Saturday, 12 December 2015

The perils of thinking aloud on social media

I'm not all that familiar with the work of Joyce Carol Oates. I read one of her YA books when elder daughter was moving from middle school to high school - I think she had ordered it through Scholastic Books when her homeroom teacher passed around the forms. The book was distressing but intentionally so; the plot involved date rape. It was well-written enough that I had another of Oates' books - aimed at an adult audience - on my to-read list, but I never got around to it.

A week or so ago, Oates came up on my radar again, in that strange domino effect that Twitter has. I follow Marie Phillips, a writer whose work I enjoy, and she re-Tweeted a rather scornful comment by a colleague to a tweet that Joyce Carol Oates had made about ISIS:

Puzzled, I went to Oates' Twitter page to have a look.  Here's what I found.  (The most recent tweets appear at the top of a feed, so these should be read in reverse order):

The tweet on its own was bewildering, but I thought, innocuous.  Read in the context of her three following tweets, it came across to me as an awkwardly phrased, but genuine inquiry.

However, by the time I'd noticed this, thousands of replies and references had been already been posted, all of them to the opening tweet, much as the comment by Marie Phillips' chum had been.  Here's one of the kinder responses.
Most were vitriolic and self-righteous.  More than one man - I came across no woman who did this - felt words did not suffice and posted horrific pictures of ISIS atrocities, presumably in the belief that Joyce Carol Oates had no idea what was going on in occupied territories.  It was "mansplaining" at its nastiest. I had some difficulty sleeping that night.

There were lots of sarcastic retorts, bursts of out-and-out invective, and many retweetings of something cutting the late Gore Vidal apparently said of Joyce Carol Oates years earlier.  Molly Ringwold was also retweeted when she quipped:  "Okay, who got Grandma stoned?"

There were a few who treated the tweet as the question that JCO must have intended.
Others made a stab at defending her:

But there were only a handful.  It was clear that the vast majority had read the first tweet only, and rushed to judgement.  I was saddened to see that Guy Gavriel Kay, an author whose work I've appreciated, had not bothered to read further.
The trouble with Twitter is that you can only "tweet" in bursts of 140 characters.  While it can be an interesting exercise in economical writing,  for the most part it degenerates into, at best, a contest for the funniest, pithiest jibe, or at worst,the shortest, most vicious jab.

It really isn't the best medium for thinking out loud, and this is where Joyce Carol Oates falls down.

Let's put her four tweets into a brief paragraph:
All we hear of ISIS is puritanical and punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous?  Or is query naive? Cultures seem to swing between extremes of Puritanism and permissiveness; rigid order & disorder; control & "freedom". What is clear is that human beings can't live for long -- do not care to reproduce -- without meaning in their lives. Tragic that "meaning" can be virtually anything -- someone will believe it & die for it.

It's still pretty damn clunky - gosh, she loves alliteration - but I think there would have been less kerfuffle if she had written the whole paragraph somewhere other than Twitter -- although, no doubt, plenty of people might still have been offended by the opening sentence.  Better still, she could have thought her thoughts through and simply tweeted the last sentence.

However, it wouldn't have got nearly the same amount of attention.

Was that the point?  She hasn't removed the tweets.  I would have were I in her place, but JCO evidently has thicker skin than I do.  She almost immediately plunged into a series of short diatribes about Woodrow Wilson, then went on to make observations about North Korea -- which pissed off a whole bunch of other people -- or perhaps the same bunch of people, all eager to demonstrate how naive/pointless/crazy/old/choose-your-own-derogatory-adjective they think Oates is.

For the record, I have a sort of answer to her question -- even though I think she answered it herself in the remaining three tweets.  Not long ago, I stumbled across a CBC item by Brent Bambury which addresses the subject of music and celebration in the ISIS.  Should you choose to follow this link, I think I should warn you that, while not as graphic as the photos some men in the Twitterverse posted to "educate" Joyce Carol Oates, I had the same sick feeling of horror by what was suggested.

I have no intention of tweeting the link to Joyce Carol Oates. The last time I checked, she was worlds away, thinking out loud about other controversial topics.

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