The Summit and the Battle

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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I won’t shock you when I point out how nasty and unproductive social media arguments often are. I’ve also come to find them repetitive and predictable, which is why I recently wrote about my decision to pare down my already thin presence on social media. Here, I want to think a bit about what makes arguing on social media strange in certain ways; the type of strange that it took me a while to make sense of.

Here’s the type of thing I mean. Social media disputes often quickly solidify into two acceptable sides, often “for” and “against” whatever is being argued about. One is either for or against critical race theory, traditional gender roles, or the existence of systemic [whatever] – ism. From there, the goal of the discussion is for each participant to choose a side – either for or against, as there are no other acceptable options – and pull for your side. If you say anything that does not support the side you allegedly speak for – like admit any point the other side makes or indicate that you think an argument someone on your side makes is bad – be prepared for your side not to treat you as kindly as before. (And also expect your opponents try to pull you to their side.) The most successful voices in these discussions – the ones most discussants listen to and support with likes, retweets, and their equivalents – will likely be the ones who simplify the most and are most forceful in their rhetoric and belief in the rightness of their position. [1]

It took me a while to make sense of why I was seeing this type of discussion with these types of tendencies over and over again. Why is side-taking so prized while adopting a nuanced take is so thankless? Why do the flattest and most zealous voices win the day, while the more refined and less certain voices receive little favor?

I think the best way to explain these tendencies is to look at social media discussions as akin to battles (as opposed to summits, if you will excuse the military metaphors). Battles are fought between parties who want to win a zero-sum game. Summits can have a variety of purposes, but are often exchanges of ideas in order to gain consensus or gain clarity or insight on an issue. Battles and summits have differing ethics that incentivize different strategies, and in battle, all of the strategies I mentioned above make perfect sense. Let’s take a closer look.

We must choose sides

If we imagine a battle between rival gangs or military organizations, they are (generally viewed by the sides as) zero-sum rivalries: one side wins only at the others’ expense. Because of this, battles that start with more than two possible sides quickly collapse into two-sided affairs (where coalitions form between parties who recognize that the best way to win is to pool resources). Each side rallies on their shared interest in “the cause,” and what matters in order to be a member of a side is solely whether you are for or against “the cause.” Those who do not join a side will be considered a threat or obstacle to the established side, and each side has incentive to get as many people on their side as possible. As more people join sides, it becomes riskier for non-joiners not to join a side.

Summits, on the other hand, are meetings of different minds, and while they can have zero-sum goals, the goal is usually either to produce broad consensus or to exchange ideas in order to gain clarity on an issue. It is their (usually) non-zero-sum nature that allows parties to feel free not to coalesce into sides, as there is little obvious advantage in doing so.

Once you are on a side, your allegiance should be to advancing your side before anything else.

In battle, the goal is to win. Therefore, each move’s value is relative to advancing that goal. Thinking about whether there is anything good in the other side’s cause works contrary to the goal, as does even entertaining that type of thinking. A soldier that even contemplates that their side’s cause is incomplete or that the other side’s cause should be entertained is not the type of soldier one can rely on.

This also produces a demand for purity among members of each side. It is not a simple matter of believing the cause and believing it with appropriate vigor; you must never depart in your thinking from the cause. Even if the cause consists of a large bundle of positions, any hint that you are either diverging from that platform or are even thinking about it can be enough to incur – best case – the questioning of your allegiance.

Summits are at some risk of producing echo-chambers and devaluing consent. But at very worst, summits will assign little penalty on thoughtful dissent and at best, may come to value it, especially in summits where the stated goal is the thoughtful exchange of ideas. Heterodoxy is more likely to be allowed, because there often is no expectation of definitive sides. Where sides in battle see challenge as hampering the goal of victory, summits are more likely to allow challenge to occur when done in the spirit of pushing the discussion in interesting directions.

The simplifying and zealous voices tend to win the day.

As Julia Galef points out in her own military metaphors, battles require not only soldiers to fight but scouts to survey the territory. In their role, scouts are allowed to be as nuanced as they need to be … in the service of winning the battle. But when talking about the justice of the cause and the injustice of the cause’s opponents, what the troops need most is to be whipped into a frenzy. The more they love their cause and hate all who oppose it (or those who even show insignificant zeal for it), the more effective they will be on the battlefield. They need “Our cause is the most just,” rather than “Let’s think about the justice of our cause to make sure we have it right.” They need “Behold the cursed enemy” rather than “Have we really understood who the enemy is and isn’t?” The loudest voices on social media tend to be those who give the most beautiful versions of the most zealous speeches.

These speeches about the greatness of our cause and the evil of our enemies would be less productive in summits. Why? To the extent that summits are about discussion, zeal with respect to a cause is less likely to advance that goal than would any number of other skills, such as creativity, clarity, elaboration, skepticism, or empathy. To the extent that zeal is a valuable skill in a summit, it is zeal for the collective enterprise rather than zeal toward any given position represented there.

Why is social media argument so much more akin to a battle than a summit? There has been a lot of good writing on the psychology of the algorithms and why battles are better than summits at growing their bottom lines. There are two elements, however, that I find missing in many of these discussions.

Social media discussions seem more likely to become battles when discussing issues we think of as existential threats.

To have a battle, there must be something at stake, and the bigger the stakes, the more worthwhile the fighting. On one extreme, the issue we are discussing could be “purely academic,” where the only consequence is that we walk away disagreeing with one another and thus, the stakes are very low. On the other hand, the issue could be one where if we do not convince the other side (and marshal our own troops effectively in the process), the result will be certain doom; systems of racism will go stronger; immigration will continue ravaging the country; either cis or trans people will be doomed to second-class citizenship; etc.

My time on social media has convinced me that we have managed to place way too many issues close to that second extreme of existential crisis. Some of this has to do with the combative rhetoric we use: speech is violence; disagreement is erasure; demographic and cultural shifts are a “great replacement”; and the like. Partly, it is also that social media has exaggerated our sense of self-importance. What is really some people killing an afternoon arguing is imagined to be akin to on-the-streets activism. Your racist brother appears to have a gun, your coworker appears to have an executive order she can sign, where really they both just have a social media account, internet access, and a keyboard.

Battles are only possible around issues understood to be zero sum (in the worst way).

Zero sum games are those where the pie is of a fixed size, and the more that one party wins, the more the other loses. It may be that if we figure out the right answer to an issue (climate change, the budget crisis), we all win or lose together. Social media discussions tend to frame issues as the worst type of zero-sum contests: where one side only wins at the other’s expense. The more people who join our team, the bigger our team and more likely our victory. The fewer who join our team, the smaller and less powerful we are. Thus, the battle is worth it, both because the more we win the more they lose, and because the stakes are unbelievably high.

I can’t finish this piece with any real strategies, but one would seem to follow from what I’ve just written: when engaged in social media battles like the ones depicted above, ask yourself whether your feud really is as zero-sum or existentially grave as you’re making it. Maybe the issue isn’t zero-sum at all. It might not be as zero-sum as you imagine. It could be that admitting the vulnerability of your side to a point made by the other really does entail gain rather than loss. It might even be that the issue isn’t one around which mutually exclusive teams battle for a single prize. It could be that the issue you are debating is not as existentially dire as the participants think. Most likely, the mistake is that even if the issue you are debating is dire, your social media conversation does not itself carry real consequence toward that issue. Black lives will not matter or cease to matter based on whether you and your friend-network reach consensus on the issue. Issues like immigration or the rights of marginalized groups will be solved by legislation, executive orders, and court rulings, none of which will likely take into account your social media spats. Few to none of us are so important that allowing others to disagree with us will have dire consequences, except maybe to our egos.

So, maybe we can not only take things down a peg, but be judicious about how many of our social media conversations we allow to become battlegrounds.

Notes  

[1] I will mention here that I am not going to use many illustrative examples in this article. I tried in previous drafts to use some, but worry that examples – usually, around some potentially juicy issue – can distract from the case I’m trying to make. I will trust that readers have enough experience as social media participants or observers to have little trouble thinking of their own examples.

All I will say here is that I’ve had the types of discussions I am depicting on the following topics: critical race theory; Ibram X. Kendi; Jordan Peterson; the existence of patriarchy; “trans” and “gender critical” ideologies; and the amorphous thing called “wokeness.” On each of these, my stances don’t often line up with established sides, and this has made social media discussion increasingly more frustrating.

8 comments

  1. I think this podcast, or transcript if you prefer, gives one a good background on how we wound up in this situation on social media, why people are stuck in their tribal identities online/in life, some strategies to fix the situation online and the the countries that are leading the way in their laws to “right the ship” if you will online. Here is the intro for the podcast about the participants and what is covered:

    “One of the world’s most influential social psychologists, a professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors, Jonathan Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind and, with Greg Lukianoff, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt recently wrote a much-read feature in The Atlantic entitled “After Babel.”

    In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Haidt discuss how we can make social media less toxic, what political and technological reforms might help fix the problem, and how we can empower the moderate majority to fight for its values”

    See here: https://www.persuasion.community/p/jonathan-haidt-on-why-public-discourse?s=r

  2. Hi Kevin: This is very good.

    Lately, with a teacher-friend, I have been working on an article with the title “The practice of reasonableness in secondary schooling”. So your lucid account of the social media world raises for me the question of how schooling should be designed so that students graduate with a “summit” attitude instead of a “battle” attitude. There is much that philosophy and philosophers can contribute to achieving this. Reading your account in a class would be a good start. Thanks.

    Alan

    1. Thanks, Alan. As I sort of admitted in the piece, I have no real list of recommendations for how to get out of this quandary. Being aware of it and how we get into it (treating issues as more existentially threatening than they are, or ourselves as more important to resolving them than we are) might be a start.

      A related thing I’ve been thinking about recently is the degree to which we (all?) have tendencies toward dogmatism more than humiity and skeptiism. I wonder how much this is just a part of being human. We come to believe certain things in ways where they become part of our identities, so when others challenge them, part of our identity becomes at stake. If you identify yourself, say, with the idea of certain traditions or established order, threats to them become threats to you. Same if you identify yourself with the course of some marginalized group. Etc. I suspect this sort of thing is more or less inevitable, and as I say, a part of being human. But at least being aware THAT it ingrained in us to be dogmatic about some things can itself help us check those impulses.

  3. I also avoid social media most of the time.. Conversations that might have been discussions morph into heated debates when someone says the right thing in the wrong way. We are competitive by nature, or rather via evolution and adaptation. Also, we tend to revere the ‘upper hand’, for it’s own sake. People feign misunderstanding, just to start an argument.

  4. This is a patient analysis, Kevin.

    The military metaphor you deploy is almost indistinguishable from a war-games metaphor. Now, I genuinely can’t tell whether you’re making the following assumption, but let me point it out anyway in order to call it into question: the assumption that social media, and Twitter especially, are not essentially game-like.

    Thinkers such as C. Thi Nguyen (whom you’ve mentioned before) and Justin E. H. Smith question that assumption. The idea is something like this: To argue on Twitter is to play at arguing. The arguments are essentially artificial. You can approach the game sincerely, play the game sincerely, but the game itself is to fuck around, shitpost, advertise yourself, role-play, channel your energies — to name only a handful of possible moves. It’s for sincere insincerity, so it’s only accidental if you find good-faith pursuits of truth and understanding.

    (None of this is to deny that you can form non-artificial relationships. It’s just that these always come within the larger context of the game, the way you can come to know someone and form a relationship with them based on how they play poker. Nor is it to deny that you can stumble on (sincere statements of) extra-Twitter truth. Nor is it to deny, for that matter, that playing the game can have consequences outside the game.)

    So it might be that analyzing the various ways in which social media do not conduce toward truth is like analyzing the various ways literature does not conduce toward an interesting audiovisual experience. Worth understanding, for sure. But you’d be unjustified in criticizing literature for it. The problems with social media might lie elsewhere — one problem lying, perhaps, in users misunderstanding the game. (From my perspective, though, the main problem lies in their game-like nature.)

    1. “Now, I genuinely can’t tell whether you’re making the following assumption, but let me point it out anyway in order to call it into question: the assumption that social media, and Twitter especially, are not essentially game-like.”

      I am not sure whether I am either. I can say, at very least, that I don’t think anything in the essay stands or falls on whether I make that analogy. Whether SM is ‘war-game-like’ by contingent design or necessity, I think my analysis stands unaffected.

      But it is an interesting question. I like Jonathan Haidt’s recent takes on this, and think that the war-game-like thing is proably more a function of certain contingent aspects of SM. First, we have share and like buttons, which open up the incentives to be liked and shared as much as possible, and that brings a certain tribal element to it. Second, these discussions are in real-time and in front of an audence, so the incentive is to be quick and to look good as much as to be thoughtful and to have a good (private) exchange. (Notice the difference in quality between DM exchanges and public exchanges.) Third, instagram and twitter especially – in different ways – prioritize brevity above depth, and whether intentional or not, that incentivizes sloganeering more than anything. All those combined – all contingent features – add to social media’s tendency toward battles rather than summits.

      1. Thanks for your reply!

        “I think my analysis stands unaffected.”

        That’s right, certainly.

        But just to clarify: The point of my comment was not to question the fidelity of your analysis but to question what we might conclude from it. If social media are as you say they are, but are also essentially war games as I suggested, it’s inapt to criticize them for being as you say they are.

        (Hence my analogy: Criticizing them for failing to conduce toward good discussion, mutual understanding, and the grasp of truth — in all the ways your analysis captures — is like criticizing novels for failing to conduce toward interesting audiovisual experiences.)

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