Twitter and the Generation Gap

by Michael Dorf

My Verdict column on the Salaita case on Wednesday prompted a good deal of discussion on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I also received a fairly large number of private emails, some agreeing in whole or in part, others raising objections. One supportive comment came from a former colleague who asked whether she could include parts of my column in a letter from legal scholars with specialties including free speech and academic freedom to the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, urging the latter to reverse course and submit Salaita's name to the board of trustees after all. I agreed and our letter--which makes very clear that signatories take a wide range of views on the underlying substance and tone of Salaita's controversial tweets--is in the works.

Here I want to explore a practical question raised by a response I received from one of the scholars I invited to consider signing the letter. This person replied:
After reading the letter, I was inclined to sign it, but then I read [Salaita's] tweets. To be honest, they give me pause, not because of the substance of his views, but because he's behaving like a moron. Whether his views are pro- or anti-Israel, I would not expect any colleague of mine to make such stupid comments in the course of public debate. Now, I have to admit that I don't tweet and I never read twitter, so perhaps I'm more put off by the inanity of his comments than I should be. But in my view it's as if he ran down Main Street in a clown costume doing flips and screaming Beatles songs at the top of his lungs. He has a right to do it, but do I want him as a colleague? What kind of judgment does it show? I know I should be wildly supportive, in principle, but there is a difference, I think, between withdrawing the offer because of opposition to his ideas and withdrawing the offer because he's behaved in a manner (regardless of his ideas) that suggests sheer stupidity and terrible judgment. Of course, if we knew that the University withdrew the offer because of the substance, rather than because of the manner of discourse, the case would be clear.
I'll say a word about the merits here before coming to the main point I wish to make. The merits point is that if the university revoked Salaita's offer in response to perceived stupidity or bad judgment, it at least ought to have the burden of showing that, either because Salaita has a prima facie free speech claim (which I think he has) or because, on my contract law analysis, he has de facto tenure and is entitled to procedural due process.

But let's put all of that aside. I want to focus on the question of how faculty should conduct themselves in writing for the general public and via social media--on the assumption that they cannot be subject to any formal sanction for that conduct. My hypothesis is that there is something of a generation gap. Both the responder quoted above and I fall on the older side of that gap. I'm 50; the person I quoted above is older.

I'm not sure exactly where the line is, but I'd guess that it's currently around 40 years old--roughly the age one would need to be to have experienced the pre-Internet world as an adult. According to the information in one of his books, Salaita was born in 1975, so he's just on the younger side of the line, but of course I made this line up, so that doesn't really prove anything about him. In any event, what I have to say here is not really about Salaita in particular, so much as it is about how people of different generations represent themselves online. My hypothesis is that people younger than (roughly) 40 feel fewer constraints on what's appropriate to publish online than we old fogies do.

Much of what divides generations is purely stylistic. At some point about 15 years ago, I started to see substantial numbers of students showing up in law school with tattoos and multiple piercings. At first I thought this was unprofessional and I admit that even today, when I see someone sporting neck tattoos in the style of, say, basketball player Chris "Birdman" Andersen, my first thought is not "that guy is going to make a great impression arguing a case before the Second Circuit." But for the most part I have come to understand that this is simply an arbitrary matter of taste. I would not be surprised to learn that earlier generations of academics were likewise perplexed when people like me began teaching without a jacket and tie.

There is also a substantive dimension to the generation gap, however. For lack of a better place to start, I'll begin by considering my own writing as an example. I write for different sorts of audiences. When writing educational materials like casebooks and supplements, I try to write as objectively as possible. I have a perspective, which I don't hide, but I try so much as possible to present other perspectives as well. I also assume that the audience is somewhat sophisticated. I treat this sort of writing as similar in content and tone to teaching.

I also write academic papers for mostly academic audiences. I try to write in a style that's engaging and even funny at times, but I don't expect the average person to be interested in this writing because I assume a good deal of specialized legal background on the part of my readers. My tone in this work is also professonal but sometimes less objective. Some of my academic work is analytical or empirical, aiming to illuminate rather than to persuade, but some of my work is at least partly normative. When writing normative scholarship, I try to be scrupulously fair to people who hold different views and to address their arguments in the course of making my own, but my goal is not to present all positions as equally plausible and let the reader decide--as it is when I teach or when I write educational materials.

Then there is my popular writing, like my Verdict columns and my entries on this blog. Here too I have different aims at different times--sometimes to illuminate, sometimes to persuade. There are four main differences between my academic writing and my popular writing: (1) Pieces for the latter are much shorter; (2) they mostly aim for an audience that includes non-academics and non-lawyers, so they tend to be less technical; (3) they respond to news events quickly, so there is less time for me to cite-check and proofread as thoroughly as I do (aided by research assistants and editors) in my academic work; and (4) especially on the blog, I sometimes take a substantially breezier, more irreverent tone than I do in my academic work.

In none of my writing for public consumption do I use profanity gratuitously. I'll quote someone else's use of profanity where relevant (as in my column on Wednesday, in which I quoted Salaita's use of profanity), and I'll even run with it a bit, as in my blog post on Wednesday, in which, following the title of Robert Sutton's book, I repeatedly used the word "asshole." However, these are pretty rare exceptions.

I realize that one can be a respectable academic and follow somewhat different approaches from the ones I've outlined. Some scholars at least aim or purport not to make normative points at all. Others are considerably more normative than I am, seeing scholarship as an extension of advocacy. I don't mean to suggest that I'm at the exact midpoint but I do think that I have a pretty good sense of the range of approaches and that mine falls squarely in the mainstream.

The picture is somewhat more complicated with respect to blogging, writing op-eds, and so forth. I think it's generally accepted that even people who strive for a detached scholarly tone in their academic writing can and often do turn more tendentious in their popular writing. Here too, though, I think that my own judgments about tone are widely shared: You see a considerable volume of snark by academics writing for general audiences; you don't see a lot of in-your-face profanity.

Twitter is something else. I have automated Twitter (and Facebook) to blast out links to my columns and blog posts but only extremely rarely do I use Twitter to compose a freestanding comment--and even then it's usually something like announcing a conference. I haven't mastered the art of making a substantive point in 140 characters or fewer, and given my intellectual sensibilities, I doubt that I can.

But I think that for people who do compose substantive tweets, the Twitter medium itself encourages provocative exclamations--so that their tweets will get noticed--and gross oversimplification: It seems to me nearly impossible to give counter-arguments their due when tweeting. Quite apart from the problem of Twitter trolls, I strongly suspect that Twitter as such accounts for much of the reaction by the emailer quoted above: to tweet (other than by posting a link to something considerably longer and more thoughtful) is almost necessarily to behave like a fool. (Salaita is a useful example; I doubt that the person who called his tweets moronic would have said the same about Salaita's other popular writing, such as for, which is polemical, to be sure, but well within the bounds of conventional public discourse.) 

None of what I've said about Twitter so far has a clear generational cast. A Baby Boomer who attempts to tweet attention-grabbing freestanding commentary, no less than a Gen-X-er or a Millenial, is likely to sound like a fool a good deal of the time. But there are two reasons to think there nonetheless is a generational divide.

First, youngsters are much more likely to tweet than we fuddy-duddies are. I recall learning about ten years ago that my then-teenage nieces and nephews didn't really "do email." They had email accounts but if I wanted to get in touch with them I needed to text. Apparently, they were and are fairly representative of their generation: They communicate in short bursts. And so for those below the generational divide I've identified, Twitter feels like an appropriate medium, even if it makes them sound like fools to us oldsters.

I realize that as I write this, Twitter itself is probably no longer considered cool by the youtherati, perhaps having been supplanted by Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, and maybe even by newer apps and networks I've never heard of, like Piehole, Blowhard, and Mouthoff. Never mind. My point is not Twitter-specific. Instead, I mean to say that those on the younger side of the generational divide are more comfortable making their points in a sentence or less than are those of us on the older side of the gap.

Second, and relatedly, the lines between private and public statements are increasingly blurred. Sure, the whole point of a popular Twitter feed is that it's public, but increasingly the ability of people to share material across platforms with their "friends" and with "friends of friends" can make it hard to tell what is private and what is public. I get the sense that a lot of people--especially younger ones--have simply given up trying to draw the distinction or simply don't care. As a consequence, the sort of thing one might previously have said only orally and in private to a few people--such as "Governor Fortenbaugh is a real horse's ass"--now readily appears in Facebook posts and comments, which, to people who post such things on Facebook, may feel indistinguishable from posts on their Twitter feeds. And so they end up sounding like dopes.

Finally, let me say two things to my younger readers: 1) You're welcome; and 2) Get off my lawn.