Cyber-squawkers are go

October 9, 2014

Felipe Fernández-Armesto (“Careless talk costs you”, Opinion, 25 September) and Christopher Davidson (“Heard mentality: if you want to multiply your flock, use Twitter”, Opinion, 2 October) offer different takes on tweeting.

For Fernández-Armesto, “expletive-larded, invective-charged tweets” are instances of “uncivil language”, and he wonders whether “it might be helpful to include civility as a qualification for academic appointments in future”. His subsequent caveat – “but one man’s incivility is another’s candour” – hides a further paradox: one person’s civility is another’s incivility, even tyranny. Fernández-Armesto declares “Twitterdom […] a realm of the irrational, in which drivel pullulates, rants resound and trivia thrive […] Apart from my wife and children, I know no one who treats it with the disdain it deserves”. That gives him a few followers at least, in a domestic sphere doubtless characterised by careful talk. But one person’s rant is another’s reasoning. The claim that “any traditional medium” guards against social media’s intemperance appears odd coming from a historian of the early modern period where the public sphere revolves around polemics, and an expert on Columbus, whose very name is a swear word that makes many latter-day Calibans curse.

Davidson’s more measured intervention observes that in some places “Twitter is parliament”, an “open space for sharing ideas above and beyond the government’s best efforts to censor and control […] gauging public opinion on key government policies, gaining insight into public protests, assessing the damage wreaked by a hurricane or understanding the thoughts of a hitherto isolated religious community”. This is consonant with John Milton’s defence of free speech in Areopagitica (1644).

Even Davidson’s own cautionary note, that “Twitter rants by esteemed professors […] break their spell of scholarly esteem and authority”, is no criticism at all, since such spells ought to be broken, like all mystical foundations of authority.

A key term deployed by Davidson is “public intellectual”. His vision of Twitter as a medium that “allows for mass peer-to-peer communications on a scale never seen before” resonates with Milton, who could not praise “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” because truth resides in an embattled world beyond the cosy civility invoked by Fernández-Armesto. Since his opinion piece has as its context Palestine, it’s worth recalling the words of the late Chinua Achebe: “strong language is in the very nature of the dialogue between dispossession and its rebuttal”.

Like Milton, Achebe knew that condemnation of style could conceal suppression of substance. Precisely because hate speech is often indistinguishable from hurt speech, we cannot let civility be defined by censors and cyber-nots.

Willy Maley
Professor of Renaissance studies
University of Glasgow


“Careless talk costs you” is the sort of anti-Twitter rant that makes academics seem out of touch. What you see depends entirely on whom you decide to follow. I follow a lot of scientists and statisticians, and have even managed some serious conversations about statistical inference. I follow Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, Lisa Jardine and Alan Rusbridger. They do not tweet about what they had for breakfast.

A large proportion of tweets contain a link, with a brief comment about what the link is about. They are often very valuable ways to spread information. I think that Felipe Fernández-Armesto is right about one thing only – it is quite addictive, but that is because it is useful.

David Colquhoun

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