Have you ever persuaded someone to change their mind about something? Not just convinced someone to take your advice on a matter about which they were undecided, but actually shifted someone’s view from one strongly held view to another? It’s not that easy. It’s even harder to build a consensus within a community, even when many in the community might not have strong feelings about the subject at hand. In social media though it’s nearly impossible. Or at least I imagine it’s nearly impossible; I don’t think I’ve every actually witnessed it. For example, have you ever seen someone change their views on our current presidential candidates during the course of a social media exchange? Of course, I don’t think we expect that to happen. The kinds of arguments that take place in social media are not really about persuasion, or at least not about persuading one’s opponents. They are some different kind of rhetorical performance.
When one thinks about how views are changed or consensus is built in a discourse community, one realizes that the rhetorical features of the texts involved are only a minor element in the process. For example, when a widely-held scientific theory is challenged and replaced, texts are certainly involved: journal articles, grant applications, laboratory records, and so on. But those texts are only part of a larger apparatus that lends strength to the claims made in the text and gives durability to the conclusions. Eventually grant programs shift their criteria, researchers and labs change their agendas, and curriculum and textbooks alter their content. Over time, the people involved change their views but not without all of these other non-textual structures in place. Without them, a journal article reporting on research and challenging an accepted theory is easily ignored.
Similar processes happen in other disciplines, in business, government, religion, law, and so on. In academic life the most familiar example of this occurs with first-year students. It’s the cliché of how the student returns home for Thanksgiving break only discover that s/he no longer quite fits in with his/her parents or hometown friends who have not gone off to college. Families pass along values and some will have duration, but once one is separated from the apparatus that gives those views duration, they can start to weaken. The student finds herself in a new apparatus on the campus and comes to share the values of that new community. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the same student might return to her hometown after graduation and slowly revert to those old values once the campus is no longer a part of her life.)
Social media provides none of the mechanisms that would allow for arguments to be persuasive or to have any durability. They can become part of other apparatuses and do. Integrated into a disciplinary community social media can obviously be a place for extending and shaping an existing conversation. It might shape that conversation as well by the way it impacts the dissemination of scholarship. Similar things might happen in other discourse communities where the members share enough genres, values, and objectives. However, one conversation moves beyond those fairly narrowly shared elements or one moves into more loosely-bound communities (e.g. networks of friends or participants in a hashtagged conversation) there’s not enough strength in the bonds and even the most elegantly worded and carefully argued text will have little strength.
Here’s what Latour writes in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence on politics.
According to the principles of this inquiry, every time we manage to isolate a mode of existence, a type of(here, the curve, the exception), a (here, autonomy, freedom), we also have to be able to define an explicit form of . We saw earlier how such a demand appeared incongruous in the case of political discourse: either speakers rationalize too much, or they overestimate irrationality. Might it be necessary to give up speaking truths on the pretext of speaking politically? Must one change oneself into a ghoul, as Socrates demands at the end of Gorgias, in order to be right, but only after the fact, emerging from Limbo, a shade judging other shades, a phantom judging other phantoms? No, of course not, since, dispersed in institutions, buried in practices, captive in our imaginations and in our judgments, there is a whole know-how concerning speaking well and speaking badly, acting well and acting badly in the political realm, which should make it possible to define the felicity and infelicity conditions of the Circle. Let us recall that to make this competence explicit is not to formalize it according to a different enunciative key but, on the contrary, to follow it in its own language.
Latour’s point rests on our notion that politics bears little resemblance to facts. Our current presidential cycle, to say nothing of the Brexit matter, has been rife with fact-checking and assertions that we now live in a “post-fact” society. Latour has long approached this matter in relation to climate change, which offers an excellent example of how hard it is for science to speak to politics or visa versa. We cannot expect Science or Reason or some other mode to do the work of politics.
I think Latour might be overly optimistic in his assessment that we have the know-how to speak well in political realms. I suppose it depends on who the “we” is in that sentence. There’s a line. I think it’s in Virilio’s Art of the Motor but I may be misremembering about how in Europe the arrival of trains led many people to believe there would be increased understanding among the peoples of different nations as they would now be able to travel and interact more easily, but what the Germans realized was that trains improved troop movement and logistics. It would be nice to think that social media would similarly increase understanding but that has hardly proven to be the case. If anything social media makes us more divisive and more entrenched in our views. We can try to imagine some better, more civil way of talking, but in my mind the challenges are more object-oriented. How do we build structures that support felicity conditions, giving strength and durability to a way of speaking politically that might lead us beyond the shambles of political discourse we currently “enjoy”?