Earlier this week, noted voice actor Troy Baker retweeted, “Brett Michaels looks like Mickey Rourke tried to become Caitlyn Jenner.”
Even without saying more than that, I can assure you that anyone who has been on the Internet for more than a fraction of a second knows what resulted. Some took offense to that, others railed against them, and the tireless humdrum of what passes for interaction in social media continues on…and no one persuaded anyone of anything.
Yes, much like a case study in 1L civ pro, this is not about specifics but about the broad concepts. I’m less interested in arguing whether or not Troy Baker’s decision to retweet this joke and his subsequent tweets of, “It’s a shame when there are people who would much rather choose to be offended than laugh,” and finally, “I quit Twitter,” exemplified wisdom than I am in wondering about the dynamics of this rote, paint-by-numbers, connect-the-dots reaction that flares up every time someone says something on the Internet that provokes or has the potential to provoke someone.
It’s hard to come down on one side or the other. My initial response was to be perplexed, principally because I don’t even know who Brett Michaels is. The joke, for me, has failed at the first hurdle. That’s on me, though. Getting to the merits of the matter, there was a reaction in the transgender community to perceive this tweet as transphobic. Again, because the joke is lost on me, I’m not sure that that’s a reasonable response. Let’s assume, arguendo, that it is. Okay, probably not a good idea to swing insults around when you have a large base of followers on Twitter. Not being transgender, I don’t get what it is like to be discriminated for being transgender. If this were a joke about race or ethnicity, I might understand it more intuitively. Ergo, if it were a racial/ethnic joke, I imagine I would be mildly displeased.
And that would be that.
The cynic in me, the part of me who grew up before Web 2.0, has always looked askance at the shrieking horror elicited every time someone says something on the Internet that could be construed as moderately offensive. Maybe this is the kind of thinking that is seen as “part of the problem,” but I figure that if Troy Baker were trying to revile the transgender community in some active way, he wouldn’t be using obtuse jokes on Twitter to do it. If you intend to spread hatred, you’d probably do it on some venue that permits for more than 140 characters at a time. What about the possibility that this is still dissemination of hatred but in an unintentional way? Well, I guess that presents a question of whether or not you believe that unenlightened jokes on Twitter are really setting back progress in society. Since I am a cynic, my instinct is to say said jokes are a by-product rather than a cause of the hindrance of social equality, but it is also my instinct to see this as a rolling non-issue. Since these offensive comments come out all the time, it is as if self-identifying groups are on permanent standby to be offended. Nobody ever moves from one camp to the other when the inevitable diatribes result. Both sides talk at each other rather than to each other, highlighting several problems. For one, it is immediately a matter of sides: if you aren’t on my side, you must be against me. That sort of binary thinking may work in the narrow world of fantasy, but reality is far more complex than that and people who have such black-and-white perceptions of the world do not get very far. For another thing, nobody is interested in listening to anyone who has a contrary opinion. Everything quickly devolves into quoting someone and picking apart his/her words at length. If people actually wonder why politicians seem to get nothing done, they need not look very far for those whom politicians emulate.
Could we not just ignore it when someone says something we think is stupid? The truth is that we do it all the time in real life. Everyone has encountered someone who has said something dumb. Assuredly, the reaction was not to respond with denouncement every single time. That’s simply impractical. With the Internet, we suddenly have long memories for petty things. The Internet’s democratizing force, however, means that while anyone can shout very loudly, anyone can also ignore those very loud shouts. The marketplace of ideas is a wonderful place, and while my tendency is toward believing that the way to counter bad speech is with good speech, I also believe in picking one’s battles. Twitter is not a battleground for intelligent debate. “Twitter” and “intelligent” do not belong in a sentence together, and this is the heart of the matter for me. It isn’t about Troy Baker’s tweet. It isn’t about discrimination. It is about why we use a medium of communication like this in the first place.
Twitter is something of a useless creation. Rapid-fire communication exists in a multitude of ways. At the very least, someone could go pick up a phone and express in seconds what it might take a minute to type. I’m not sure what Twitter is designed to do that other communication media are ill-equipped to do. Everything Twitter can do, something else can do but better, and yet Twitter is the eighth most-trafficked website on the Internet, according to Alexa and SimilarWeb. The only accounting for why Twitter is as popular as it is, by my estimation, is that the overload of information in our fast-paced society has demanded incredible condensation of that information into digestible, bite-sized pieces. Of course, the information being traded on Twitter is probably not what I would consider of intellectual significance. Most of what I see Twitter yielding is the routine outrage cycle described above. I might say that Twitter is holding back society more than the merits of the controversies that arise on it every day. In my estimation, Twitter has produced more of a culture of indignation and hostility because it has given the world a very accessible venue in which to find someone saying something offensive at any time. This phenomenon is distracting from actual injustice, which is much harder to react to than Twitter injustice. With Twitter injustice, it’s putting people down for their conformism or non-conformism from the comfort of one’s computer. With actual injustice, it requires getting up, going outside, and all of those other inconveniences to be heard, and who wants to put in that kind of effort?
Good for you for leaving Twitter, Mr. Baker. Let’s just have the other 500 million users of Twitter leave and then we can all get back to arguing over whether dubs or subs are better.