Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 14, 2016

a dissertation on monocausal parataxis in social media

We don't usually do politics here at Text Patterns, but I sort of sent us down that road in my last post. So: I think Twitter’s atomizing, paratactic tendency, its constant pressure to squeeze thoughts into tiny boxes, exacerbates and intensifies a common intellectual vice: monocausalism.

So far there have been, according to my highly scientific estimate, fifty bazillion tweets beginning “Trump won because” or “Hillary lost because” — and providing the answer within 140 characters. But the more you read about the election the more you will realize that many, many factors produced this result. Let’s just look at one of several ways we could think about what just happened: in 2012 almost 66 million people voted for Barack Obama, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton received only around 61 million votes. Why the decline? Wikileaks? James Comey’s on-and-off investigations based on Wikileaks? Long-standing hatred of the Clintons? Misogyny? Actual (as opposed to perceived) corruption on the part of Hillary personally and the Clinton Foundation institutionally? A sense on the part of minority voters that Hillary does not share their concerns? A sense on the part of working-class voters that Hillary is contemptuous of them? Extremely poor strategy by the Clinton campaign, focusing their money and energy in the wrong places? Third-party candidates that siphoned away votes? Hillary’s unattractive personality, especially in comparison to Barack Obama? An Electoral College system weighted in favor of the places where Hillary was weakest? Intimidation of voters by Trump supporters?

The answer is: All of the above, and more. Every factor listed played a role in the outcome of this election. And we haven't even brought Donald Trump into our deliberations. The outcome of this election is a classic case of causal overdetermination. But Twitter doesn't do overdetermination well. Twitter lends itself to monocausal parataxis: you pick your preferred explanation, articulate it in the punchiest way you can, and then retweet everyone who sees it your way. And ... and ... and....

People used to complain about politicians and their sound bites. Twitter is the sound bite in the age of infinite digital amplification. Combine that radical oversimplification of every event and every idea with the constant inflammation of emotion and you have a real mess. The other social media — especially Facebook — have their own problems, but Twitter, while it isn't the worst thing that has happened to American politics, may be the worst thing that has happened to American political culture.

4 comments:

  • I've long argued that the Internet, and social media in particular, bring us too close together. Traditional forms of public discourse are effective in large measure through differentiating people, through status, office, authority, time, body, intermediation, ritual, place, etc., etc., etc. Public discourse traditionally occurs in highly aerated and differentiated discursive environments, such as courtrooms and debating or parliamentary chambers.

    Twitter has become the terrarium within which the mind of a new internationalist political class is now forged. On Twitter, what one says about things is the most important thing, substance dissolves into speech, constant, unrelenting speech. On Twitter, real world events and realities exist chiefly as props whereby a privileged class can negotiate their internal relations. Twitter brings this class so much closer together—into contact and incessant correspondence—yet thereby increasingly detaches them from the rest of the population.

    It is embarrassing to us as enlightened people, so we try not to talk about gender. However, it is important to recognize that Twitter has hastened the collapse of the more masculine discursive world of agonistic politics into the more feminine discursive world of polite society, a world where forces encouraging preference falsification are constantly in effect, lest one be socially ostracized (in this world differences are more likely to lead to demonization). In a world where we are all so close together, peer pressure effects are heightened, while rendering us much less tractable or receptive to concerns outside of our class.

    Of course, when the world of politics starts to be dominated by the norms of polite society in the ruling classes, preference falsifications that may fly in their Twitter feeds will start to be imposed upon the population at large, with much less positive results. The rubes outside of the enlightened bubble are much more likely to be ridiculed and despised as the smugness of polite society becomes the operating tone of politics.

    Twitter hogs the bandwidth of the political conversation, preventing other things from being talked about. In polite society, internal relations are what matter and people have short attention spans. What's the latest on Joseph Kony? Who? The conversation will come to be governed by those issues that are most serviceable for managing the political classes' internal relations, rather than the issues that really are the most important and pressing. Symbolism will replace substance. Given the choice between talking about jobs and the growing crises of automation in the Rust Belt and transgender bathrooms, they will choose the latter. Even when politicians aren't themselves heavy participants in the Twitter conversation, the people who surround them will be.

    I would be fascinated to know more about the demographics of the alt-right. My strong suspicion is that they are predominantly college-educated men with considerable knowledge of the inner world of our polite society, but who are just outside of it and reacting against it. They aren't disconnected people living out in the sticks.

  • Let’s just look at one of several ways we could think about what just happened: in 2012 almost 66 million people voted for Barack Obama, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton received only around 61 million votes. Why the decline?

    Because not all the votes have been counted yet? The NBC News Election results for 2012 shows Obama with 62 million votes and was updated on November 15, 2012. Essentially, it takes a long time to count everything, especially in California. Right now, it looks like Clinton is about on track to get the same number of votes as Obama (she's got just under 62 m as of today).

    See http://elections.nbcnews.com/ns/politics/2012/all/president/ for NBC News

    For a good counter of the votes, see https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/u/1/d/133Eb4qQmOxNvtesw2hdVns073R68EZx4SfCnP4IGQf8/htmlview?sle=true#gid=19

    Basically, the lesson is *also* not to draw conclusions too quickly.

  • David, don't you realize that Trump actually won the popular vote, and anyway, two million of Hillary’s voters are illegal immigrants?

    No, seriously, good point — though it doesn't affect my argument. I could have asked "Why did Trump win?" and made a similarly lengthy list, and that wouldn't have been altered by later developments. (Well, unless the Electors decide in December to vote for Clinton instead.)

  • No, seriously, good point — though it doesn't affect my argument

    Nope. And as a historian, I would *never* argue for monocausal analyses.

    (muttermutterPoliticalscientistsmuttermutter)

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]