Twitter, Smug Intellectualism, Trolls, and Philosophical Charity

Yesterday, I witnessed an exchange on Twitter that continues to bother me.

In the interest of citing sources and providing evidence, my first inclination is to embed the public conversation here. But, especially in this current climate, citing a personality in association with a controversial piece of content frequently serves to distract from the specific issues at hand. It is also not my intention to ‘call out’ any particular individual, but rather to use the situation as an opportunity to think through some issues related to philosophical charity, social media, and anti-intellectualism.

At a high level the exchange went something like this: A scholar with a sizable following on Twitter made an off-hand comment about US education funding being dramatically cut over the last few decades. In response, a user with obvious neo-liberal leanings, merely asked the question: “hasn’t funding for education grown. Who eviscerated education spending?” Although an active Twitter user, this person was also an ‘egg’…they never updated their profile picture, preferring instead to use the default ‘egg’ picture. The scholar’s reply: call the user ‘egg boy,’ accuse the user of being an uninformed troll, patronize the user by implying that they were not a ‘grown-up,’ and drop the ‘f-bomb’ as they sought to put the ‘egg’ in its place. The interaction went back and forth. From ‘the egg,’ there were only more demands for evidence (plus a suggestion that the scholar was probably not vey generous to students who disagreed with them in class).

(Ironically, the scholar claims to be driven by an interest in critical pedagogy)

After ‘the egg’ failed to respond to the scholar’s f-bomb mic drop, the scholar picked the mic back up again to produce one final subtweet that included the hashtags #PoorDelicateFlower #NotSoFunNowIsIt and attached the following gif:

Now, this is not the first exchange of this type that I have witnessed on Twitter. In fact, it is likely that I have been sucked into similar exchanges myself. It is easy to behave this way on On the social network, particularly in response to a perceived troll. But this kind of behavior on the part of academics — or anyone for that matter — is lazy, unbecoming, and inconsistent with that set of core beliefs that most scholars hold dear. It Is to lack self-restraint, and to fall into an anti-intellectualist trap even as we purport to uphold the virtues of critical thinking. It is smug and dismissive. It is unreasoned and uncharitable. Trolling is absolutely a huge problem on Twitter, but the term should be reserved for actual abusers of the platform, and not as a label that justifies discourteous conduct.

Intellectualism is also a terrible thing. It assumes that having an education gives you the right to judge others, and to lean on credentials and other forms of authority instead of collecting and weighing evidence. It means committing those same fallacies of relevance that the educated elite should be the best equipped to identify and strive to avoid. Intellectualism is arrogant. Intellectualists give intellectuals a bad name.

So what should il Dottore have done? In the first place, if they thought ‘the egg’ was actually a troll, they might have considered ignoring them entirely. By responding to a troll, you legitimize them. In the act of responding, you affirm that the one to whom you are responding is worthy of a response.

In general, I feel like we should extend the spirit of philosophical charity to social media. If someone asks a question, treat it seriously and respond with sound evidence. If th other fails to respond in the same spirit of generousity and open inquiry, then ignore them. Give them all the attention that a troll deserves. But don’t discriminate against ‘eggs,’ and certainly do not get sucked into the trap of intellectualism, which only fuels the flames of anti-intellectualism in this country.

It was shocking to me to see how many of the scholar’s Twitter-followers ‘favorited’ his hostile tweets, and how few intervened (zero). But this level of interaction underlines the fact that people are watching us on Twitter (a fact that is surprisingly easy to forget). With authority and an audience comes a responsibility to model behavior in a way that is consistent with scholarly values, the most basic of which should be philosophical charity.

If you can’t say something reasonable, don’t say anything at all. If you feel the need to say something, at least be kind about it.

Also published on Medium.