As an ex-Catholic, I love not giving up stuff for Lent. Usually on Ash Wednesday I relish a delicious sense of “they can’t make me do that anymore.” But this year on Fat Tuesday, I read a compelling Facebook post from a friend who recommended giving up a vice for Lent even if you live an otherwise secular life. And since I enjoy a whimsical approach to sacrifice (see: Thanksgiving resolutions in lieu of waiting until New Year’s), I immediately decided to give up a habit that’s mostly bad for me — commenting on social media discourse.
Here’s how I define “the discourse” as it applies to me, a person who spends hours every week reading leftist political posts on Facebook and Twitter: it’s more than just commenting on the news of the day, it’s talking about how others comment on the news of the day. As we all know, social media platforms are rife with users spouting opinions on current events. And yes, many of the opinions are foolish. The trouble begins when we start picking apart the foolishness. I don’t tend to get sucked in by extremely dumb analysis. Like if I see someone on social media say “COVID is fake news,” I roll my eyes and keep scrolling. But when I see a more likeminded person say “These science-denying COVIDiots are the reason we have half a million dead,” my structural analysis brain kicks in. I feel compelled to argue that corporate power and poor governance deserve way more blame than everyday dumbasses who fall for lies. But I’ll stop there with my example, so I don’t break my Lenten vow.
The thing about discourse is that it churns constantly. Every day, left Twitter offers a new set of viewpoints to criticize, elevate, or shape into another argument. I’d been trying to avoid this habit for a while because it vacuums up a lot of time. Often I’d find myself researching The Thing everyone is talking about just so I could understand why it made some people angry. By the time I got to figuring out my stance on The Thing, I’d realize an hour had passed. Why waste time doing a deep dive on something I wouldn’t even know about if I hadn’t logged on? So I’d already gotten in the habit of cutting myself off before the research phase. Thus, I didn’t expect much trouble sticking to my Lenten promise.
Then Rush Limbaugh died on Ash Wednesday. What a curveball! I quickly realized I could joke about this development on Twitter without breaking my vow (that’s just me commenting on the news) but I couldn’t tweet my very good reasons why it’s okay to joke about Rush’s death (that’s discourse). Oh how I kept my typing fingers in check that day! I wrote and deleted a couple tweets, almost forgetting what I said I wouldn’t do. This was the same week Ted Cruz absconded to Cancun while his Texan constituents froze. So much temptation to chime in! But like a good ex-Catholic girl I saved my hot takes for Sunday, then enjoyed some belated “likes” on my clever observations.
But when the next #hottakeSunday rolled around, I didn’t have anything to say. I think this was because the weather turned nice, more people started getting vaccinated, and I’d regained a sense of hope. I noticed years ago that online discourse takes an especially bitter turn in winter. My experiment in sacrifice proved to me that most discourse commenting is bad mood-related.
My other big complaint about left discourse as habit is that it’s easy to mistake all this nuanced opining as political action. As many comrades frequently note, posting is not the same as organizing. That’s not to say it has zero political value. I remember when Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” came out. The conventional liberal notion that this book was some groundbreaking feminist literature felt so hollow to me. I’m grateful to the socialist feminists on my social media feeds for breaking down exactly why this book (and elite feminism in general) does nothing to empower the average working woman. Witnessing that discourse helped shape my values in a way that led me to eventually become active in socialist organizing.
But what if I’d just continued absorbing the discourse instead of taking concrete action? That’s what I did for a good long time. Before I joined my first organized campaign, I also wasn’t doing anything empower myself or other working class women. I did, however, collect many likes and retweets on my clever discourse analysis.
Ultimately, I think most discourse commenting and internet arguing are ego-based hobbies. We enjoy the attention or the sense of victory that comes from having the most perfectly honed take on whatever it is that everyone’s talking about. We get dopamine hits when other very smart people fav or retweet our clever thoughts. Does the discourse move people to take action? I think in rare cases (like with me and the “Lean In” discourse) it moves people to change their minds or reassess their values. But mostly I think it fosters exclusivity and resentment. When you begin to scoff at the decent people you know who don’t yet grasp your complex viewpoint — maybe it’s a nice, everyday liberal woman who posts cringe-y content about “girlbosses” like Sandberg — you are working against the principals of solidarity. How the hell are we gonna build a mass movement of working class people by harboring such petty ill will toward people with less-than-perfect opinions?
Having moved from discourse posting to actual political organizing, I also know these activities entail opposite energies. Discourse commenting is about breaking down bad ideas; its focus is negative. Organizing is about building relationships, which requires good faith, patience, and creativity; it’s focus is positive. To be an effective organizer, you certainly need to be aware of all the bad ideas and corporate media talking points that get in the way of your work. Like if you’re canvassing for Medicare for All, you need to have a response to “What if people like their health insurance?” To me that’s a pretty infuriating bad faith argument, promoted by corporate-backed politicians who resemble rats. But when I’m standing on a working person’s doorstep, having this discussion, I absolutely cannot respond to them with the sneering comebacks I might use on Twitter. To build a mass movement, I have to assume that this stranger and I are on the same team.
I don’t think excessive discourse commenting necessarily makes someone bad at organizing. Some of the best organizers I know issue many an epic clapback on the socials. Hey, we all gotta blow off steam somehow! But I have noticed in recent months that many of the people with good opinions I follow on Twitter don’t understand how organizing works. For example, they may resent congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for failing to win Medicare for All (look up #ForceTheVote if you want to know more, but I wouldn’t recommend it). I guess in their hazy vision of how change occurs, progressive electeds are supposed to win socialist policy while we sit back and dissect the discourse. And though I continue to appreciate the people with good opinions, especially when those people are funny, I’m starting to wonder how important it is to have the smartest take on things. Persuasion is so much harder than just being right about everything.