Spoiler: you can’t. Everyone’s wrong on Twitter. Well: everyone posting a sincere tweet that’s usually based on anger and/or policies they’d like changed is wrong in and throughout their post(s).
Why? Well, I’m here to figure it out. This idea came to me three minutes ago.
Here’s what happened. I was on Twitter to tweet in anger about the effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. I hate recalls because I love democracy (I’ll return to this later), but mostly I hate that this recall effort, which from all I’ve seen based is in witlessness and failed imaginations, has garnered the signatures it needs and will be voted on in 2022.
I’ve had beefs with the Chronicle in the past, and for sure they’ve been part of the problem in aiding this recall effort, by devoting headlines to crimes that scare people and are easy to share on social media, broadcasting this idea that San Francisco is a crime-ridden wasteland. But also, I’m glad the Chronicle has also provided articles, columns, and op-eds, detailing all the ways that crime is down in the city.
To be clear: if you’ve believed that crime (i.e., robberies, burglaries, assaults, thefts, sexual assaults, larcenies, etc.) is up in San Francisco, you’ve been sold a lie.
Which is what I logged in to Twitter this morning to tweet, with a link to the Chronicle‘s front page story today (I read the paper as a paper that arrives on my porch Sunday mornings): Chesa Boudin and San Francisco’s bitter debate over crime. “If you support the recall effort of Chesa Boudin, you have been sold a mess of lies” is what I typed. And then I added another tweet, with this screenshot of a passage from the article:
My tweet read: “Let me be the first to discount your feelings when they have no basis in reality.”
Twelve minutes later I deleted both tweets because I felt I was wrong.
I’m not wrong. You are not doing your part in co-creating a democratic society if you do not think critically about the issues at hand. This asks a lot from us. One of them is to follow cause and effect. What has been the cause of the increase in crime in the city, and how can we attribute it to Boudin? Well, in fact, there’s less crime in the city, and Boudin’s office has even been the first to not take any credit for that. Prosecutors understand that one office or one D.A.’s policies can’t have this kind of direct causal effect on crime rates. (Especially not when there’s a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic going on.)
Fine. If things just feel worse now than they have before, how is this a result of Chesa Boudin’s progressive policies, which have generally sought to release rehabilitated, nonviolent criminals out of long-term prison sentences, and to use fairer and judicious practices in charging and sentencing so as to help lessen California’s notoriously high prison population, which as everyone can tell you disproportionately hurts Black and Latinx communities because of racist policing and sentencing practices?
The recall argument focuses chiefly on this:
They cite any number of recent news stories, all of which are true, and one of the strong points of the Chronicle‘s reporting is to show how the circumstances behind such criminals’ release is usually more nuanced than “Boudin Lets Violent Criminals Roam Free.”
Here, I’m reminded of something N told me the other day, when we were talking about the Post‘s reporting that Facebook’s most popular post in Q1 was an article that cast doubt on the COVID-19 vaccine. “Facts and reporting are behind paywalls,” he said, “while misinformation is free.” He’s generally right. Yes, most newspapers have made their COVID reporting free to all, and I think I pay $0.99/week to read the Post online, so it’s not like it’s terribly expensive to get your facts straight. But for the most part we need to pay for news, and as of 2020, 80 percent of Americans don’t want to do it.
But back to the Boudin recall. What do the recall supporters imagine will happen to crime in San Francisco if they oust him—presumably with someone “tougher on crime”? What, in other words, will be the effect of their cause? We can’t predict the future, so we’ll have to do that thing where we know our history lest we repeat it. And, again as the Chronicle‘s reporting has shown, D.A.s whose policies sent more people to prisons did not produce less crime in the city.
In other words, the D.A. of their dreams is not going to make them actually safer. It may very well make them feel safer, but to what greater effects beyond their personal feelings? What will happen to families and communities when racist sentencing and imprisonment get worse?
Perhaps, to be fair to their argument, we can get the D.A. of all of our dreams: one who both charges more people for crimes and also helps to end racist practices. I could be on board, but while I admittedly know very little about the criminal justice system, what I’ve seen and read have shown me, again and again, that it has such a longstanding problem with its own systemic racism that any increased “toughness” on crime would only and always end up hurting communities of color disproportionately.
Which leads me to ask, when told we need a D.A. who can make us safer, who the “us” is meant to be.
Boudin singlehandedly won’t be able to end racism in the criminal justice system, but his office is doing what it can to think about longterm effects. And while they’ve been doing so, every measure we’ve always used to gauge the prevalence of crime in the city shows that crime is down. To me there’s no argument for recall. No critical thinking can get me there.
The closest critical thinking can get me to support the recall is to acknowledge my political biases. I am driven to want to give progressive policies like Boudin’s a chance, because I’ve long ago bought in to the fight to dismantle systemic racism, and the information I’ve consumed tells me this is one much-needed way to do that. So I may be dismissing the recall’s arguments because of cognitive bias.
Even if I could be led to believe them, I still can’t support the recall, because I’ll always believe more strongly in democracy. As much as it hurt watching the last president get elected in 2016, I knew the election was fair and well run. We weren’t in a 2000 scenario here, and yes the Electoral College is anti-democratic and a nightmare but it’s the system we had. I had to wake up in 2016 and live with the fact that he won the election. We tried to impeach him when it seemed likely he had committed a crime, and we did it again when we all knew he encouraged sedition. They didn’t take, but the impeachment happened only after his personal actions were arguably criminal.
We’re not there with Chesa Boudin.
Any recall effort is expensive, and for it to have any lasting value as a democratic tool, it can’t be used when you disagree with the policies of a person elected into office. Just 51,000 verified signatures are needed to initiate a recall in a city of 492,000 registered voters. With the Newsom recall up in September, it’s possible that 49% of Californians vote against the recall and 51% vote for it, triggering not just his removal from office, but the immediate installment of a candidate who might receive as little a 20% of the votes cast, just because that’s the largest vote share on a ballot of nearly 4 dozen candidates.
That’s not democracy. And now we can understand what’s behind recall efforts: a refusal to accept the will of the people, one very sinisterly passed off as the people “finally having a voice”.
It pisses me the fuck off. Don’t let recall people steal our democracy from us. Hate Boudin’s policies all you want. This is your right, but wait until the next election to vote him out of office. That’s how democracy works.
And now back to Twitter, and how I was wrong there. Well, my two tweets had none of the above thinking in them. It had only my arguments, which were both only the beginning of true things. People who already believed them to be right might read them and feel their beliefs reflected, but how I might be right could very likely be different from how they might feel I’m right. Twitter has no room (and for sure no time) for getting into that, for filling in the messy middle of an argument.
So we’re all wrong there.
I scrolled down through my Twitter feed for a while after posting, because it’s Sunday morning and what else might I do, and because even though I’ve pretty much logged fully off of Twitter old habits die hard. And I found a retweet from a sex worker I follow, about a post from the head of some anti-sex-trafficking organization, which included a screenshot of what was called CSAM—child sexual abuse material. Basically, someone crusading for the closure of Pornhub on the basis of its allegedly being a hub for sex traffickers found and posted a screenshot of child sexual abuse as “proof” that this was happening there. The sex worker was rightly aghast at such a fucked up form of activism, and they got the post taken down in minutes, though it had been up on Twitter for hours.
I couldn’t resist checking out this crusader’s feed, and it’s basically 100% tweets about how Pornhub aids child sex traffickers. That’s shown to be true enough times I don’t need to cite sources, but what’s also true is that Facebook aids child sex trafficking, too, and here’s a source that shows how law enforcement agencies look at places like Backpage and Pornhub as low-hanging fruit—i.e., trafficking there is easy to find and catch, but agencies aren’t as good as navigating social media sites, which given their use statistics suggests that trafficking is far more prevalent there.
It’s not hard to launch a crusade against Facebook (to me it’s harder to launch a defense of it), but it’s hard to get people enraged by your arguments when it’s become for some such an essential part of daily life. Plus, the optics can’t compete when porn is in the frame. Witness actor Ellen Barkin, who retweeted one of these crusader’s anti-Pornhub tweets, writing, “Lock them up! #TraffickingHub”.
More prevalent than trafficking on Pornhub are self-employed sex workers trying to make a living, but lest this already-long post run off to become another defending sex work, I want to end by asking where Barkin’s anger came from, in posting what she did, and why is it being directed where she’s directing it?
When, in the process of reading about policies on Twitter, was Ellen Barkin given the room and space we all need to think critically about the issue, look into cause and effect, check the findings of researchers uninfluenced by money or ideology, and ask questions about what actions will best solve the problem with the least amount of pain and trouble for everyone involved?
Instead it’s: the sight of pornography makes me feel something very strong and uncomfortable, and one way to rid myself of this unwanted feeling is to post an agreement with someone who has tweeted only the beginning of an argument, assuming that everyone else can fill in the messy middle.
We all agree to do this on Twitter every time we tweet. Its central feature—the lack of room—is its central flaw.
By way of a tl;dr sum-up, here’s something that came up yesterday in a Zoom event I hosted for the MFA Program, with Paisley Rekdal, whose Appropriate: A Provocation is the smartest thing I’ve read about cultural appropriation in literature, what’s wrong about it, and why we need to work better. Rather than trying to imagine The Other, what their lives are like and how their trauma is relatable or something we should try to empathize with, Rekdal urges us to think about what our desire to imagine The Other is about. What does it tell us about power and access, and in asking ourselves these questions, how might our writing start to do the work to challenge and possibly dismantle the systems in place?
This is one place where critical thinking begins: what is the nature of my feelings and desires, where are they coming from, and what can they tell me about the systems I’m a part of? When you tweet, in so many words, “THIS,” or when you’re quoted by a newspaper saying that people are feeling something that can’t be discounted, you haven’t even begun to do step one.
And as much as I believe in democracy, sometimes I don’t think you deserve as much a say in its workings as do the rest of us, doing the work.
- Homicides, however, are up in San Francisco, but this is true statewide and, the Chronicle reports, is in line with a nationwide trend.↵
- I don’t think I am. I’ve read the facts, and it’s very hard to see how I’m wrong about them. But this is a devil’s advocate argument I’m doing as part of my method of critical thinking.↵
- And if it’s not too self-defeating to cite a useful tweet thread with source links in a post about how we’re always wrong on Twitter, you can read more about this issue here.↵
- Such people may not exist, but if they do, the closest equivalent would be tenured faculty in our universities, so think again if you support cutting public funding to those institutions.↵
- UPDATE: It occurred to me just now that this is an idea Rekdal cites from Loffreda and Rankine’s On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary.↵