever read
On the cold phone screen.
I saw pale men and women too,
Keyboard-warriors were they all;
They cried — ‘La Troll Site Sans Mercy
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved snark on my phone,
With horrid warning gaped peeve,
And I awoke and found me here,
And said: ‘it’s time to leave’.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and barely tweeting,
The fun is withered from this app,
And no birds sing.”
I resisted Twitter for a while, back in the dim-distant, assuming it was, you-know, ‘for kids’, and that it would be unseemly for me, a man in my (as I then was) forties, to loiter there. I succumbed, though, in the first instance at my publisher’s urging. You need to be on social media, Adam, they said. You need to get the word out, they said. So I made an account at @arrroberts and, frankly, got swept up. Man alive but Twitter was addictive back then. It used to be fun (remember that?). I got to meet interesting people, to follow intriguing links, to delight in pithy wit and hear breaking news stories before they were officially announced. And again there was just the structure of it, built to gratify the ADHD-ish loops in my brain architecture (I mean, having lived to the age I now am I’ve developed a raft of little strategies of dealing with this part of my nature, siphoning-off its energies in various ways; but it doesn’t go away). So here I was: my rat-paw pressing the little lever to make a savoury pellet drop from a hatch, over and over. This, of course (of course) is an inherently unhealthy thing to be doing, psychologically speaking. Although I suppose there are worse ways to indulge that craving. Or there were.
Twitter, though, has changed. Nowadays I wake up, get a cup of tea, open Twitter on my phone, scroll through and it just makes me anxious and unhappy. By the time I close the site in order to get on with my day my mood has been dragged down. Why do that to myself? That looks like a rhetorical question, that, but I really mean it. So many of us going on to what we call, only half in jest, this hellsite daily. What do we think we’re doing?
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that gets me down. It is, I think, in a strange way, actually a function of the positivity of the platform — I mean the way it enables people (and has enabled me) to make new friends, to set up friend-circles, to connect with people all over the world via shared interests. But the truth is that this possibility is increasingly becoming a hermeticism rather than an open-ended hospitality to otherness. We justify our hiding-away to ourselves in terms of how distressing it is to have to engage, or even to be made aware of certain kinds of people and certain species of views. But the gloating use of the block button, the self-congratulatory declaration that we have blocked person X, Y or Z, leads us deeper into the stylites remoteness that finds itself less and less tolerant of hearing contrary views, or even of being reminded that not everybody in the world thinks the way we do. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, if I’m honest, in a larger sense. And I’m aware that the most sensible thing to do — stepping away — would be in many ways an abdication of responsibility. But it seems to me less self-deluding, less morally mendacious, than ‘curating’ our social media until they become a sealed chamber of righteous mirrors.
When our daughter was born my wife and I got one of those big How To Parent books (it’s a terrifying business, the first few weeks with your first child: a whole, helpless human being is now your life-or-death responsibility!) From amongst the welter of advice that volume contained one thing really stuck with me. It’s this: when your kid is older you will, on occasion, have to discipline him/her. They will do something naughty, or worse, and it’s important that you draw a line so that they can learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. But when you do that, it’s very important you tell the child “you have done a bad thing” and not “you are a bad child”. It might look like a small thing, but it’s not. Kids internalise what we tell them and what they internalise can have large impacts on their later development. “You have done a bad thing” gives them the chance to change what they do; “you are a bad child” requires them to change who are they, and that’s not a burden we should lay on them. But here’s the thing: that burden has become absolutely the default on Twitter, or so it seems to me. If Celebrity X says something with which you disagree, your first step is: they therefore are a bad person (they are a Nazi, a terf, an abuser etc). This then licenses you to pour your contumely upon them, to treat them as a legitimate target for your wrath and violence and outrage. It’s essentialism, in a word. It’s everywhere and I find it exhausting and wrong and bad: a world whose fundamental premise is, redemption is impossible, except through total capitulation to my value-system, and for many people not even then. But it’s not something I can change, so it may well be that the best thing I can do is step away.
Another way of putting this would be to note that Twitter, and by degrees other forms of social media, have become astonishingly Schmittian spaces — astonishingly not least because Carl Schmitt is about as cancel-worthy an individual as Twitter could possibly conceive. But here we are. These media make the expression of nuance harder; they encourage instant acclamation and instant judgment, and above all they pander to a mind-set in us by which we divide the universe into friends and enemies. Reading William Davies recent essay on Schmitt in the LRB brought this powerfully home to me.
In the late 1920s, the political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, subsequently to join the Nazi Party, developed a theory of democracy that aimed to improve on the liberal version. In place of elections, representatives and parliaments, all talk and gutless indecision, Schmitt appealed to the one kind of expression that people can make for themselves: acclamation. The public should not be expected to deliberate or exercise power in the manner that liberals hoped. But they can nevertheless be consulted, as long as the options are limited to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. The public can ‘express their consent or disapproval simply by calling out’, Schmitt wrote in Constitutional Theory (1928), ‘calling higher or lower, celebrating a leader or a suggestion, honouring the king or some other person, or denying the acclamation by silence or complaining’. ‘Public opinion,’ he continued, ‘is the modern type of acclamation.’
Social media are predicated on this basically Schmittian bedrock: that the world is divided for each of us into friends and enemies. ‘The outcome of all this,’ says Davies, talking of our modern, socially-mediated world, ‘is a politics with which Schmitt’s name is commonly associated, one that reduces to a base distinction between “friend and enemy”. The distinction itself is what counts, not whatever fuels or justifies it.’ It’s increasing where we are. Now, this seems to me bad and wrong on its own terms; but it also seems to me that it’s a game rigged — as actual literal Nazi Schmitt perhaps intuited — in favour of the Right. The way the Left has reacted to accusations of ‘cancel culture’ is a case in point: it betrays a sense that we’re on the run, a fatal muddling of responses, offered with angry vehemence but all saying different things: ‘there’s no such thing!’ is common, as is ‘it’s just another term for karma!’ and also ‘cancel culture doesn’t go far enough: these people just lose lucrative media contracts, not their heads’. The right is clearer-eyed:
The right understands how to play this ‘culture war’: they know to identify the most absurd or unreasonable example of your opponents’ worldview; exploit your own media platform to amplify it; articulate an alternative in terms that appear calm and reasonable; and then invite people to choose. It isn’t all one-way traffic, of course. There is no shortage of progressive and left-wing opinion on social media that aims primarily at harming conservatives by misrepresenting them. One difference is that the left isn’t in control of the majority of the newspapers (though its opponents accuse it of controlling much else, from the BBC to universities).
Schmitt’s friend/enemy formulation, formulated in ‘The Concept of the Political’, argues that the political is different to all other domains It’s different to the theological, where value is premised on something extrinsic; and different to the economic, which at least makes a distinction between profitable and not profitable. This is because the political construes identity; and more to the point, because, for Schmitt, our identity is predicated upon the distinction between friend and enemy, a distinction determined ‘existentially’: the enemy is whoever is ‘in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.’ And the crucial thing about the enemy is their radical wrongness. They don’t just say or do wrong things, they are wrong. And once the idea seeps into your consciousness that this other person is not only saying wrong things but is themselves fundamentally wrong, terrible consequences become possible. A terror can insinuate itself into you that their wrongness might be catching — it’s primal, in some cases, and therefore unconsidered.