Twitter and the collapse of coalitions.

Centrists / Futurism / Reconciliation / SOSc / Web/Tech

Walter Ong, a Jesuit who studied linguistics was fascinated by the difference between oral and literary cultures. Oral cultures value one sort of communication structure and literate ones another. (The difference is explained in The Atlantic article by Robinson Meyer linked below.)

Twitter (and to a similar degree Facebook, and I guess in a way even Instagram and Snapchat) represents an intersection between the oral and literary communication paradigms.

Meyer writes:

Before Ong died in 2003, he was asked about a special kind of writing that people do online, a genre of communication familiar to any Slack or AIM user or group-chat texter. It’s a mode that delivers words live and at the speed of speech—in which, as Ong put it, “textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange.” (This is apparently how a Jesuit talks about sliding into one’s DMs.) Ong called this new fusion “secondary literacy,” but today we just call it texting. Whatever its name, it reigned during Twitter’s early days. As I once wrote: “Twitter lets users read the same words at different times, which is a key aspect of literacy. Tweets are chatty, fusing word and action like orality; and also declarative, severable, preservable, and analyzable like literacy.”

Why Twitter May Be Ruinous for the Left – The Atlantic

The point is that the forms and structures that we’ve used to facilitate oral communication and the ones used in literary cultures aren’t working to structure and coral communications in this new melding of the two. That’s good in a lot of ways, especially for marginalized voices that have been frozen out of the mainstream conversation by the above referenced tools (editorial conventions, academic imprimatur, etc.)

But it’s a challenge too, and one that is presently pushing the spinning orb of our body politic off its traditional orbits. The way people used to speak in rallies and small gatherings of supporters is suddenly being treated in the same way that formal position statements and sworn testimony had been. And it’s not working. The “rules” didn’t anticipate this meta-state of oral/written language. I expect they (we) will catch up, but it may take a generation, and in the interim, the already stressed social structures are going to be under a sort of stress they haven’t experienced since we saw the rise of a broad literary cultural during the renaissance.

Meyer’s article takes this idea and applies it to the way that transient literary communication is undermining the way the political left has built its coalitions. But what he writes about is just as important for the life of the Church (particularly the broadly catholic expressions) which have tried to create a middle ground where all can meet. But in a cancel culture, is that sort of coalition building even possible? Every difference is magnified and coalitions rise and fall at an unanticipated rate.

Go read the article. As unhappy the future it implies is coming, it’s still better to consider why what we’re seeing happen is happening than it is to just sit and grumble about how frustrated we are with what is happening.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...