Friday, November 21, 2003

Rant Rant? (No: Rant Non-Rant)

So re: the civility or lack thereof of our political discourse in general and that on the web in particular, some conjectures:

There's no doubt in my mind that people have said this all before, but who has time to go searching through the Library of Babel to look for it? Even with Google...

Something about the 'net seems to encourage incivility. I guess it's the fact that anonymity is so easy to come by, and responses can be almost instantaneous. Also, of course, there's seldom any real contact nor even proximity between communicants on the web, and maybe:

“Far off, men swell, bully, and threaten; bring them hand to hand, and they are feeble folk.”

(Or so saith Emerson at any rate.)

But whatever the causes, it seems pretty clear that rants, flame wars, and the like are more common on the web than are their non-web analogs in the non-web part of the world. But it seems reasonably clear that rants breed rants and so forth. It's almost irresistable to engage in those activities--but almost irresistable doesn't mean irresistable. So here's what I'm thinking: when you feel like ranting or flaming, at least you should force yourself to answer this question: will whatever good this rant/flame/etc. will accomplish outweight whatever harm it will do to the overall level of civlity and reasonableness (in this discussion in particular and on the web in general (and in society in general))?

Not that I think that unloading on someone is never justified. I've done it myself on occasion, for better or worse. Sometimes flaming is justified, but I'm suggesting that it's not justified as often as it's done. Perhaps it's a kind of tragedy of the electronic commons: people want to blow off steam, get their two cents in, get noticed, and one way to accomplish these things is by being snide, derisive, and verbally aggressive. But every hostile communication adds--perhaps imperceptibly--to the incivility of the atmosphere. The very fact that the "rant" has become a popular form of expression is a bad sign. Hey, look:

"Why one contradicts. One often contradicts an opinion when it is really only the tone in which it has been presented that is unsympathetic." -- Neitzsche

I think that's true. At least I seem to detect such reactions on my own part with some frequency. If it is true, and if you are communicating with someone in hopes of arriving at some kind of agreement, and if you can say what you want to say in either a more hostile or a less hostile way, then the route of least hostility seems to be indicated.

I have a couple of friends who are pacifists, and I've learned something important from them despite the fact that I am convinced that pacifism in its extreme form is immoral. At any rate, according to my pacifist friends, pacifists believe roughly two things: (1) all violence is wrong and (2) one has an obligation to work to ramp down the ambient level of hostility in the world. Oddly, (1) gets all the attention, but (2) is the reasonable thesis. (1) is rather clearly false, since sometimes respect for persons and for human life requires the use of violence. If pacifism holds that it would be wrong to kill Mohammed Atta as he makes his way to the cockpit, then pacifism is false. But (2) is extremely reasonable, especially given the nature of human psychology. The trick is to work to avoid and diffuse hostility as soon as possible. The farther the conversation degenerates and the madder people get, the harder it is for them to return to reason. And, of course, once the fists (or the bullets) start flying, it's almost impossible to stop them until the people involved are dead or hurt, or until they wear themselves out. But even if we're just talking about words, the farther one progresses down that road, the harder it is to turn back.

You might say that hostility on the web has no effect on hostility elsewhere, and this could of course be true, but I doubt that it is. Our thoughts and words are connected to the rest of our lives, and the thoughts we express and the words we write on the web almost undoubtedly have effects on our other thoughts and words, and on the thoughts and words of others. And thoughts and words are connected to actions in rather well-known ways. These are empirical questions, but we can make some good guesses about their answers even in the absence of formal scientific investigation. The mistake here is to think that the web is its own world, unconnected to the non-web world. But if I'm wrong about that, another problem arises, a problem of irrelevance: if the hostility of what we say on the web has so little effect on the rest of the world, why think that what we say has much effect on the world in other ways? And if we're not having any effect on the rest of the world, on the world outside the web, then we're mostly wasting our time here anyway.

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