Reductionist arguments, shaped by social media, are ruining discourse

Bailey Tomlinson, Columnist

Social media has ruined discourse.

I believe this to be true for many reasons. However, there is a big culprit I see often engaged within the philosophy community and not really outside of it that is critical to acknowledge. That culprit is reductionist arguments.

The trend in reducing arguments to more basic parts makes perfect sense, as various pressures that have encouraged discourse to evolve this way have been introduced by the platforms it’s now predominantly taking place on.

So, what is a reductionist argument? Refutations that begin with “So, essentially,” or “So basically what you’re saying is,” are good markers of reductionist arguments. Premises that make oversimplified comparisons are also great markers of this.

A while ago online, a claim got popular that “The Lion King” is essentially “Hamlet,” citing the idea that they follow the same plotline with the same relationships between the characters. This is untrue for many reasons if you examine either of them in detail, and a great example of what I mean when I say oversimplified comparisons.

Social media’s ability to connect everyone who can access it has created a globalized way of life that has greatly changed the ways we can (and do) communicate with each other. For the most part, laypeople and experts on a subject are platformed equally when posting about any given issue.

Using Twitter as the example platform, there is nothing that reliably marks the content of experts as being made by experts (blue check marks “verifying” accounts do not promise expertise, only that “an account of public interest is authentic,” according to Twitter’s help page), and the majority of people Tweeting about a topic will not be experts on it.

This, combined with Twitter’s 280 character limit for Tweets, (this can be seen similarly on other social media platforms, manifesting not as an imposed character limit, but as an unwillingness of most people to engage in full with long-form posts) are the predominant pressures shaping discourse into this trend of reductionist arguments.

Reduced, or simplified, ideas will always be easier to work with than their more nuanced counterparts, and for the most part, this is fine. It’s when these simplified ideas take the main stage in an inherently weighty discourse en masse that it becomes a problem. Healthcare arguments, political arguments and arguments over human rights are broad examples of dialogues where working with reductionist arguments is no longer sufficient, especially on the scale that social media often facilitates.

Teaching people simplified versions of nuanced concepts is how we give people a broad idea of the range of the world they are in. Think of high school classes as an example. High school English teachers aren’t teaching 15 year olds what a graduate student in literature would be learning or positing. They’re teaching them how to identify the main structural parts of a story, how to recognize symbols, etc., so they have the basic tools to build upon as they gain more opportunities to understand their world.

Problems arise when social media misconstrues our concept of the importance of our knowledge, when anyone can pitch in to any argument on equal footing about any topic, and people who do not have knowledge to the level of nuance that, say, a scholar or expert would have argue as confidently and assuredly as if they do. This is just an example of something that now happens online every day, in every field.

So, how do we realign discourse into something that is still inviting to people of all studies and backgrounds while retaining the emphasis on nuance that it requires to fully function? First, America desperately needs to rehaul its media literacy education system, which is currently nearly nonexistent. Everyone would benefit from learning in greater detail how to identify valid sources of information online, and how to critically evaluate the information they are taking in.

Second, we need to move relevant discourse back into communities. Seldom are any revelations made on a Tweet containing shaky-at-best information and several thousand replies. City halls, community centers and local clubs are all great places to hold local discussions about relevant happenings or conflicts.

Ellensburg is a university town, and in that regard already has a leg up. The Philosophy and Religious Studies department has held speakers before, and while interest in those specifically can be considered niche or less utilitarian than a city hall meeting, they’re both still golden examples of healthy community discourse.

Even for concepts that may be considered larger than a single community, such as political discourse, moving it back into the community, in person, is a healthy shift. Instead of getting into an argument on Facebook, join a local activism group, or start a group that meets biweekly to talk about these ideas and potentially create action steps.

Throwing around reductionist arguments in the void of social media isn’t beneficial for anyone, least of all for discourse as a practice, and we would all benefit from logging off, learning more about the ideas we are engaged with and having these arguments in relevant places to the communities we are a part of.