Citizen of the Twitterverse

Joining the debate in the digital age

I live in New York City, in an I’m-With-Her echo chamber that at this point includes most of the conservatives I usually disagree with. I peer across the distant battle lines between my camp and Donald Trump’s, and for the first time I feel afraid. In a season suffused with disbelief, dread, even nausea, I have been oddly grateful for Twitter.

We are all curators of information playlists, listening to music in harmony with our own opinions.

You can glean plenty about me from looking at my Twitter feed: authors, indie bookstores, reporters, scientists, NPR commentators, J.K. Rowling and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m a writer who works alone, and Twitter is my water cooler.

In this year of political spectacle, though, it’s also my seat in the arena. It’s easy to sit back with a bowl of ice cream, watch a debate or a convention speech, and then let your preferred pundits unpack it for you. It takes more energy and more focus to watch with a phone in your hand, playing pundit in real time, putting your hashtagged convictions out there for public consumption and watching what strangers have to say.

On Monday night I was glued to two screens at once, listening hard both to the candidates and to their digital audience, awed by Clinton’s commanding poise, cheering her on. I was heartened by the online voices in line with mine, but I learned more from the ones that weren’t. When the debate was over I felt inspired. I hadn’t changed my mind about the desperate mess we’re in, but I had been briefly part of something larger than the blue bubble I call home.

I checked my phone one last time before bed. “Loved your book,” a stranger had tweeted at me. “Please stay out of politics [smirking face emoji] — you have readers from all points of view.”

Two thoughts collided. A reader liked my book enough to tell me so, which is a sustaining miracle for any writer. But that same reader felt entitled to request that I keep my opinions to myself.

A quick look at my correspondent’s Twitter page made two things immediately clear: we stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and neither of us was shy about it. Why, then, was I expected to stay silent? “I am honored to have readers from all points of view,” I replied, “and I hope they respect my right to mine just as much.”

The next morning there was another tweet. “I’m sure they do,” the same person had written, “but it can change one’s feeling towards a historian.”

A historian is a reteller of history, and history is made of stories. Every gleaming new fact is refracted through the lenses of its witnesses, faded by time, and retouched by those who rediscover it decades or centuries later. And all historians — all humans — are biased. It’s what makes history worth telling, and retelling. If you believe that the past remains pristine, preserved like Snow White in a crystal casket, you are letting other people tell you how to think.

History is happening this election season, and democracy demands that we think for ourselves. That is only possible when we are within earshot of opinions dissonant with our own. Thanks to Twitter, I had a moment of engagement with a voice I disagreed with. It made me think hard about what I believe, and renewed my resolve not to keep my opinions to myself. Plenty have argued that digital media is the problem, not the solution: that it isolates each group in its own smug tent, where everyone agrees and feels superior to the poor fools outside. If you follow only your friends and heroes, that’s true. But if you move out into the public square and dare to speak, people from every camp answer.

We have an obligation to join the conversation. We are lucky to live at a moment when so many voices are part of it.

Janice Nimura is the author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back from W.W. Norton & Co.

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