Subtext and context

In an excellent Twitter thread, Slate writer Lili Loofbourow explains why it’s pretty much impossible to have a debate on the internet.

“Why would you refuse to debate someone who’s simply saying that All Lives Matter?” is the kind of question an Enlightenment subject longing for a robust exchange of ideas might ask. Well, the reason is that most of us know, through bitter experience, that it’s a waste of time.

It wouldn’t be a true exchange. We know by now what “All Lives Matter” signals and that what it signals is orthogonal to what it says. Your fluency in this garbage means you take shortcuts: you don’t have to refute the text to leap to the subtext, which is the real issue.

Loofbourow gives the example of a man being condemned for wearing a Hawaiian shirt at a protest.

It might indeed look like cancel culture gone mad. He’s just standing there! Civilly! Offering support to Black Lives Matter protesters, of all things! Can’t we all, whatever our disagreements, come together in support of a good cause?

Sounds reasonable. But the Hawaiian shirt is the adopted uniform of far-right thugs who want to start a second US Civil War, and in this context that’s the message it is being used to send. If you’re not aware of the existence of those thugs, let alone their signifiers, you won’t see it.

The phrase “All Lives Matter” is similar. It seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? But the message is that Black Lives Don’t Matter. Imagine phoning up the fire brigade when your house is burning and being told All Houses Matter.

We like to think that in online discussions, both sides are approaching the subject in good faith. That both sides are approaching the discussion with sincerity, with openness and with a genuine desire to find the truth, even if that means they have to change their views. And of course, that’s not how it works.

Bad actors take advantage of that.

There are three elements to a message such as a social media post: text, subtext and context. The text is the content of the post, such as “All Lives Matter”. The subtext is the message those words are intended to convey, such as “Black Lives Don’t Matter”. And the context is where the text comes from: the culture, the assumptions, the wider story.

To stick with “All Lives Matter”, the context of that phrase is that it is almost exclusively used to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement and to try and silence Black people.

The equivalent for me is “What rights don’t trans people have?” The text seems like a perfectly reasonable question but online, it is very rarely asked in good faith.

In this case, the context is that in almost every case the questioner knows exactly which rights trans people don’t have (the right to healthcare, the right to family life, the right to a private life, the right to protection from discrimination and violence, etc) but doesn’t care. They are not coming to learn; they are coming to fight.

There are certain terms that bad actors use again and again (a deliberate strategy of normalisation) that indicate a bad faith argument. In trans-related discourse they include “gender ideology”, which was coined by the Catholic Church to battle LGBT+ equality, and “women’s sex-based rights”, which was coined by the US religious right to exclude trans women from discussions of women’s legal and human rights. Both terms are used almost exclusively by people who are anti-trans and often anti-LGBT+ and anti-women’s reproductive freedom too.

The text is designed to seem reasonable. But it’s the Hawaiian shirt at the Black Lives Matter rally.


…there’s a history here: platforms got flooded by devil’s advocates who wasted the time of people with real investments–cruelly, for sport. That tends to weed out good faith engagement.

Add to this that most arguments worth having have been had and witnessed 1000x already on these platforms, in several permutations. We know their tired choreographies, the moves and countermoves. At this point we mostly enjoy the style of whichever dunk we happen to agree with.

This isn’t great. People talk past each other, assume bad faith. But it’s not the fault of “illiberalism” that good faith is in short supply. And if that’s where your analysis begins, I can’t actually tell whether you’re naive or trolling. And I’m no longer sure which is worse.




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