The Whole World is Watching

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One of the key components of modern writing instruction is the rhetorical attention paid to the question of audience.  And I hardly need to tell whatever audience I may have here what that's all about and why it's important—especially in the era of socially-mediated inscription.  But there is another angle to the matter that, if a great many recent news stories are of any significance, appears to require some attention too, not only by students, but by instructors as well.


 I am referring here to the seemingly endless stream of news reports—both from such sources as Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education, on the one hand, and numerous mass media news sources on the other, if the story is shocking enough—concerning college instructors who appear to forget that when writing on Internet-mediated platforms the whole world is your potential audience, because no matter how you may set your privacy settings on Facebook, or no matter how obscure you may assume your Twitter account to be, there is always someone out there ready to take a screenshot, no matter which side of the political divide you may find yourself.


The most recent cause celebre in this regard involves the Drexel University professor whose "All I want for Christmas is white genocide" tweet particularly lit up the holiday season this year.  The point of my analysis here has nothing to do with academic freedom and the related question of what Drexel administrators should or should not have said about it: I'll leave that to the innumerable online commentators who have been doing battle over those matters.  Rather, what I am interested in is the question of audience, and how a failure to consider that question can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences.


The crux of the matter here lies in the assumption that everyone who read the tweet would be aware that the phrase "white genocide" has become a special term of reference for alt-right sorts who use it to deplore the rise of multiculturalism and the impending loss of a white racial majority in the United States.  Those who have rushed to the defense of  the offensive tweet—along with its author—have assumed that everyone would have seen that the tweet was a sarcasm-inflected endorsement of a multicultural, multiracial society, not a call for a massacre.


But here is where the question of potential audience comes in, because while the author of this tweet and his intended audience of Twitter followers may be well aware of the alt-right meaning of the phrase "white genocide" these days, the majority of potential readers of the tweet are not, and to such readers the tweet is going to look appalling without some sort of semantic clarification.  But that is something that you can't do in the text-restricted medium of Twitter, and no amount of after-the-fact backfilling can repair the damage that may be done after a careless tweet. This brings up another, related point.


This is the fact that social media in general—but especially those of the Twitter and Instagram variety—either require or encourage writing in a kind of shorthand.  Unlike the blog form, which allows a writer to stretch out and elucidate when the inevitable semantic and rhetorical ambiguities of discourse threaten to fill the air with confusion, the preferred modes of digital communication today almost presuppose a homogeneity of audience, a readership that understands what you are saying because it already agrees with you and shares your perspectives.  Hence a writing in shorthand, even when the platform allows for discursiveness.


And that raises a risk.  For there is something about social media that seems to encourage provocation rather than argumentation, especially in the form shorthand-ed jabs.  Certainly this is the case when writers assume that they are writing in safe echo chambers wherein those who "belong" will nod their heads in agreement and those who don't will be offended.  But while offending those who aren't on one's side in a dispute may be "fun," it sure doesn't make for an effective argument.  In fact, it is likely to backfire—which is one reason why social media do not provide a sound platform upon which to learn university-level writing.


This matters, because at a time when America is tearing apart at the seams, it behooves us as educators to be doing everything that we can to encourage careful argumentation rather than reckless provocation.  I am not so naïve as to believe that simply resorting to rational argument will always win the day (Aristotle himself made no claim to guarantee this in his Rhetoric), but a carefully developed, audience-aware argument will, at least, have a far smaller chance of backfiring than a provocative tweet will.  Thus, it doesn't really matter whether the Drexel tweet was intended to be provocative or not (I suspect, however, that with its openly-avowed sarcastic intent, provocation certainly was part of its composition); what matters is that its disregard for audience has produced a situation that puts higher education on the defensive, not those whom the tweet meant to ridicule. In short, the thing has backfired, and, in the context of a number of similar recent backfires, this is not something that higher education can well afford.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.