Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 10, 2014


A few days ago I read an interesting article in the New Republic on "trigger warnings" in college syllabi. The topic intrigued me, and I decided I wanted to write about it — but then I got busy. Way too much to do. And by the time I got a few minutes to think about what I wanted to say, so many people have written about it that it didn't seem worth my time to add my two cents to an already enormous pile of pennies.

This relieved me greatly. And then I wondered why it did.

So I thought about it, and I came to the conclusion that I didn't really want to write a post on this topic — not really, not in my heart of hearts — but felt some inchoate obligation to do so. It just seems like the sort of thing about which I ought to have an opinion that I ought to be able to state. But that's silly. There's no reason whatsoever for me to opine about this. And yet only a period of intense busyness kept me from rushing to my computer to commit opinionizing all over the internet.

I think there's something to learn from this experience. For one thing, it enables me to see more clearly what we all know already: that when I see a topic being tossed around a lot on blogs and on Twitter, it's easy to be swept along by that tide. I was looking the other day at the mute filters I have set up for my Twitter client, and I couldn't help laughing at how many of them provided a record of those brief enthusiasms that take over Twitter for a day or two or three and then disappear forever. It took me a minute to remember who Todd Akin is. It took me even longer to figure out why I had added the word "tampon" to my mute list, but I finally remembered that time when Melissa Harris-Perry was wearing tampon earrings and everybody on Twitter had something to say about that. This is why some Twitter clients have mute filters that can be set for a limited time: I would imagine that three days would almost always be sufficient. Then the tide would have passed, and would be unlikely ever to return.

But I learned something else from this experience also: you can actually use the speed of the Internet to prevent you from wasting your time – or maybe I shouldn't say wasting it, but rather using it in a less-than-ideal fashion. If you just wait 48 or 72 hours, someone you follow on Twitter will almost certainly either write or link to a post which makes the very argument that you would have made if you had been quick off the mark.

For me, these realizations – which might not be new to any of you – are helpful. They remind me to give a topic a chance to cycle through the Internet for a few days, so I can find who has written wisely about it and point others to that person; and, if there are things that haven't been said that need to be said, I can address them from a more informed perspective and with a few days’ reflection under my belt. I can also practice the discipline — or maybe it’s a luxury rather than a discipline — of thinking longer thoughts about more challenging issues than are raised by than Melissa Harris-Perry’s earrings. Or even trigger warnings.