Twitter Warfare and How to Avoid It

Twitter can be a nasty place—when it comes to animus and vitriol, it may be bested only by YouTube comments. Hyperpartisan tweeters seem to rule the platform, eager to anonymously take the level of discourse lower and lower.

Let's be real: there are a lot of a**holes on Twitter, and sometimes I'm one of them.

For me, it had been a particularly incensing week of total moral failures on the part of our president, including all but recanting his [hollow anyways] denunciation of Neo-Nazis and equating George Washington to Robert E. Lee—the man who founded this Union, and the man who tried to destroy it. As seems to work well for the president, I took to Twitter to let off a little steam:

As civic discourse goes, it wasn't exactly gold. It was snarky, provocative, and, if we're being honest, probably not accurate—so it came as no shock to me when someone who goes by the handle "@585conservative" decided to leave the following response:

I'm no stranger to these kinds of tweets. Sometimes I deserve them more than others, and how I respond depends on my mood: if it's been a long day or I'm busy, I'll generally just ignore it. If I'm feeling high-minded and magnanimous, I'll overlook the attack and try to explain why, no, it probably isn't. And if I'm feeling feisty and pugnacious, I'll serve them right back with something equally stupid. But I won't lie: regardless of whether or not I respond, I get a certain enjoyment out of seeing someone respond to a political statement without making any attempt to actually say anything.

Yet @585conservative denied me that enjoyment by following up his declaration with a tweet that had a bit more substance:

I saw his comments on my way to work, and had he not gone on past telling me I was dumb, I'm sure that would have been the end of it. But here was an actual argument—something to grab on to and consider. Now I couldn't resist a response:

If you thought that at 7:30 in the morning I was going to respond to his point but leave the insult untouched, you clearly don't know me very well. But I opted to deflect instead of retaliate (deescalation is generally a prerequisite to reasoned discussion), and gave him something of some substance as well:

Defensive, I know, and some of you will judge me for using the term "un-American," but I think my point stands; we don't view white supremacists and counterprotesters as two sides of the same coin in the country I was brought up in, even when both are resorting to violence.

Fortunately, @585conservative was relatively gracious about my rejoinder, allowing our conversation to turn fully to the issue at hand:

I wasn't sure where he was going with it, but he seemed interested in making a point, and I wanted to hear it. I rephrased my statement to incorporate the missing word:

It didn't work; @585conservative was unmoved, and I received something of a vague accusation:

If you, like I was until yesterday, are unfamiliar with ANTIFA, they're a 'movement' or consortium of far-left activists and organizations. Their name is a contraction of "anti-fascism," and while that sounds great, the reality is less so—members hail from a wide variety of extremist ideologies including communism, anarchism, and anti-capitalism, and many adherents readily endorse the use if violence in achieving these ends. I'm all for fighting fascism, but ANTIFA followers can be seen on video brandishing weapons and clashing violently with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and that's just not okay.

It seemed from @585conservative's tweet that, given my apparent friendship with ANTIFA, my true colors were those of a bloodthirsty anarchist attacking Trump on Twitter and ready to attack conservatives in the streets.

In fact, @585conservative was the second person to accuse me of being ANTIFA in response to my original tweet, the first of whom prompted me to look up just what the heck ANTIFA is. Amused, I tried to tell him this...

...but he didn't buy it:

I professed my innocence...

...And he appeared ready to move on from debating whether or not I was an ANTIFA member.

After assuring me that he wasn't calling me dumb (I didn't mean to suggest that he was, but I appreciated the sentiment), he pressed me for my opinion on them. I didn't see what this had to do with my original tweet, but I thought it was a reasonable thing to want to know about one's interlocutor, and I was happy to share my thoughts:

This seems like a pretty common-sense position to me, and @585conservative appeared to agree:

Now we were getting somewhere! All hostility was gone from the conversation, and our preconceptions of each other were beginning to dissolve; @585conservative now knew that I was not condemning right-wing violence with one hand and condoning left-wing violence with the other, and I was admittedly (but very pleasantly) surprised to see that he was just as disgusted by the Charlottesville skinheads as I was.

With that cleared up, mutual respect was ripe to bloom. I sensed the opportunity, and went in for the kill-em-with-moderation:

That's when it happened:

Well, would you look at that! "Absolutely agree!" We two Americans, one conservative and one liberal, had just taken a conversation—on Twitter, no less—from bitter insults to reasoned discussion and, at least on this point, agreement.

@585conservative furthered this triumph with his excellent point about the primacy of free speech. #FirstAmendmentFOREVER indeed, but now that we had found consensus, it was time to circle back and see why we had disagreed in the first place.

The problem was, I suspected, that we were talking about two different things. I was talking about the fact that the violent right-wing demonstrators were motivated by bigotry and hatred, while @585conservative was talking about the fact that the left-wing counterprotestors were engaging in violence as well. Both are true, but we were conflating the two and talking past each other. We needed clarity:

Now that we knew what we were talking about, @585conservative took my points and responded with equal civility:

I agreed with his constitutional points on the First Amendment and his ethical points on the need to reject violence, adding my belief that both the leadership and the people must stand for what's right and unequivocally rebuke what isn't...

...and we again agreed.

So there you have it, folks. @585conservative and I went from "this is one of the dumbest statements I've read" to dignified civic discourse. I suspect that we still disagree on whether President Trump's Tuesday condemnation of racism was sincere or not, but we've proven that we can disagree peaceably on that while agreeing on basic moral and constitutional principles.

I can tell you from experience that not everyone on Twitter is interested in a levelheaded debate, but I can also tell you that many are. In these dangerously polarized times, it's easy to dismiss the other side as unreasonable or flat-out wrong. But I'd be willing to bet that most Americans are not as far apart as it might seem, and we have a duty to repair our society by deescalating our rhetoric and seeking out common ground.

Understanding can bring peace to the Twitter battleground. Now go find it.

My sincere thanks to @585conservative, whoever you are, for agreeing to let me publish your tweets, and I look forward to our future discussions.

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