Social Media, Claims, and Invitations

A while ago I was reading James Crosswhite’s The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. In this book, Crosswhite argues for an understanding of argument and discourse that begins not with the content or logical connections of statements, but rather on the social fact of the argument itself. Before there are arguments, he says, there are arguers, and before they become arguers, they are people; it’s with people in their lived realities that an understanding of argument should begin.

At one point, Crosswhite is thinking about the nature of claims that people make in their daily lives, and states that in many cases those claims simply happen without forming into full-fledged arguments:

Although claims are calls for response, they are not in the first place calls for criticism… If someone says, “Look at how red this apple is!” we look…. Ordinarily, this invitation is enough. We argue when simple invitations and entreaties are not enough — when the conflict between one way of noticing things and another way is too strong and overrides the usual deference we pay to one another. (62-63)

The reason, according to Crosswhite, that we don’t immediately start arguments when someone says something like “Look at how red this apple is!” has to do with our existence as social animals. In order to exist together, we show “really quite remarkable deference…to each other in daily life.” According to Crosswhite, when somebody says “I’m tired,” that person is not asking for an argument, but rather to be treated like someone who is, well, tired. This, he says, is “one of the ways we achieve social solidarity in our understanding of the world.” Rather than arguing at every point, we defer to each other’s experiences in order to complete our own (62).

The distinction Crosswhite is making is between seeing claims as part of social life, and seeing claims as disembodied propositions. This distinction has important implications for how we should properly react to claims. If a claim is simply a disembodied proposition, then the most appropriate response, if any, will be critical. To the claim “This apple is very red,” such a response might be to query the definition of “red” or the degree meant by “very.” One might ask whether the claim has implications for other apples or indeed other objects of various kinds; and one might also ask any number of other critical questions about it. On the other hand, if a claim is part of social life, then the first reaction is to take note of the claimant and to understand their motivation for making the claim. Perhaps they are expressing delight, or perhaps they are being critical. Perhaps they want someone else to verify that they, too, think the apple is very red. Or, perhaps, they simply want to share their perception with us. Only once we have (1) understood the claimant’s motivation should we (2) move on, if we move on, to critical analysis of the claim, keeping in mind that this step is not always and not necessarily called for depending on the social situation.

Crosswhite published this book in 1996, and one can’t help but wonder how he might have thought differently about this particular topic had he published it a decade or so later, in the age of Twitter and Facebook. For one of the most salient features of so-called social media is how argumentative it can be. Contrary to Crosswhite’s statements, social media can be astoundingly non-social; rather than beginning with the reasonable understanding that claims are always made by human beings and rarely for the purpose of inviting argument, a common practice on social media is to treat claims as utterly disembodied and existent for the sole purpose of refutation.

Anyone who has spent time on social media has seen this, I suspect: someone will recount personal experiences and reactions, sharing them with followers and, more broadly, to the users of the platform at large. Often, people in subaltern positions will do so in order to show resistance to oppressive structures and to recount oppressive experiences; often, also, other people will amplify the original posts in order to show solidarity with them. In some cases, people will recount micro-aggressions they experienced at work or on the street, in order to highlight their occurrence and the discomfort they can cause.

Now, according to Crosswhite’s reasoning, these would seem to be non-argumentative claims, albeit with political implications. If, for example, a person is recounting experiences of being harassed, she is not recounting her experiences and reactions in order that her rationality may be questioned. Rather, she is most likely first inviting people to, in Crosswhite’s terms, “share a perception,” in this case, the perception of what it might be like in her place. And yet, almost immediately and entirely predictably, she will begin receiving responses that are not social but abstractly argumentative in nature: demanding that she clarify her terms (but was that really harassment?), modify the scope of her statement (but #NotAllMen are like that), and so on. In other words, responses on social media often begin with step 2, critical analysis, while skipping over step 1, recognizing the motivation of the claimant. Such responses are critical, but not at all social in focus. It is not surprising, therefore, that social media commentary often takes the form, sometimes apt and sometimes not, of fallacy-naming, the most basic and in some ways most facile form of critical discourse.

What such responses amount to is a failure or refusal to acknowledge the social situation or lived reality of a person making a claim; instead, they leap instantly to the not-always-called-for stage of critical analysis of the claim itself as disembodied proposition. That such critical analysis is not always well conducted is not really the problem, either; the problem is that such analysis is not always what is being called for, any more than it would be in the case of a person saying “I’m tired” or “This music is not to my taste.” In innocuous situations like that, uncalled-for critical analysis would most likely come across as odd or annoying. In the kind of situations one often sees on line, however, it can come across as callous and dehumanizing. When, for example, someone is talking about being objectified or subject to harassment or violence — when the treatment of their physical self is precisely the topic at hand — then the move of critically disembodying their claims is more than merely annoying; it is an exacerbation of the exact problem they are describing.

Crosswhite argues, following Levinas and Cavell, that when we make claims, we do not merely state content; rather, we make claims on each other (64). The ease of refusal, of affirmatively rejecting the claims of others on “social” media, suggests that, contrary to Crosswhite’s relatively optimistic vision of two decades ago, we have entered a media environment in which personal, non-argumentative claims are not subject to automatic or remarkable deference, but rather one in which they find great difficulty in being heard, and one in which, rather than focusing on the actual person making the claim, we often inappropriately focus on the claim itself as if it could and should always be abstracted from its claimant and her social context. A follow-up on the rhetoric of reason in the age of social media would seem to be urgently called for, to help us understand and negotiate this oddly dehumanized new reality.