This week my mentor and friend Michael P. Lynch was awarded the 2019 George Orwell award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language from the National Council of Teachers of English for his book Know It All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture (W.W. Norton, 2019). You can find a video of Michael talking about the book on MSNBC’s Morning Joe here (more discussion of this video below):
It was great to see Michael getting this award, as he’s long been committed to making philosophy accessible and informative for all readers, and made significant efforts to talk about philosophy in public forums, not just philosophy journals. Indeed, as a grad student I was so struck by a quote from his book True to Life (MIT Press, 2004) that I used it as the epigraph on my doctoral thesis in 2008:
“I like my philosophy straightforward and unclogged with academic technicalities. Even the deepest philosophical problems can be appreciated by anyone willing to roll up his or her intellectual sleeves and think hard.”
The principles expressed in this quote guided me on everything I subsequently wrote, whether it be on truth, metaphysics, or (now) pro wrestling. They are also principles I aim to instill in my students. Moreover, these principles are not always appreciated or respected by philosophers, who sometimes think that the only philosophy worth doing is overly technical and complicated. Michael richly deserves this recognition for the work he’s done to show that public philosophy is real philosophy, and quite possibly the most valuable form of philosophy there is.
In the the video linked to above, Lynch makes the point that often social media is about expressing and communicating emotions, rather than facts, and discusses the dangers this can pose to democracy. It also got me thinking about social media and its role in pro wrestling. It’s been quite a week in pro wrestling, with the debuts of AEW Dynamite, SmackDown on Fox, and an explosion of fan outrage at WWE Hell in a Cell.
I’m pretty new to social media (been on Twitter for a couple of months now), and it has changed the way I interact with pro wrestling. Before being on Twitter I would sometimes text with a friend while watching, and then read reviews on websites and listen to podcasts about the shows. Typically this would be the next day (mainly because, having a young kid, I have trouble staying awake long enough for most of the shows!), so I had time to think about what I’d seen.
Now I can see and interact with things as they are happening, before having this time to reflect. And, I have to say, it can be a lot of fun! In one sense it’s as close as you can get at home to the experience of being in a crowd at a pro wrestling show: at a live show the wrestlers want an immediate response from the crowd, and expressing your views on Twitter is perhaps being part of a virtual crowd.
The problem there though is that part of the function of the live crowd is to interact with the wrestlers as the action is happening, which then becomes part of their performance. The reactions of the crowd are part of the show, and a crucial part at that: dead crowds don’t make for good shows. Expressing views on Twitter, though, doesn’t have that dimension. It’s not something the wrestlers respond to as part of the show; it plays no role in their performance. As a result, it’s something more for the audience than it is for the show itself, and a different thing entirely from being in the crowd at a live show.
Here’s the thing. Social media is perhaps more about us, the Tweeters, than it is about the things we tweet about. It gives everyone a platform to express their views, their reactions, to things. You don’t get much space, so make it snappy, make it memorable, make it retweetable. The immediacy of Twitter reactions to pro wrestling shows very much suggests that, as Lynch claims about political discourse, social media is about emotion rather than reason.
In normal circumstances we react, and then need time to properly respond. Something happens; you have an immediate reaction to it, and then you have time to consider a response. Social media makes this distinction a little blurred: everyone reacts, then reacts to each other, and then reacts to that reaction, and so on. But, is there time allowed for a proper response?
For example, the thing I was most angry about this last week was Kofi Kingston’s loss of the WWE title in 9 seconds to Brock Lesnar, seemingly to just set up a new title feud between Lesnar and the debuting Cain Velasquez. The main reason I was so angry about this was that it was shoddy treatment of the very significant title reign of a rare black world champion by a company that has a very troubling record on race (this article from Alfred Konuwa expressed things very well) . A significant and important character was used as a mere means (as Kant would have it!) for some further end that had nothing to do with them.
I was angry; down; upset, and I tweeted, liked, and retweeted my displeasure. I was still mad about it for the next few days, even to the point where I was describing how cross I was to my friend while our kids played at the playground. He – unaware of it all – listened, and then said, “sounds like they’re taking you on quite a ride, perhaps just go with it”. Pro wrestling is supposed to make us feel stuff, after all.
This made me stop and think. Perhaps they are taking us on a ride, perhaps they’re not – a lot will depend on how Kofi’s character and story develops as a result of this – but I had been so blinded by rage that I hadn’t even considered this as a possibility. And this was the key thing. It’s not that I might be wrong to be angry (I might well not be – see WWE’s record on race mentioned above), but that I hadn’t even considered that this was exactly what I was supposed to be feeling for the story to make sense. In other words:
I hadn’t stopped to think about all the explanations and make a considered judgment.
And I’m supposed to be a philosopher for crying out loud!
I venture to suggest that the same is true of many people who responded so negatively to the main event of Hell in a Cell between Seth Rollins and The Fiend. I too thought this was nonsensical and infuriating, though not as bad as the Kofi situation. It caused an eruption of fan revolt, leading #cancelwwenetwork to trend on Twitter. This happened right after the show, and into the next morning, before there had been any time for anyone to reflect on the different interpretations of what the story might be going forward.
Again, the worry here is not that people are wrong – they might very well be right that it was ridiculous – but that we didn’t take the time to think about it properly. We reacted, then reacted to others, and then reacted to their reactions, but we didn’t take the time to think. Emotion, not reason, was guiding us.
Here’s the issue, then. Social media runs largely on reactions, which often need to be instantaneous. Emotions are instantaneous (or at least some of them are), whereas considered opinions are not. Expressing our emotions can be fun, and build a sense of community. But we must remember that there is more to having views than this. To have a view requires reflective thought, consideration, and a step back from emotions (as far as we can).
This is important whether we’re thinking about political discourse (as Lynch does) or pro wrestling, if as human beings we are to ultimately be guided by reason, and not pure emotion.