A number of our students have expressed concerns that our institutional Twitter account has not yet publicly made a statement supporting the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd. With silence equated to violence by activist slogans, there is real concern about external perception of this seeming sin of omission.

As far as I am aware, we have no social media policy or strategy, and the fact that there is a Twitter account at all, comes from a vague sense that we probably ought to. Some colleagues are keen that we extend our social media presence in various ways, while others appear entirely disengaged. How should we respond? How important is it that a position is taken?

I could say that I have little faith that a tweet from a departmental twitter account with less than 500 followers, at a provincial British university, will make any material difference to the deep structural racism that continually impacts on the lives of Black people on all sides of the Atlantic.

But is it more important to be sure that the institution is not perceived as silent, and therefore complicit. Renni Eddo-Lodge’s dissection of British attitudes to race in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race highlighted the almost pathological need of many White British people to declare that they are not racist, while at the same time readily participating in systems of privilege and prejudice that are underpinned by racial distinctions. Would tweeting about George Floyd’s death be the digital equivalent?

I definitely don’t want to suggest tweeting in this way would be a straightforward exercise in ‘virtue-signalling’. Simon Kuper, son of the eminent Anthropologist Adam Kuper, pointed out in a recent article that this term is basically an insult, used to side-step a substantive point. I have no doubt that many people who make statements of this kind on Twitter have deep personal commitments to these issues, which they feel the need to express.

But is tweeting the best way to take a position? Kuper begins his piece by stating that the characteristic rhetorical device of our political era is the insult, and it is clear that an awful lot of the insults he goes on to describe emanate from the Twittersphere. Marking student essays that evaluate museum displays in recent years, I have been struck that more balanced critique has increasingly been displaced by straightforward condemnation, and my suggestions that a stronger position might be formed by considering the other side of the argument – what ancient rhetoric called Dissoi Logoi – are largely ignored as an irrelevant curiosity.

Kuper suggests that the intention of the online insult is not to persuade, but to frighten opponents into silence – and perhaps to frighten everyone else into expressing agreement. There is no space on Twitter for shades of grey, for complexity or for much in the way of subtlety. But isn’t plumbing the murky complexities that swirl around the truth precisely what Universities should aspire to? Should we be spending our limited time and resources tweeting with the choir, or should we be trying to think through, around and behind the surface phenomena of our increasingly conflicted and complicated world.

The other issue of concern was that no response had been made yet. George Floyd died less than two weeks ago, but in the age of the internet this can feel like an aeon. For many of us who spend our time working on books and articles that take years or even decades to produce, it has passed in the blink of an eye. I am still trying to work out what I think. Do the protests play into the electoral strategy of Trump’s team, strengthening identification by ‘the base’? Might the protests even create the conditions of disorder needed to declare a state of emergency and suspend the upcoming elections? But Twitter demands immediacy – you need to be on trend, on time and quick to respond, or there really is no point.

Listening to David Runciman’s recent podcast on Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the week, as the protests around Floyd’s death unfolded, I was struck that the America he visited in 1831 was marked by many of the same features it is today. Established around the original sin of slavery, with a puritan and conformist approach to morality, it is the epicentre for a proliferation of raucous published opinion. De Tocqueville observed that there was scarcely a hamlet in America without a newspaper, but in the twenty-first century this drive to publication has been individualised. There is scarcely an individual without a social media account.

And of course, America is a country governed by a presidential Twitter account. De Tocqueville worried about the seeds of despotism that lay in the soil of America’s new democracy, and it does not seem a stretch to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the flowering of a particularly insidious weed. I have to admit that my approach to Twitter, and my lack of substantial engagement with the platform, has been substantially shaped by reading Naomi Klein’s book ‘No is Not Enough’ in 2017.

Klein argues that we can’t just say no to Trump, but urgently need to cultivate the space to dream and plan for a better world. She ends by suggesting that each of us also need to work on defeating our inner Trump – that part of ourselves that has fractured our attention span into 140 characters, confuses “followers” with friends, and understands ourselves and our institutions as brands that need to be on message.

In other words, we can’t resist the tweeter-in-chief by tweeting back. Should an institutional account tweet support for Black Lives Matters protesters? Why not. But we shouldn’t think this even begins to rebuild the world in ways that will make Black Lives Matter more.

This blog post is my response to student concerns. Long and pretty tentative – it resists the imperatives of Twitter, claiming the space and time needed for thought.