Arguing on Twitter – Bear Baiting for the 21st Century

Twitter. It attracts a whole lot of snark and heat. Especially in the summer break for the politicians of Australia. This seems to have brought on a bit of a silly season for many who like to use Twitter as a political and social commentary forum. There have been rage quits, twitstorms, articles in The Drum – all sorts of things, about pretty much nothing. Well, it has been about something, but ultimately, not very much. Middle class, well educated people arguing about semantics and categorisation. And therefore Twitter.  Twitter can be to Anglo Celtic middle class people what bear baiting was to the working class in Elizabethan times. You have a bear, a person with a stick and dogs snapping at the bear’s heels. This is a handy guide on how to attract a whole heap of trouble and abuse.

1. Finding the Topic to Start the Bout. Use particular words in a blog / on Twitter.

This is always going to land people in trouble. There are various words that have taken on a variety of culturally loaded meanings. This is due largely to context and usage. Any word used by a majority against a minority will always cause problems for the user, in that they will be accused of using a term of oppression. There is a commonly known lexicon – we all know the worst words.  The fact is – there are any number of words that can be used that will land people in trouble. That’s because it’s common that people use words without realising the response that would be unleashed if the word is used.

One such recent example is “hysterical”, which has been defined in our society as behaviour marked by “excessive or uncontrollable emotion” – often applied to Radio 2GB’s Alan Jones’ responses to most things. It also means, however, a word applied just to women by doctors and the society of many past centuries, used in order to oppress them.  Use of such a word, therefore, to describe a performance of a woman on a television program, invites a Twitstorm of abuse from people wanting to flay men about the historical use of the word.

I frequently bait the bears whenever I use the word “bogan”.  It is a relatively new word in Sydney, we are free of the old TISM definition from the Fosters Car Park Boogie – brawlers in flannos who live in Rowville and Broadmeadows. In the Penrith and Lower Blue Mountains of my youth, they were Westies. Mine is the Things Bogans Like definition – or, even better, the type of people spoken about in TISM’s Phillip Ruddock Blues.  I define the word as more about attitude than a social class.  For saying this, I have been accused of being a “social climber” who talks about bogans because I want to swim above them ; jealous of their wealth ; even just a snobbish wanker. (Witty folk, the bears I bait.)  The problem has been that the word is pre-loaded with meaning and no amount of reasoning and explanation seems to matter.  It has been used and people have been offended.  Better, really, to just move on. But on Twitter, most don’t. That is why we have our Twitstorms. And the various phenomena that occur during these storms.

2. How to Bait Bears During a Debate on Twitter – aka Moves like Chomsky

When words are used that create a negative reaction on Twitter, there are a variety of reactions that can be used. This is because the people who use Twitter are human beings who have direct access to a tool that broadcasts their opinion – a mistake for the hotblooded, hotheaded and the passionate who may be able to punch out a response in 15 seconds, but have a long time to regret what they type.  It is also a problem because many see a Twitter debate as something they have to WIN. At all costs. And to WIN this bear baiting battle in the ring, combatants will use a number of moves. These moves – these reactions and responses branch into these categories:

a. The Google Duel. After the initial misunderstanding is declared, there is often a trailing through Google for evidence to support either side, used to either bait the bear or be used as a way for the bear to defeat the dogs – after all, Wikipedia is a storehouse of pages that have often been through ideological battles about language already. However, because both sides are often more than aware of most things on the internet, this usually ends in a stalemate.

b. The Doctor Who – i.e. Going in a time machine back to past arguments and remembering them. People use this to show evidence of terrible behaviour in the past – things like sexism, being patronising, arguments that occurred 30 years ago where one person was wrong. This gambit always falls flat on its face because it’s a cop out and it’s not about the issue at hand. The advice here is to avoid the TARDIS standing in the corner.

c.  The Oracle – i.e. Being Patronising. This is where one person will cast themselves as an all-seeing wise man or woman, saying “I see where you come from, but you haven’t got the same experiences” and/or “this is your context and that shapes the way you have approached this”. This is being presumptuous and rude – and an attempt to show your superiority of understanding. (by the way, this is not associated with the Twitter user @iamtheoracle, who isn’t these things)

d. The Two and a Half Men – i.e. People don’t find anything funny.  There comes a point in any debate when attempts at humour are used. These are not taken that way and are treated entirely seriously and literally – even as threats of violence, legal action, having A Current Affair chase you down the street, barely giving you enough time to give you time to have a coat over your head. I could imagine – “Mr. Towers, is it true that you think bogans should be taxed at 10% to pay for more houses for asylum seekers?” Threats. Legal Action. On Twitter. Where most people have no idea where each other lives. One thing is for sure about these loud, raucous bear cries – far too many legal shows have been watched by people on Twitter.

e. The Chris Pyne – i.e. “Oh, you are just being unreasonable”. This is where the debate will start to disintegrate and become personal. It also shows that you are losing your willingness to conduct a debate based on reason and logic.  This is Twitter, after all, and everyone who follows both participants will see the argument. That comment will have the same impact as “fight, fight, fight” on a school playground in terms of bringing people to the sidelines.

f. The Guru – i.e. “You are wrong, I know more than you”.  Sometimes, intellectual pride kicks in for people and therefore can very defensive against someone who hasn’t had the same level educational background. That’s when the qualifications and experience get trotted out as an example of that superiority. Not particularly helpful or useful and will attract the howls of many more than just the person with whom you are arguing.

g. The Bob Ellis – i.e. “I am popular / know more people than you”. This is where you name people you know / written speeches for as evidence of the superiority of your argument. Again, not helpful and intellectually lazy – still fun to watch.

h. The Twitcelebrity – i.e. “I can just not respond at all, because I have thousands of followers”. The Bear is the Twitcelebrity. They are often baited with criticism of something they have done or said. Twitcelebrities, however, rarely respond to any criticism, but if they do engage, they rarely stick around. The person arguing may as well be talking to themselves. And the people who can see their attempts to engage with the Twitcelebrity (who is often a television / music celebrity who use their account to promote whatever bland rubbish they have produced / written recently).

i. The St. Andrew – i.e. Setting yourself up as a Martyr. (Named for Andrew Bolt and the original St. Andrew). A person, when they see themselves being the bear being attacked by the dogs in the ring, will declare that they are martyr, being crucified for telling the “truth” or whatever winning line of argument they believe they have. Bolt invoked this when he was pinged for the poorly researched work he undertook. He wasn’t found out for writing inaccuracies, he was a martyr for free speech. Just as people are when more than one person argue with them on Twitter.

j. The Gerard – i.e. Saying that everyone else is biased (named for Gerard Henderson).  I must admit to some guilt here, especially after reading particular articles.  It’s where you will stop arguing the case at hand and say “you’re just biased – look at what you have written before / look who funds the IPA / you work for News Limited”. While these things may be true, it doesn’t help with an argument and makes you look unoriginal in your comments about the thing that has been written.

k. The Shadow Minister – i.e. Sticking to your party line, no matter what.  People sometimes just go into their shell and continually repeat whatever line / argument they began with – because they believe it gives them a security blanket. Just like shadow ministers answering questions on Lateline, continually saying the printed talking points of the day.

l. The Melba Departure. i.e. Telling everyone you are leaving, but continually returning, like Australian opera diva Nellie Melba. This is where a person will say “I don’t want to debate this anymore” and then stop for a few minutes – but then continually return to the ring when people say things to that person – often from the sidelines. Saying you will stop almost never works. That’s because people like the ring. Like fighting against the dogs and the man with the stick.

m. The Scott Cam – i.e. The Block. This is a short term strategy that helps to stop the argument from one person’s perspective, meaning that the other person is not allowed to read what you write. While this may allow for some time to settle and walk away, cooling the situation, it’s not an effective long term strategy if the person being blocked is a popular, intelligent person. That’s because the blocked person will have supporters who will know think less of the person who blocked him/her – especially over the long term, when a situation should have long gone. Should. But this is Twitter. The dogs in that bear ring never really go away.

n. The Where’s Wally – i.e. Disappearing, but not really. When a person really has stopped wanting to engage with anyone and has deactivated their Twitter account. There are those people out there who judge this as a melodramatic act but really, it’s the most effective way to get out of an escalating situation on one particularly evening. Then, after things have cooled down, perhaps fences can be mended. Or not. The Where’s Wally, like the Melba, doesn’t work that well long term for Twitter users. It could also have the effect of making the Wally look like a sook who can’t handle a debate.

Yes, the Bear Baiting Ring of Twitter is like a school playground sometimes. Where everyone thinks. In this, it’s the intellectual bullies that win, or, if seen as being bullies, they are taken down by the sheer numbers of people making sure that this time the perceived bullies are defeated. Lots of agendas flow out, lots of hurt, lots of personal issues and shibboleths.  Truth is, for the most part, no-one WINS. In truth, we have a bear being baited, with the dogs snapping at its heels. It’s silly to even try to WIN. Just agree to disagree and have respect. To stop it being a bear baiting ring. But that wouldn’t be much fun. Besides, on the sidelines, we have people watching. Gathering material for a book, preparing a folio of art inspired by the bear baiting, others getting material for a play about middle class people fighting. No, wait, David Williamson doesn’t use Twitter.

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One thought on “Arguing on Twitter – Bear Baiting for the 21st Century

  1. Frankly, this blog seems a little hysterical. I’ve researched this topic at length and there is very little academic support for the proposition that Twitter has increased or intensified disagreement between people. Anyway, I believe that the author of this blog has used many of the devices over a number of years and yet, today, he derides those very tactics.

    Preston has fallen victim to what befalls many of the uninitiated – a naïve and superficial view of social interaction. He’s not Robinson Crusoe; I too, in my younger days have made such fundamental errors. In fact, I think that many things said by Preston could be justifiably be the subject of legal action. Preston is frankly being irrational and a bully.

    I know many will disagree with me, but someone has to say it – sometimes you just have to stand up for what is right. I suspect that many of the people which agree with Preston do not actually look at the issues impartially in any case. Anyway, this article is just plain wrong and I have nothing more to say about it. I won’t be logging in to this blog again.

    What I will say is that this is area that I know a great deal about and given some of Preston’s grammar I’m not entirely sure he’s even intellectually equipped to mount such an argument. I would note also in passing that Preston has sub-2000 Twitter Followers… hardly Justin Bieber.

    [Note: Great piece Preston. Keep it up]

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