As an English teacher and lover of great books, there are few things I care more about than language. Writing is one of the most complex difficult ways to convey one’s thoughts, which makes it all the more enjoyable to read great writing. Great writing takes time, revision, immense effort, humility, and risk tolerance. It means thinking something through very carefully and then taking the care to lay it out in such a way that others can understand you. It is a beautiful thing and probably the closest we will ever get to reading someone else’s mind.
As in broader society, language is currently going through changes more rapidly than it probably ever has before. The phenomena of concept creep and the use of formerly grave terms like “genocide” and “concentration camp” which now apply to substantially less serious situations has been well-documented and loudly condemned. So has the tendency to re-define words willy-nilly, force the use of non-words upon others or label them a bigot, and even to argue that words have no meaning when you strip them of their inherent power dynamics. This is all very silly postmodern nonsense and you can employ Google to find plenty to read about it.
The point I’m more interested in, which is less substantial on its face but still very serious in its consequences, is this: The condemnatory language the progressive Left uses as it shames people on social media is specious, lazy, and incredibly fucking annoying to read. It takes neither effort nor creativity, refuses to complicate or qualify itself, and is so steeped in juvenile colloquialisms that those who use it, even as they insist on handing down censure with the moral certitude of a biblical judge, sound like 12-year-olds. All this makes the fact that it is used to destroy others’ lives all the more unbearable.
Twitter is the primary source of this rhetoric, and it is on Twitter that people’s careers are frequently created and later come crashing down overnight. On Twitter, everybody has something to say, and you don’t have to take any time at all to articulate yourself – you just strike your phone’s keyboard 100 or so times and bang, you’ve got a message and an audience. This is both good and bad; good because it has evened the playing field and everybody has a platform and a potential audience; bad because it has incentivized inflammatory rhetoric and made cruel, thoughtless messaging easy.
You might expect language which has the power to destroy livelihoods and drive people to kill themselves to be coherent, concise, and devastating in its rhetorical power. Instead the opposite is true. Twitter keyboard warriors truck in the most childish and meaningless of phrases, dishing out judgment like candy at a parade while never managing to write above a 3rd grade level.
Here are some common phrases they like to employ:
“[X] is not okay.”
“[X] has to stop.”
“[X] is not good.”
“[X] is unacceptable.”
“[X] erases people.”
“I don’t need your permission.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Fuck off and die.”
Throw in a couple of duhs, likes, and lmaos, and you’ve got it. You can mix any combination of these together, slap it onto whatever petty nomenclature violation people are upset about today, and you, too, can have the power to turn a former friend into a groveling apologist.
For example, if a lesbian were to tweet that perhaps those who work at women’s rape shelters should be biologically female, she might read in her responses: “By denying that trans WOMEN are WOMEN, you are erasing their identity. Thats not okay.” In turn, the lesbian might respond that while we can respectfully agree that men who transition to women should be accorded all rights and respect, they should not be working with women who have been abused by biological men. The responses would then escalate. “Educate yourself or step out,” she might read. “Your transphobia has to stop.” If the lesbian insisted, things would escalate further and others would jump on the bandwagon. “FUCKING TERF,” she would read next. “KILL TERFS.” “I don’t need your permission to be a woman TERF. Fuck off and die.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that tweets, whether contemporary or dug up out of the ancient past, regularly contribute to job loss, reputational decimation, depression, and suicide. While those who suffer at the receiving end of this kind of language were often just yesterday dishing it out, people whose former friends are still going down in flames only become more vicious in their attempts to outrun the Twitter Social Justice Warrior ouroboros.
Of course, the idiocy and simplicity of the language used in these tweets are but little windows into the mind of the people who write them. Their arguments are incoherent, their logic flawed, their facts nonexistent. They feed on outrage and self-pity, always moving the goalposts and then settling in, on the lookout for a chance to snipe down the next unsuspecting wrongdoer.
I am under no illusion that the average human gives two shits about literature. We don’t all have to sit around and read books and then talk about them in high-minded language while we sip whiskey and smoke cigars. But I can’t be the only one fantasizing about a time when, if you wanted to write something that thousands of people would read, you had to put in some actual effort and show your face. Or, you know, that if you were going to tell someone that they should kill themselves, you had to at least be bothered to punch them first so it made a little bit of sense.