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The Trouble With Social Media

The other day I did something I had promised myself I would stop doing: I got into a social media spat. The subject was not massively controversial (unlikely to get either party cancelled or sent death threats although you can never be completely sure) but I had been drawn in because it was a topic I was interested in, being commented on by someone I admired.

Here's the rub. The person who drew me into this conversation is someone who is knowledgeable in the field and whose opinions I value. On this occasion he had published a tweet which simply stated an analogy as if it was the crowning argument that could not be dismissed.

A couple of weeks ago I invested in some fascinating books on bad arguments. I did so partly to help me when I looked at other people's arguments that seemed unconvincing but also to ensure that my own arguments were sound and logical. The tweeter in this instance was guilty - quite obviously - of false equivalence (or a weak analogy). Would you do X in Y? Well then you wouldn't do A in B. It doesn't follow: even if X and A have similarities, they are not the same.

I was cross about this - possibly unreasonably cross, but then you know Twitter - I had expected a better argument than this from this particular individual. This is a topic on which I hold strong opinions, but ones which I would be willing to be persuaded from.

I responded by pointing out that his argument was flawed and more likely to distract from the topic than actually get any answers about it. His, almost immediate response was: "you didn't answer my question". Then I got it. This was not a discussion; not an exchange of ideas which would ultimately add to the sum of human knowledge. This was an opportunity for him to score points.

At this point my hackles went up.

I responded with a possibly faintly patronising tone (oh alright, I was horrendously superior, but I'd had a bad day and goodness I needed a win) pointing out the inadequacies of the structure of his argument. I did answer the question, ensuring my answer dripped with the contempt the question so richly deserved.

Meanwhile, below this little exchange (and it WAS a little exchange compared to the rest of the thread) something interesting was happening. People were ignoring the silly analogy and instead holding actual conversations involving their personal experiences; considering a variety of courses of action and the possible consequences of these and managing to do so in a polite, measured and reasonable tone. I dived in and chatted and by the end of it my whole take on the subject had shifted. By actually engaging, listening and evaluating the ideas of others, we had created a discourse that allowed us all to learn and move the argument forward.

It occurred to me that perhaps the medium of Twitter could be a force for good if we could all agree certain rules of engagement: defining terms, attacking the concept not the person, allowing room for minds to change. If we all entered into debate with the goal of learning rather than winning then just think what an important role Twitter, Facebook and all the rest could play in our intellectual development.

What's this got to do with tutoring, you ask? Well actually, everything. Because prodding at arguments and assertions is WHAT I DO - not as an attack or criticism but as a means of ensuring that the argument is solid and to help students refine it until it is completely convincing. My students get used to me asking them to define their terms; to explain the relevance of their point to the question; to give me evidence to back up their assertions. But they also get used to hearing: "I've never considered it from that perspective"; "that's interesting, let's explore it further" and "you're right, my point doesn't hold up when you put it like that".

Meanwhile, back on Twitter, my nemesis has returned to the argument and reframed his statement. He is making a different point but this time at least he has ditched the flawed analogy.

I may come and tug at the loose threads on this one too, I'm sure he'll be thrilled to see me.

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