Richard Dawkins, Twitter and the dangers of thinking aloud

There’s a great Brendan O’Neill post on Telegraph blogs* in which he reflects on the self-destruction of Richard Dawkins** online and its roots in the nature of Twitter as a medium. He’s probably correct that, with the exception of a cadre of ‘skeptic’ true believers, Dawkins has through his ill considered anti-religious tweets effectively destroyed a reputation he’d spent a lifetime building. What interests me about O’Neill’s argument is the claim that “we are seeing how Dawkins’s mind works prior to his exercise of thought and self-editing, and it isn’t pretty”. Again, he’s probably correct. His conviction that this is a negative trend, illustrated by the particular case of Dawkins, rests on a set of claims about intellectual expression in public life:

Twitter by its very nature invites its users to express unedited thoughts which in earlier eras would have lingered at the back of our minds or been spoken only to small groups of people, perhaps over a pint. In the past, there was a clearer distinction between private man and public man, between what we thought and what we said, between the inner workings of our brains and the public utterances that later fell from our mouths.

Today, that divide has been muddied almost into oblivion, so that now it is perfectly normal to see people tweet their instant, unformulated feelings about an event, a person, a religion, or whatever. Twitter isn’t single-handedly responsible for the detonation of the dividing line between private thought and public speech, of course, but it is the technological tool that has most explicitly moulded itself around the corrosion of the private/public split, inviting us, cajoling us in fact, to instantly share our half-baked thoughts on just about everything.

The end result is that even someone like Dawkins can now be better known for his late-night blabbing than for his intellectual works. I’m sure that to young people in particular, who don’t remember that time when Dawkins was taken seriously and who get the vast majority of their info via the Twittersphere, Dawkins is now just “that bloke what says weird stuff on Twitter”.

Dawkins’s fate – his self-demotion from serious author to barking tweeter – should be a lesson to everyone: beware Twitter, for it is the technological facilitator of the most backward cultural trend of our age – the Oprahite urge to spill, sputter and speak every thought, idea and feeling that pops into our heads.

He sees this as the apotheosis of a longer term trend in which the valorisation of ‘authenticity’ leads us “to give voice to our every feeling”. The real problem for intellectual life comes because this trend deprives us of “the space in which we once worked out what we really think about other people and world events, and instead encourages us to express our instant feelings about them”. So this isn’t the real Dawkins we see, as opposed to a previously false Dawkins, rather it is an unedited rather than edited encounter with the man.

I never thought I’d find a Brendan O’Neill article so thought provoking but this is a really provocative framing of a question that fascinates me. I’m convinced that iteration is an important aspect of the creative process: clarifying what it is you’re trying to say by recurrently attempting to articulate it. In other words, the space in which we ‘work out what we really think’ can be as dialogical as it is monological. But I think he’s certainly correct that Twitter encourages us to think aloud (this certainly fits with my experience) and that dangers are attached to this. Internal conversation is not a uniform thing, instead varying between people and across times and contexts. I don’t think communications technology can initiate these changes but I think it can (and clearly does) tendentially nudge them in certain directions. What makes this so complex though is that effects are not going to be uniform because mental life is not uniform – the properties and powers of Twitter (or an equivalent) are not the only variable in play here, with existing tendencies towards certain forms of intra-action shaping the inter-active uses people make of social platforms like this.

So I guess what I’m saying is that Twitter probably does inculcate a tendency towards thinking aloud, simply because it so radically minimises the constraints on externalising a thought. But leaving aside compulsive use (which is not a minor issue by any means but a distinct one) it doesn’t create the impulse to share, determine the content of the thought*** or condition its likely reception in anything more than the most formal sense (i.e. the kinds of people one is connected to, the channel constraints involved in their responses etc). In other words: the problem here is not twitter and thinking aloud, it’s Dawkins himself and the culture within which these ‘pre-edited’ views become plausible and coherent.

*Writing this sentence disturbs me on at least two levels.

**What does it say about you if even Brendan O’Neill thinks you’re obnoxious?

***Though it obviously may provoke it. Twitter can be a banal space but it can also be an intensely thought-provoking one.

2 responses to “Richard Dawkins, Twitter and the dangers of thinking aloud”

  1. Is that really ‘being part of the public debate’ though? It’s his racist tweets which have trashed his reputation, not his public intellectualism.

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