When asked what to do if the fetus one was carrying was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Richard Dawkins recently tweeted “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” I learned about this via the outraged Facebooking of an in-law, who has a close friend with two Down children. Fortunately I had just written a long post about eugenics, so I was able to refer back to that and already have most of my thoughts laid out. But it took me hundreds of lines of typing to explain a <140 character tweet.
I know Dawkins doesn’t need my advice on this sort of thing, but you simply cannot post new and interesting insights on complex concepts in 140 characters. When the overwhelming majority of social moral intuition goes against you, simply being right is not enough. That statement implied that anyone who may choose otherwise, or who did, is immoral. And that results in immediate defensiveness. That tweet managed to polarize everyone into the factions of “Those who already agree with me” and “Those who don’t.” The people who could be helped by this message were immediately alienated.
To get to some decent dialog I first had to (again) acknowledge that all existing people are valuable, and this choice only applies to pre-existant potential people. Then I had to prime the ground by stating that if I loved someone who was unable to have non-Down children I “personally wouldn’t leave anyone for something like that, but back in darker ages “inability to produce healthy offspring” was considered a valid reason to nullify a marriage. Fortunately we’ve come a long way.” This was needed to get my audience to agree that moral progress is a thing that exists, and that it is good. Finally I was able to parlay that into saying that people who do choose to have Down children are actually NOT immoral, personally. Generally they are good, kind people. It’s not their fault they were misled by an archaic system into making that choice. It is the system’s fault for continuing to push ancient, out-dated moral customs. The parents are the victims, not the perpetrators. This takes some effort to say – at least a couple lines, maybe a paragraph, per point. That’s longer than 140 characters. Which is why Twitter is the worst. It’s primary use is for signaling allegiance and spreading memes. Meaningful content takes a few more words than that.