When I gave the after-dinner speech to Hull University Politics Society last week, I reiterated a point I have made before (as have others – I regard it as a necessary rather than original point), namely that the Internet enables people to offer prejudices as if they were statements of fact or the reasonable (‘it stands to reason..’) and without them being subject to any prior testing or indeed research. Some just rely on phrases that are so well used that people think they know what they mean. They can take the form of ‘dog whistle’ comments appealing to prejudice as if they are reasonable observations and often deemed self-evidently true.
The problem with Twitter is that a prejudice can quickly be liked and shared by others who hold the prejudice and it reinforces the tweeter’s view that because it has so much support it must be true. It can be difficult to respond in the space available with a well-developed rebuttal. Space means that it doesn’t amount to much more than ‘I am right’, ‘No you are not’ type exchanges. Some clearly fancy themselves as armchair experts. Even when a tweet links to a paper, that paper may be self-published or emanate from an extreme group, or one keen to disseminate false information. This, as we see, is especially a problem with the Coronavirus crisis, with many deciding they are qualified to pass comment not just on policy, but on the science.
The challenge is to ensure one does not respond instantly to a Tweet, or accept its veracity, but rather interrogate it in terms of the motives of tweeter and the authority not just of the author, but also source to which there is a link. Is it a published source? Has it appeared in a reputable journal? And ask yourself to what extent your own prejudices influence your response. Is it something you want to be true, even if there is no evidence to support it? And always bear in mind the need, as with any debate, to go for the ball and not the player – ‘The argument is flawed or questionable for the following reasons..’ and not ‘You are an idiot; you are always wrong’.
It has been amazing during the Brexit debate how many people relied on attacking the other side (‘You are idiots, you don’t understand…’) as if that would influence anybody as opposed to reinforcing the prejudices of those who think the other side is deranged. It may provide some tension relief, but it serves to antagonise those who are being attacked. The result is that those on both sides become more entrenched.
One thought occurs. Given what I have said about ‘dog whistle’ phrases, it may be an interesting and possibly worthwhile exercise to collect examples. It may serve at least some service if it alerts people to how easy it is to fall into employing them without thinking what they mean. I therefore invite readers’ suggestions as to such phrases…