I will come right out and admit it.
I have been hiding, shielding myself from current events, only spoon-feeding myself the barest facts about the horrors that have gripped our nation for the past week. I have almost entirely closed my eyes to social media, not wanting to slog through the mire of knee-jerk responses, hateful trolling, and outright stupidity. This is, for those who know me, a nearly total reversal of course.
It will be temporary, but right now, for my own reasons…I just can’t.
I acknowledge that this ability, to turn down and tune out, is one born of my conditions of privilege. There are many who do not have this option. I do not feel guilty for taking advantage of this privilege in order to attend to my heath right now (mental and physical), but I am a firm believer that my privilege confers responsibility. I am responsible for paying forward the wellbeing my privilege affords me today and I feel this responsibility even more acutely when I am unable to meet the bar. Soon, efforts will be redoubled, risk taken, sh*t kicked, but for now I am resting and healing.
One of the few pieces of media that I have managed to consume over the past few days was this tweet from former congressman and nationally syndicated radio host Joe Walsh. (Yes, this is the same Joe Walsh who garnered hours of media attention for his tweet declaring war against POTUS and the Black Lives Matter movement).
However, I want to set aside the generally heinousness nature of Mr. Walsh’s rhetoric. It is exhausting and thoroughly unoriginal. Rather, I want to draw attention to a number of “formal” elements of this tweet in particular, because they seem–depressingly enough–to be emblematic of a set of emerging genre conventions.
The Importance of Genre
Some of you are rolling your eyes. You are thinking, “leave it to an academic to undertake something as esoteric as a genre analysis of a tweet in response to some really heavy, really real f*ckery going on in the world. Enjoy the ivory tower a**hole!” It’s okay. I think this way a lot of the time. It happens to be one of my most frequent modes of self-critique. But I am giving myself some leeway on this one and I hope the eye-rollers among you will give me a moment to explain.
Merriam-Webster defines a genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” I think most of us have the intellectual flexibility to extend the concept of genre beyond texts and artifacts that are traditionally understood as artistic, musical, or literary compositions to elements of popular culture–even to tweets. But genre isn’t just about classification. Genre does more than simply group things that are alike. Genre establishes expectations, contextualizes our perceptions, and serves as criteria for making subjective judgments. In short, genre is a technology for shaping meaning and in this way it can shape the way we experience and understand the world around us.
Take a banal example: the rom-com. The romantic comedy’s genre conventions are so ubiquitous and so firmly codified that most adults of my age could draft a screenplay for a Meg Ryan flick in a couple of hours. Now, imagine staring at a blank screen. You are going to watch a rom-com. The opening credits have not yet begun, but you already know some things. You know that if circumstances conspire to keep the protagonist and their love interest apart, this is not occasion to mourn–things will eventually work out. You know that frequent acts of stalking and codependent obsessiveness should be understood as “romantic devotion.” You know, almost precisely, the contours of the unthreatening, nostalgia-tinged bemusement you will feel when the closing credits roll. In knowing the genre, you know what to expect, you know how to understand the actions that unfold, and you will make judgements about the quality of this particular rom-com based on a set of largely-unspoken “rules” for this kind of film.
I used a thoroughly Hollywood example for a reason. Hollywood recognized something in the power of genre that is often taken for granted. That is, genre provides a set of shortcuts. Recycling sets, plots, characters archetypes, and methods of developing conflict makes filmmaking simpler (and more importantly, cheaper). It makes film-watching efficient and satisfying for viewers in the way that wearing a threadbare T-shirt you’ve owned for 20 years can be. And most pursuant to the argument I am making in this blog post, it cultivates a particular kind of laziness.
Genres in (t)ruth-Telling
What happens when we aren’t talking about films, or literature, or music, etc? What happens when we are talking about politicians and influential media personalities? What happens when we aren’t talking about the fine arts, but the art of persuasion–the art of telling the (t)ruth? More importantly, what are the consequences of making shortcuts in (t)ruth-telling? What happens when genre cultivates laziness among the producers and consumers of the (t)ruth? We can use Mr. Walsh’s tweet above to delve into this question.
Let’s name this emerging genre. Betty Friedan taught us long ago that problems that go unnamed can be particularly insidious. I’ll call it the Twitter Factish (Yes, this is nod to Bruno Latour. You’ll just have to come to terms with my Latourian ways). In spite of copious amounts of evidence that it may be unrealistic, there still exists an expectation that information shared and spread by politicians and influential media personalities should be, at least on some level, true. Thus the Twitter Factish, being pseudo-journalistic as a consequence of its authorship, is a (t)ruth-telling genre. Specifically, it establishes the expectation that the content of the tweet has a degree of veracity than can be taken for granted, it prompts consumers to contextualize the information communicated by these tweets as accurate summaries of complex issues, and it provides consumers with criteria with which to make “justifiable” value judgments.
Three observable genre conventions in particular facilitate these functions.
The slight is generally a thinly-veiled negative assessment of an opposing person, group, and/or discourse. In this case, the tweet above came in the middle of Mr. Walsh’s twitter-storm, railing against social justice activists and POTUS (because, you know, it’s always Obama’s fault), both of whom expressed outrage over the shooting death of Alton Sterling. Mr. Walsh’s statement that “Facts are stubborn things” accomplishes two things. First, it establishes he and his followers as “users of facts” and by suggestion those with whom he disagrees with as “ignorers of facts,” allowing consumers of this tweet to make a negative value judgment of the opposition (they are ignorant, mislead, or delusional, etc.). Second, it reinforces the expectation that tweets from Mr. Walsh are acts of (t)ruth-telling–as “facts” are (allegedly) deployed in the interest of (t)ruth. (Yes, this is a little bit of cynicism. Forgive me.)
The reduction involves a distillation of complex information to a single “takeaway.” Twitter’s 140 character limit provides an excellent excuse for egregious generalizations and omissions. In our example, Mr. Walsh states, “More white people die from cops than blacks” and provides completely unexplained “statistics” from 2015. Immediately, we are to understand that this “fact” is the evidence that fact-users like Mr. Walsh and his supporters are presenting to undermine the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter activists and anyone suggesting that the use of deadly force on the part of police might be influenced by race.
First, it’s worth noting that Mr. Walsh chose to use an oddly clunky phrasing when he might have used the more grammatically clear statement, “more white people killed by cops than blacks” for the same number of characters. The differences between the verbs “die” (speculative and without specific culpability) and “killed” (concrete in the past tense and with very specific culpability) shouldn’t go unnoticed.
But the more significant aspect of this reduction is how it strips this issue of complexity and thus distorts it enormously. Mr. Walsh extracted two pieces of numerical information from a link (discussed below) that in turn extracted slightly more information from a Washington Post article detailing demographics about the number of people fatally shot by police in 2105. From what was originally a wealth of information, Mr. Walsh reduced the “facts” to one–494 white individuals were fatally shot by police and 258 black individuals were fatally shot by police in 2015. With this he made his argument…one is more than the other.
This is astonishing.
Let’s put aside for moment that the original source data reports that 990 people were shot and killed by police in 2015 (an alarming number in itself). What should be obvious here is that if race were not a significant factor in police fatalities, these fatalities should be occurring at a rate that is relatively consistent with the racial distribution of the general population. Some very quick math reveals that this is not the case. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimates, white Americans make up 77.5% of the population and black Americans make up 13.2% of the population. The data that Mr. Walsh (sort of but not really) cited reveals that in 2015, white Americans accounted for just 50% of fatal police shooting deaths and black Americans for 26%. Thus, independent of reasons, it’s abundantly clear that black Americans are fatally shot by police at a much higher rate than white Americans.
But I don’t think we should stop investigating here. It’s worthwhile to ask what the causes of these disproportional uses of fatal force might be. The article that Mr. Walsh linked to in his tweet uses a spurious correlation to black-on-black homicide (which for the record occurs at only slightly higher rates than white-on-white homicide) to suggest that disproportionally high rates of fatal shootings by police among blacks are explained by unusually high rates of criminality in black communities.
Again, this is a reductive deployment of “facts.” There are, in fact, higher documented rates of certain types of criminality in black communities. However, it is important to consider two very important pieces of contextualizing information. First, high rates of criminality in black communities are not a product of the race of the residents. Rather, high rates of criminality in these communities is correlated with poverty. For example, recent research published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has uncovered some interesting trends about the correlation between violent crime and poverty. Three of the most interesting findings are:
- “Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households.”
- “Poor persons living in urban areas had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas”
- “Poor urban blacks had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites.”
These data suggest that poverty, not race or neighborhood character, is the strongest predictor of violent victimization (being the victim of a violent crime)–and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the rates of falling victim to a violent crime in any given location are strongly correlated with the rates of commission of violent crimes in the same area. Thus, the underlying issue is not that blacks (and thus black neighborhoods) are inherently more criminal, but that disproportionality more blacks live in poverty. And while poverty has its own set of complex causes, we are a nation that is only half a century removed from a time when it was commonplace and perfectly legal to deny people housing (1968), jobs (1965), and educational opportunities (1954) based on their skin color. When you consider that countless academic studies have determined that the strongest predictors of economic success are 1) parent income and 2) educational attainment (and that a recent Pell Institute study has determined that household income is the strongest predictor of college completion), it is very easy contextualize disproportionately high rates of poverty among blacks within a very recent history of systemic disadvantage.
The second piece of information has to do with the self-fulfilling nature of policing. If impoverished black communities are understood to be more criminal, they are more actively policed. More active policing results in more convictions. More convictions provide justification for more policing. The cycle continues. But it’s important to understand that comparatively more documented criminal activity is at least in part a product of more active policing rather than more criminality. Take for example recreational marijuana usage, still considered a criminal activity in most states, and something of a central focus of criminality among young urban black people. Numerous peer-reviewed studies like this one and this one (not to mention the anecdotal information of anyone who has set foot on a residential college campus), suggest that marijuana usage is significantly higher among suburban (mostly white) young people than it is among young urban (mostly black) young people. I think it’s worth asking, what if there was more active policing in these suburban communities? Would this result in more documented arrests for possession and distribution?
I could go on digging into this information, speculating about causes, making connections and interpreting correlations. The process of doing so wouldn’t lead me to simpler answers, rather it would lead me to assemble a more complex, and in its complexity a more accurate, picture of contemporary American society. I happen to believe that this is how it should be–that (t)ruth-seeking should be a movement toward complexity and detail, that questions not statements should drive this process, that provisionality rather than certainly is the only ethical way to consider issues that are so obviously multifaceted.
The link is generally an explicit reference to external source material, whether it is an explicit hyperlink or simply an allusion to some colluding “authority.” Interestingly, the link often does little more than provide a headline and featured image. The fact of its existence, within the Twitter Factish genre, testifies for its legitimacy. That is, we are not supposed to question the credibility or rigor of the source–blogs, fringe political websites, listicles, and memes created by neo-nazi sympathizers are all rendered credible source material by the Twitter Factish. Even more unbelievably, politicians and media personalities no longer seem to think it necessary to vet the quality of the source material they use.
Symptom of a Trend toward Dangerous Laziness
When the Twitter Factish is put to work, much like Hollywood film genres, it cultivates a certain kind of laziness. But instead of the result being bad formulaic movies, the result is dangerous reactionary thought. It lulls social media audiences into accepting that tweets like Mr. Walsh’s above are the (t)ruth, when just a small amount of intellectual effort would uncover that the numbers he presented raise important questions at best and totally contradict his own argument through an act of racially-biased omission at worst. When deployed as a genre of (t)ruth-telling, Twitter Factishes serve as the basis for people to make wildly unfair judgements about their fellow Americans. They encourage people to reduce complex issues to ahistorical talking points with no consideration of context or history.
Of course the Twitter Factish is not itself the problem, but a symptom of what I personally (yes, I am owning this) believe might be a bigger problem than hate–or rather I believe that we might have the order of operations all wrong. I have always believed that hate and fear makes people lazy thinkers, that hate motivates people to uncritically believe anything that justifies these emotions. But I am starting to believe that it is just as likely that laziness makes people hateful and afraid.
I also want to be clear that while I used an example from a prominent (or at least loud) voice on the right, this kind of laziness is common in all camps. The laziness that allows Mr. Walsh to reduce Black Lives Matter to an unjustified anti-police movement is matched by an equally dangerous laziness on the part of some activists who have arrived at the ridiculous conclusion that all police are malicious racists. I, for one, am proof that it is more than possible to simultaneously support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and be extremely supportive of and sympathetic toward our police. The laziness that empowers some people to loudly pronounce that rape culture does not exist is matched by the laziness that behind the assertion that if college football and fraternities were outlawed the problem would go somehow go away. The laziness behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is matched by the laziness in assuming that the underlying causes of violence would be completely resolved if firearms were banned.
Things…particularly important things…are just not that easy. Courting nuance is hard and often frustrating work. There are rarely satisfying answers to be had in such an approach to looking at the world. But there are rewards–immeasuably awesome rewards–for undertaking this hard work. I happen to think increases in compassion, reductions in hatred and fear, more effective perspective-taking, and more solution-orienated thinking are chief among them.