I’ve touched on this subject before, but in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, along with her staff, supporters and innocent bystanders and the overwhelming volume of comment about ‘violent rhetoric’ that has produced in the US, it seems even more urgent now to think about the quality of online discourse.
Sadly, commentators on all points of the political spectrum seem unable to resist the temptation to use this terrible incident as another opportunity to attack their ideological opponents. Even when they want to refrain from these attacks, they cannot. Only the President, among the major figures who have responded publicly so far has struck a more objective tone and avoided a more partisan interpretation. And he has been rewarded with widespread approval. But many public figures, even as they call for a more conciliatory tone in the national debate, have been guilty of finger-pointing and political hay-making at the expense of the other side, whom they blame for creating a febrile atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that, they claim, incubates murderers. Or, one level further down the rabbit hole, that those very accusations are an incitement based on a disgusting libel.
Even though it might seem temptingly logical to conclude that an angry, debased political commentary creates an atmosphere of hatred and paranoia, and that in turn makes unstable people more likely to commit these despicable acts, it is a very hard thing to prove. However, that does not mean that we need to treat this kind of discourse (if you can call it that) with equanimity or ambivalence. It is quite right to deplore and criticize the inflammatory use of language that stokes bitterness and division. There is no contradiction in supporting a universal right to freedom of speech while at the same time calling on people to use that right responsibly. In fact, by criticizing hate speech and other violent imagery you are exercising your own right of free expression, legally enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
So, while I would never accuse any politician or news anchor or journalist of somehow contributing to or helping to precipitate what happened last Saturday, I reserve the right to criticize them when they make irresponsible statements, not because I think they may cause bloodshed, but because they diminish the quality of debate and hinder genuine political progress. Without an idea of progress and a spirit of openness, discourse becomes polluted and quickly descends into a point-scoring exercise. This prevents things from being done: policies being scrutinized fully and fairly, collaboration between parties, powerful new ideas coming to the fore, and so on. And that serves nobody in the end except those with an interest in the status quo.
All players in a genuinely Democratic system should be interested in improving the lives of the people who voted for them. In reality, this too often comes second to improving the fiscal and legislative regime for companies and individuals who paid for their campaigns. There are of course real political differences, and there are real tensions caused by these disagreements, but when debate becomes over-heated and over-charged these arguments recede out of focus and are instead replaced by shallow attempts to win a modicum of popularity by ‘beating’ an opponent with more effective talking points or memes. The people are not served by this game, and neither is the political system, whose founding principles are steadily undermined by the failure of political actors to restore and renew democratic accountability.
In other words, a poor political discourse that does not allow for really constructive discussion of the problems that affect voters’ lives has several damaging effects. It obscures the real problems and political differences and it saps energy and effort from trying to solve those problems. It alienates voters by making politics seem irrelevant and petty. It makes scrutiny of legislation and policy more difficult and makes the political culture less transparent. And it polarizes all debate, which tends to have the effect in the longer term of increasing extremism and making moderate political positions harder to sustain.
This is why we should criticize those who use ‘violent rhetoric’ and other devices which are detrimental to our discourse, not because we want to pin the blame for a shocking act of violence on our most implacable political opponents. In fact, we should redouble our efforts to understand their positions, to see them not as enemies but as well-intentioned people with a different set of ideas (to which they have devoted just as much critical thought as we have to ours), to give them the benefit of the doubt and above all to be patient and temperate in our discussions with them, even if we may find it very frustrating sometimes. Only that way can we start to restore a political discourse that is worthy of the people.
But this is, afterall, a blog about technology, and the political world is only one arena of conversation. What I am really interested in is how conversations unfold on the Web and across networks, and whether there are specific features of this infrastructure that create a certain type of discussion. And I want to know whether there are ways of encouraging better conversations to happen online.
One of the most obvious features of the Web is that, as Clay Shirky has pointed out very lucidly, now everyone can talk to everyone. This is an enormously significant development, but it brings with it many difficulties, because now everybody has to learn how to talk to everybody. And we are struggling. You only need to glance at the comments ‘forum’ under any article on a newspaper website to see how little real or constructive discourse goes on. Given a chance for public exposure, it seems people try to outdo each other with the outrageous, the sarcastic, the vindictive, and often pay little or no attention to what was said in the first place. It is striking just how strident people’s comments become, and how shrill, almost immediately, in a way that would be plain rude or even outrageous if they were to make the same remarks in person.
A moderator of the BBC’s own Have Your Say forums came up with the inspired idea of collecting all the stupidest, funniest and most outrageous comments and putting them together, with a little bit of judicious editing, here: http://ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere.com/ and this is very amusing/depressing for a few minutes. But it only really serves to illustrate the problem. And ultimately this is commentary on commentary, ridiculing people for being racist, sexist or just stupid. What it doesn’t do (and nor does it aim to) is help to elevate the debate.
Lots of people have written about the idea that it’s the anonymity of comments in these forums (or for-a, if you’re going to be picky) that makes people say things they wouldn’t otherwise. But I think that’s only one part of the cause. I think because the forums are hosted by national newspapers or media organisations, some of the comment posters feel they can achieve a degree of celebrity, or notoriety, just by hanging around and posting, at great length, on as many topics as they can. I don’t think it’s so much anonymity that shields them, but distance. Even if we knew who they were, we wouldn’t be able to confront them directly. It’s not their reputations they’re worried about (and let’s face it, they don’t have reputations to lose – does anybody really care who these people are?), but defending themselves when they’re face-to-face with you. It’s just easier to write a vitriolic comment on someone’s article when you know they probably won’t challenge you than it is to insult someone when you’re in a room with them, sitting across a table from them or in a public meeting.
There’s a large element of competition going on, a strange wish for acclamation mixed with a sort of vindictive desire to tear down anybody who is in the public eye or who has a genuine public reputation or authority. This somehow gives the person making the comment a perceived power over the author, setting them not just on an even footing, but elevating them (in their own minds) above the original writer because they can dismiss his or her argument without any fear of a response and without having to do any research or pay close attention to the argument in the first place.
Even when an engaged author replies below the line, there’s rarely a sustained discourse between them and people who have posted comments. This implies that those posting comments, far from wanting a proper dialogue with the author, actually don’t want to be challenged or responded to. They just want to feel important and clever. If the author does reply, that usually inconveniences the poster because it undermines their satisfaction in having made some absolute and unsubstantiated remark. They can’t just sit back, basking in the glory of having brilliantly had the final word.
The historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin wrote an interesting book in 1998 called ‘The Art of Conversation’ in which he argued that we should try to cultivate deeper conversations by employing some of the historic skills learned by our ancestors but now largely forgotten. He wanted people to focus on the richness of exchange rather than the form and context of the discussion. I think there’s something in Zeldin’s arguments that we should try to apply online as well.
Of course, there are already a number of conventions (like Godwin’s Law – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law) adopted by experienced users of forums and social media, and ‘trolls’ and (to use a now thoroughly passé term) people who ‘flame’ others are looked down upon and tend to be weeded out pretty quickly, especially in US sites. But these are only very basic rules of the road. There aren’t any concerted efforts being made (as far as I’m aware – which means absolutely nothing) to study or to try to improve the tenor and style of online discourse.
Perhaps that would be as fruitless, or as unintentional, anyway, as something like Standard English, and instead we should just let these tools and the conventions they engender evolve, and mature. But I can’t help feeling that we are not yet, or very rarely, having the kind of fruitful, polite and serious conversations we could have if only we could learn to talk to everyone online with a little more respect, a little more patience, and a little more genuine interest in what they have to say, and not in the sound of our own, exaggerated voices as they are broadcast all over the globe. We should be less tin-eared and more interested. And I’m a very good example of someone who likes to write a lot but not to read as much, to speak, but not to listen. I need some form of corrective just as much as anyone else, if not more. Just take this long-winded and pretentious post as an example.
If we really want to solve problems and make the world a bit better, we need to learn how to talk to each other. We need to adapt the art of conversation for the Web. And if anybody else is interested in doing this, I’m all ears.