Is brevity the soul of the abrupt, rude, and offensive?

As with so many turns of phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit” was first recorded by Shakespeare, spoken by Lord Polonius in the play Hamlet. Anyone who uses social media, particularly Twitter with its continuing limit of 140 characters, will know that brevity is also blamed as causing so much of the rudeness and downright offensiveness which is seen there.

It is true that an impersonal, no-eye-contact communication channel is fraught for the expression of anything subtle let alone intellectual, but even very experienced users and very professional communicators are apt to blame the character count for much else too.

The latest person to blame Twitter’s limit is none other than Richard Dawkins. The whole sorry saga is described here, but its essence could almost be distilled down to a tweet or two.

Dawkins had been invited to attend the forthcoming NECSS conference. Following that, he retweeted a video “depicting an Islamist and an angry feminist (who it turns out is a real person and not just a character) and essentially making the claim that these groups share an ideology.”

This triggered something of a Twitterstorm, forcing the conference organisers to reconsider Dawkins’ invitation. They decided to rescind that invitation, and at roughly the same time, Dawkins deleted his retweet.

So far, this has been nothing more than a typically foolish series of events, for which social media – Twitter in particular – are so well known. However, there is an important twist which we should all consider.

Dawkins, who is well known for his outspoken and controversial tweets, is the former Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the University of Oxford, and author of a series of highly regarded books. But in a recent tweet, he claimed:
“I’m really as polite as my books. Twitter brevity forces you straight to the point, which can sound aggressive.”

It is deeply disappointing that someone who has devoted so much time and effort to effective communication of ideas should admit that he fails to construct his tweets so that they do not “sound aggressive”. Politeness does not entail verbosity.

Furthermore, in deliberately retweeting a video widely considered to be offensive and inflammatory, rather than intellectually stimulating or challenging, he was succumbing not to the 140 character limit, but to a base human desire to be rude and offensive. That he deleted the tweet was more decent; that he retweeted it in the first place shows that – on Twitter at least – he does not really intend to be the least bit polite.

We should all think again before clicking, tapping, or zapping the button to tweet, post, or otherwise publish. Would you look those people in the eye, face to face, and do or say that?