On Twitter Blocking
Here’s something I don’t get about Twitter (I mean, I should say, here is one of the many things I don’t get about Twitter …) — the way people brag about blocking other users. The way they boast about it. The way they announce it, like it’s a commendable thing they are doing. The way their twitter-friends applaud them.
I don’t mean to be performatively dense. Twitter might be, for you, a kind of friendzone, which is fair enough. It may be a place you go digitally to hang-out with people you like, for a sense of community, support, fun. That’s absolutely fine — indeed, it makes sense, especially in our fragmented, stuck-indoors, work-from-home world. We all need friendship, community, support, and after the last couple of years we’ve all had we need that more than ever. If Twitter gives you that, great. And if people are trying to interact with you on this hellsite in a way that contaminates and diminishes that, by all means block them.
But there’s another way people use Twitter, and it’s radically different. It’s to use it as a political place, a social-outreach place, a place in which you announce your principles and beliefs to the world — a place in which you challenge bigotry, add your voice to the pressure for change. That’s fine too. I’ve never been persuaded by the bien pensant view that Twitter is irrelevant to politics: real things are affected by Twitter, real political figures (Trump, say) use it as a ladder to real power. (I mean, if you press me, I’ll confess I’m enough of an old leftist to believe that real change happens by collective action, not by lots of people tweeting their beliefs and opinions. But we are where we are. The world is not what it was when I was a kid in the 1970s).
Here’s my point: if this second thing is what Twitter is for you, then blocking people is self-defeating, even dangerous. If you believe X and every day you log online to discover that everybody else there also believes in X, naturally you will come to believe that X is a mainstream, general opinion — as how could it be otherwise? You believe it, after all; and that means it’s normal and righteous and proper, and anyone who disagrees with you must be motivated by bigotry, or madness, and such people are anyway only a tiny minority. But online only looks that way because you have blocked everyone who disagrees with you! — not only blocked them, but crowed about blocking them! You’ve not only turned your outward-facing social engagement platform into a hermetic friendzone, you have confused the latter for the former.
I see this all the time on Twitter. I see Corbynistas so convinced of the greatness, rightness and — really, this is the crucial thing — electability of Jeremy that, having blocked all those who disagree, they come to think of this belief as simple common sense. The Tories being so manifestly evil and deplorable, and anyone who might tweet a contrary opinion being barred, it becomes something as irrefutable as Newton’s laws. Then a poll pops into your timeline that shows the Tories eighteen points ahead and you cannot parse it. How can this be? It can only be that the entire country is full of fucking bigots. Jesus! Are you happy now, Polly Toynbee?
I don’t want to get distracted by the Corbyn thing, although it genuinely does boggle my mind that so many people remain eager adherents where he is concerned. Speaking for myself, I liked many of his policy proposals and would have loved to see them implemented. But there was a problem with him, one obvious from the start of his time as leader: he was unelectable. A majority of British people was never going to vote him to power. Various people said so when he became party leader, and although they were vigorously shouted-down by his supporters, two general elections have confirmed the truth of the proposition. That was what the ‘chicken coup’ was about — not fascist betrayal and Judassy wickedness and all the things Corbyn’s supporters complained about at the time, but a piece of electoral pragmatics: Corbyn was unelectable, so it would have made sense to replace him with somebody who was electable. The line Corbyn would have been electable if only …. is a despicable piece of wish-fulfilment disguising itself as political engagement. ‘Corbyn would have been electable if only the MSM had supported him!’ is the most common iteration of this, to which the only sensible response is: then Corbyn fucked-up badly by not getting the MSM on side. Blair managed it, in a tabloid climate that was in many ways even more hostile to socialism than now (this very week, with very little MSM pushback, we’ve seen taxes increased to their highest postwar level, just as a for instance). But ‘getting the MSM on Labour’s side’ would have entailed too much of a compromise with Jeremy’s 1970s-vintage ideological purity, and absent that he didn’t stand a chance. And so we’re in the situation we are now: 12 solid years of disastrous Tory rule, and no respite. Yet his supporters continue to cling to him, continue to cite irrelevancies, and two in particular: one, ‘he increased party membership to hitherto unseen levels!’ which proved fruitless when it came to the two general elections he fought and lost, except that, since the incomers were dedicated Corbynistas, it made it impossible for the party to rid itself of him — and two, ‘he got more votes that any Labour leader since…!’ which I see a lot, and which reminds me of Trumpists crowing that in 2020 their guy got more votes than any Republican candidate in history. Corbyn fought and lost two general elections, against the most incompetent, dreadful Tory administration I have known in my 56 years on this planet. He lost twice. Why are you still defending him? You should be furious with him!
His supporters aren’t, though. My twitter feed supplies me daily with versions of ‘Corbyn would have won if only Polly Toynbee had written slightly-more positive op-eds about him’ which is just laughable, or would be, if the people arguing it and its variants could see how laughable it is, but which, lacking that, is just frustrating and depressing.
But I don’t mean to get bogged down on that one example. There are lots of others. I’m sure there are many examples on the right too, but that doesn’t concern me here because the right are in power and we are not. The right are in power because they persuaded not just a majority but a plurality of people to vote for them. How do we do the same? Not by tricking ourselves into believing our friendzones model the larger country. (‘Are you still litigating the chicken coup, Adam? LOL let it go that’s ancient history’ say people who will go to their graves in the 2070s still tweeting angrily about Tony Blair and Iraq).
Trans rights are another example. I’m fully in favour of Trans rights. Let’s say you are too. Let’s say Trans rights seem to you so common-sensical, so self-evident, that it’s hard, actually, for you to imagine why anyone would think otherwise. You assume people who oppose Trans rights must be acting out of hatred, bigotry, wickedness. And since you assertively block anyone who disagrees with you on this (for who would want their feed contaminated by wickedness?) your online is full of people who agree with you on this. From here it’s a short step to: most people are in favour of Trans rights, and only a tiny majority of frothing maniacs are in opposition.
Actually I think most people are in favour of Trans rights, if we define those rights as ‘Trans people should be allowed to live their lives according to their best sense of themselves, and should not face social or legal discrimination — such as being sacked from their jobs — for doing so.’ This position is basically UK law now, quite properly. But this is also what J K Rowling and Hilary Mantel think, and they are routinely attacked as terfs and bigots, so I suppose something else is at stake here. And, actually, if we define Trans rights as that, plus: rape crisis centres that refuse entry to people with penises should (as happened in Vancouver) be vandalised, have their funding removed and be closed down, plus: kids should have easy access to potentially irreversible hormone treatments to block puberty, plus: anyone saying biological sex is immutable should lose their jobs — then the larger consensus disappears. In Twitter terms what this means is: ‘Mumsnet is not in your friendzone, so you don’t see them’. Of course you’re aware of Mumsnet, but ‘Mumsnet are all bigots’ is one of those statements that gets tweeted into the timeline without kickback so often it comes to be treated as axiomatic. Think about it though. Mumsnet has 120 million regular users, and 1.5 billion unique page-views annually. One hundred and twenty million of your fellow human beings. Is it likely, just on a statistical level, that all these people are hateful bigots? Of course some will be, statistically speaking; but then some LGBT+ people will be bigots too, by the same metric. But all of them? What if many of them are not, but are rather in many ways lovely people, and you just don’t see it?
There’s a serious strategy point in me saying this. When I say ‘I am in favour of Trans rights’ I am sincere; but it seems to me that realising these rights is an ongoing process that involves persuading people of their merits. Persuasion does work. The overton window has shifted enormously during my lifetime on civil rights, race, women’s rights, queer rights and many other things. But you can’t persuade somebody if you block them. Maybe you think rape crisis centres should be as open to transwomen as they are to cis-women — I can imagine the rationale for such a belief. I mean, I’m a straight man: I’m not going to pontificate concerning whom female rape crisis centres should or shouldn’t let in. But perhaps you’re in a different position and want to make that case. Fine: so make the case, because I promise you not everybody in the world sees the nice-knock-down logic of that proposition.
One response to this might be: ‘trolls aren’t amenable to persuasion.’ Some people clearly aren’t. But elevated to a general principle this becomes grotesquely selfish: ‘you are not entitled to my intellectual and emotional labour’ — ‘there are plenty of resources online if you want to educate yourself, it’s not my responsibility to do that work for you’ — which is to say: I got mine, fuck you. If you tell me ‘for a long time I tried to persuade people online and it never worked, now I feel entitled to look after my own mental health and wellbeing by blocking those people’ then two things strike me. One is to wonder about the assumption that your failure to persuade them must reflect their trollish stubbornness rather than your inadequacies as a persuader. But the second thing is: yes you are entitled to guard your own mental health and wellbeing. If turning your online into a curated garden helps you do that, then more power to you. But don’t then confuse your hermetic curated space with an outward-looking social engaged, change-people’s-minds space. And a good way of doing that is: don’t boast online about blocking people who disagree with you. Because when you do so what you’re saying is ‘you see all these tweets about social justice? LOL they mean nothing because actually my Twitter is a carefully curated friendzone.’
I honestly try not to block on twitter, and try also to follow a range of people with very different political views to mine. And what this means is that when an opinion poll comes out that shows Johnson 18 pts ahead, I don’t just shrug my shoulders, go ‘this fucking country, eh? full of fascists and bigots’ and turn away to get on with my day. Because I follow various people for whom supporting Johnson makese various kinds of reasonable-to-them sense. Imagine if you thought the country wasn’t full of fascists and bigots, but was instead full of persuade-able people whom you could win-over. The catch is: these people don’t share all your priors, and do believe some things with which you disagree. But they also care about things like what is right and just and fair, even if their measurement of those things differs slightly from you. How would you go about reaching them?
These thoughts, I suppose, are not especially original. Nor are they new. One twitter-tic that started last year (probably earlier; I haven’t been paying close attention: at any rate I really started noticing it last year) was the ‘I’m so tired’ tweet — which is to say, a tweeter would screencap or quote-tweet some piece of bigotry, something egregiously sexist say, and notate it with: ‘I’m so tired’. I understand this. It is exhausting, dealing with sexism all day every day, and new iteration of it — every sexist comment, and tweet — is not just an isolated thing but one more item added to the overall burden. ‘I’m so tired’ is a way of communicating not just that another bigot has said another bigoted thing, but that this is an exhausting ongoing continuum of bigotry. Your friends understand what you mean. But think about this as a contribution to the battle for social justice. If you really believed your feed was part of a battle, you surely wouldn’t tweet ‘I’m so tired’. I mean, seriously, how would you expect an enemy to respond to such a confession? Would they go ‘oh you’re tired? You poor thing, let me call of my attack and help you …’ Of course not. That’s how a friend would react, which is another way of saying: tweeting ‘I’m so tired’ is a way of signalling that you’re speaking to your friends. Which, to repeat myself, is fine. It is, as I say right at the beginning of this, one of the things Twitter can be for. It’s just that you don’t need to win over your friends and allies. They already agree with you. We need to reach more widely.