Twitter is a raging storm of bigotry, lying, anger, and trauma.
It can be an incredibly difficult place to navigate through any discourse. This is especially true of the discourse over trans rights.
This article will be offering many years experience in outreach and advocacy and three years delving deeply into it on specifically Twitter.
Think of this piece as street philosophy.
I’m a poorly trained philosopher, but I’ve spent most of my life studying literature, among which has been a great deal of philosophical literature and many classes that offered philosophical perspectives in secondary analysis of the media we covered in my program. Philosophy is very close to my heart, so while I’m not well-trained in many deep philosophical concepts, I do have a strong understanding of many and am a very deep and informed thinker. I’m certainly not qualified for any formal philosophical debates, but I can draw a map with words that might help us all perceive this bizarre digital hellscape we occupy.
Think for a moment of Twitter as a video game.
The theme you imagine doesn’t matter, but for our purposes let’s use the ever-so popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game World of Warcraft (WoW).
In this game, you create a character and assign it a class, and pick a side, and join parties in a conflict.
Here is a list of classes and descriptions.
Warrior: Has no time for bullshit. Blocks quickly and often. Disarms and debases enemies, striking at their hearts when they are at their weakest.
Paladin: Protector of the weak; always wants to be the hero for their cause as they are a true believer in it. Will support you when you’re down, but only if it benefits the cause.
Hunter: Strikes from afar with piercing words of truth, raining hell on enemies when things get hairy. Distracts and manipulates targets when necessary.
Rogue: Backstabs enemies of their party with cold, calculating precision, manipulating conflicts so that they turn in the direction of their party. Poisons with “white” lies, as long as it harms the enemy.
Priest: Healer who takes care of their party desperately. Will do and sacrifice anything to care for them, blinded by their own light as they do what’s right by their party, but has a dark side; a shadow cast by their light.
Shaman: Harnesses the elements, absorbing damage from the chaotic world around them, which they release on their enemies, lashing out in violent bursts. Filled with rage that must be mastered, or else..
Mage: Hurls words that burn and freeze enemies. Can use their powers offensively or defensively. Rains hellfire from the sky focused on the immobilization and destruction of their enemies. They will get you banned.
Warlock: Much like a Rogue, but far more devious. Uses magic spells to burn, poison, and afflict enemies. Summons demons, using their enemies past mistakes to destroy them.
Druid: Shapeshifter who tries to be everything to everyone. Can play any role needed, but always stretches themselves too thin. Avoids combat and seeks balance wherever possible but does what they have to do. Blamed for every mistake on all sides.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered people a lot like I’ve described above. I certainly have. I could point to individuals and tell them what classes they play. Often, players switch between them.
Many already very clearly think in terms similar to these. Warriors and Paladins as I’ve described them are the sort of people who many would point to as social justice warriors. Many refer to themselves in profiles as things like “social justice mage,” all of these classes and certainly more exist in both the real world and the current form of the game.
Mainly, I play a Druid, but I’m known to also play Shaman as well as many other roles. If you see yourself in any of them as I certainly see myself, reflect on that with me as we continue.
Whichever you chose, I want you to now understand that the harm caused by these classes to their enemies in the actual video game can be understood as very real harm on Twitter, and indeed in the real world.
Our words, some philosophers would say, are actions. On Twitter, when we use these actions, there are very real consequences. Something to keep in mind here, is that these actions break Newton’s third law. The reactions to them are not, by any measure, equal and opposite.
Words, therefore, are powerful. Extremely so. Words are, no matter how much many like to deny it, literally violence.
No matter what your class, there is power in you to harm, heal, inspire, disparage, encourage, demoralize, enchant, manipulate, slander, poison, protect, betray, and so, so much more.
The pen is truly mightier than the sword.
Look at us on Twitter, with our digital pens drawing ourselves as characters in our own epic fantasy narratives, crushing our enemies.
So many of us operate exactly like this, blind to all of the very real damage we are doing. We behave like our characters would behave, we play our role, we do our best for our side, and we defeat our enemies as we’ve been trained to do by not only video games, but so so much more of our media, very much including social media.
Is it any wonder, given the digital cultures we now occupy, that we have developed such abominable Us vs. Them mentalities?
Just look at how we are socialized. We breed so much hate and fear of one another into the world. Our role models are all these digitized heroes. Even the book-based heroes are digitized these days.
These works reflect reality in such fascinating ways. We truly pour ourselves into everything we create. We have all these archetypes because they exist in the real world. They have been derived from real experience. We can get as complex or simplified with this line of reflective thinking with any subject. I’ve intentionally chosen video games to make use of a very simplistic media form that can be used as a lens on a product that is produced to be addictive to interact with, just like Twitter.
Twitter wants us to behave like this. The environment is designed for having fun and blowing off steam with anonymous masses, mindlessly playing your class as you click away your enemies one by one. They want it to be like this. They want it to be addictive. They want you to have that sense of leveling up as you grow and gain more and more followers.
They want to keep you there, so they can keep showing you advertisements. So, as your followers grow, so will the weight of their pockets. On Twitter, we even frequently see enemies created for the purpose of covert advertising. There are paid actors who create outrage intentionally while talking about products, services, organizations, etc. It is a very widespread problem. When we slay those enemies, as we’re so often compelled to do, we inadvertently advertise for them, unwittingly spreading viral marketing through our anger.
Our pain is being used for greedy ends. Better societies would be focusing their outrage toward curtailing the damage this sort of thing is causing, but we are so blind we never think to try doing or saying anything about it.
But we sure do like to talk shit on the internet!
Rather than punching up at the problems in society causing our outrage, we are compelled to swing sideways and continue fighting the imaginary enemies in our preferred digital hellscape.
What an absolute waste of time, and detriment to humanity.
We just want more and more followers, so we can get more and more powerful and imagine ourselves defeating more and more powerful enemies.
We don’t care who we hurt.
If it gets us likes, retweets, and increases our following, we will do it. For the good of our side in our preferred conflict.
We will play our roles and we will defeat our enemies.
No matter what it takes, we will be victorious.
“For the Horde!” one side shouts, “For the Alliance!” the other. Each pointing fingers at one another, and never at themselves.
We all lose in between. Bigotry, lying, anger, and trauma rage on and on and on.
The worst of humanity can’t help but emerge in the sound and fury.
We don’t see those on the other end of the keyboard as people. We see them as digitized enemies to defeat, or to now move away from the metaphor and get literal, we see ideas and ideologies.
When individuals become ideas, and groups become ideologies, we must understand that humanity is more often than not lost in translation.
Those of us who participate in discourse, especially online, must be aware of this fact if we are to navigate the storm. We must understand that there are people on the other end of the keyboard, and our words can do very real harm to them.
This is a thing to remember as we venture in digital hellscapes like Twitter. The other players are very real, and we should be careful not to hurt them. We should not see them as enemies, but fellow people and be kind to them even in their worst moments. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt. No one is perfect. We are all very much flawed creatures with animals inside us who come out to respond to threats, even the imaginary ones. I wish we could all acknowledge this and be critical of it.
It is always better to help an individual overcome their flaws than to attack them and deepen them.
Our words, which remember are actions, can either deepen divides, or work to bridge and overcome them.
To do the latter, we have to first understand our own flaws, and learn to cope with them. If we’re incapable of this, we will inevitably become demoralized and fall mindlessly back into that simplistic video game mindset, overcoming our enemies for catharsis and points for our team.
We should do everything we can to avoid these mindsets. If that means disconnecting from the game, that is what we need to do. I know that’s hard, especially with how addicting it all can be, but it’s important to be able to take a step back.
However, it’s also important to understand that many of us out in this digital hellscape can’t really do that. Our lives are so full of trauma and abuse everywhere that awful places like Twitter feel like an escape. Before we know it, we’re ignoring our friends, our health, our sanity, and so much more just for one more ring of the notification bell.
For many, there’s really not much else. The digital life is their lives. Most of the social interaction is via social media. This is becoming more and more common every day.
I feel a great deal of sympathy for people like that. They’re usually the most traumatized of us and I wish that we could have more patience for one another and help our siblings in humanity to find pathways to healing.
But we don’t, we spiral on and on, uncritically on the offensive, destroying one idea and ideology after another and scoring points for ours, no matter who it hurts.
Bigots, liars, and dishonest actors all the while stir the pot, draining more and more from the soul of humanity.
Faith is the last thing I’d like to talk about here. Faith in humanity.
In this digital hellscape, we certainly can’t have blind faith. As I’ve already discussed, there are so many forces with vested interest in spurring on conflict who create outrage with intentional purpose.
We talked about greed, one of many reasons a person or organization might engage in this behavior, but there are so many more wicked ends we might abuse faith in humanity for. Undermining your perceived enemies being a big one.
Those Rogues and Warlocks who engage in subversive tactics to undermine and poison discourse are often the most toxic part of the storm. They lie, manipulate, and cheat for dishonest gains. They obfuscate the truth and rob others of context, perspective, and information. No one, but the most wicked tend to play these roles, even if they truly believe they are doing it for good.
Bit scary, because these, along with Mages and Hunters, the last purely destructive classes, are the most beloved in most video games. People love to destroy, it’s an unfortunate part of our nature. It takes special people to be builders and creators.
In our digital hellscapes, anonymity is an ever-present ally and enemy. It both protects us and completely destroys our ability to have faith in one another.
How can we know who is trustworthy, and who is spreading poison?
Faith, sadly, is the best weapon we have, but we cannot use it blindly.
We have to sharpen our faith and use it to reveal humanity. No matter what, we should love and seek to understand those we see as our enemies. Learn about the person hiding behind the keyboard.
You’ll know truth in humanity by how much it hurts. You’ll see the burdens they carry, and they will always have a lot of fruit to offer from within if you take the time to help them unpack.
When you find each other, hold one another close and help each other grow and heal in this endless redemption arc we call life, and maybe, just maybe, we might manage to weather this storm.
I want to harness this storm, and use it to defeat itself; to share my experiences with it and talk about everything I’ve learned with hopes that others might learn from the maps I draw of my crossing.
This storm will never be easy to navigate, and getting across the gaps in our discourse can be impossibly hard, but with a bit of perspective and perseverance, humanity can and will harness this storm, and find the freedom we so desperately need, bridging all divides and overcoming all obstacles together, unabashed and in good faith.
I hope this helps you and I to meet one another there.