It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, if I tell you that the wells of online discourse are poisoned. It will come as no surprise because critics have complained about the tone of online discourse for as long as people have interacted with one another online. In fact, we more or less take the toxic, volatile nature of online discourse for granted. “Don’t read the comments” is about as routine a piece of advice as “look both ways before crossing the street.” And, of course, it is also true that complaints about the coarsening of public discourse in general have been around for a lot longer than the Internet and digital media.
That said, I’ve been intrigued, heartened actually, by a recent round of posts bemoaning the state of online rhetoric from some of the most thoughtful people whose work I follow. Here is Freddie deBoer lamenting the rhetoric of the left, and here is Matthew Anderson noting much of the same on the right. Here is Alan Jacobs on why he’s stepping away from Twitter. Follow any of those links and you’ll find another series of links to thoughtful, articulate writers all telling us, more or less, that they’ve had enough. This piece urges civility and it suggests, hopefully (naively?), that the “Internet” will learn soon enough to police itself, but the evidence it cites along the way seems rather to undermine such hopefulness. I won’t bother to point you to some of the worst of what I’ve regrettably encountered online in recent weeks.
Why is this the case? Why, as David Sessions recently put it, is the state of the Internet awful?
Like everyone else, I have scattered thoughts about this. For one thing, the nature of the medium seems to encourage rancor, incivility, misunderstanding, and worse. Anonymity has something to do with this, and so does the abstraction of the body from the context of communication.
Along the same media-ecological lines, Walter Ong noted that oral discourse tends to be agonistic and literate discourse tends to be irenic. Online discourse tends to be conducted in writing, which might seem to challenge Ong’s characterization. But just as television and radio constituted what Ong called secondary orality, so might we say that social media is a form of secondary literacy, blurring the distinctions between orality and literacy. It is text based, but, like oral discourse, it brings people into a context of relative communicative immediacy. That is to say that through social media people are responding to one another in public and in short order, more as they would in a face-to-face encounter, for example, than in private letters exchanged over the course of months.
In theory, writing affords us the temporal space to be more thoughtful and precise in expressing our ideas, but, in practice, the expectations of immediacy in digital contexts collapse that space. So we lose the strengths of each medium: we get none of the meaning-making cues of face-to-face communication nor any of the time for reflection that written communication ordinarily grants. The media context, then, ends up being rife with misunderstanding and agonistic; it encourages performative pugilism.
Also, as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out some time ago, we no longer operate with a set of broadly shared assumptions about what is good and what shape a good life should take. Our ethical reasoning tends not to be built on the same foundation. Because we are reasoning from incompatible moral premises, the conclusions reached by two opposing parties tend to be interpreted as sheer stupidity or moral obtuseness. In other words, because our arguments, proceeding as they do from such disparate moral frameworks, fail to convince and persuade, we begin to assume that those who will not yield to our moral vision must thus be fools or worse. Moreover, we conclude, fools and miscreants cannot be argued with; they can only be shamed, shouted down, or otherwise silenced.
Digital dualism is also to blame. Some people seem to operate under the assumption that they are not really racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, etc.–they just play one on Twitter. It really is much too late in the game to play that tired card.
Perhaps, too, we’ve conflated truth and identity in such a way that we cannot conceive of a challenge to our views as anything other than a challenge to our humanity. Conversely, it seems that in some highly-charged contexts being wrong can cost you the basic respect one might be owed as a fellow human being.
Finally, the Internet is awful because, frankly, people are awful. We all are; at least we all can be under the right circumstances. As Solzhenitsyn put it, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
To that list, I want to offer just one more consideration: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and there are few things the Internet does better than giving everyone a little knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing because it is just enough to give us the illusion of mastery and a sense of authority. This illusion, encouraged by the myth of having all the world’s information at our finger tips, has encouraged us to believe that by skimming an article here or reading the summary of a book there we thus become experts who may now liberally pontificate about the most complex and divisive issues with unbounded moral and intellectual authority. This is the worst kind of insufferable foolishness, that which mistakes itself for wisdom without a hint of irony.
Real knowledge on the other hand is constantly aware of all that it does not know. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know, and the more hesitant you’ll be to speak as if you’ve got everything figured out. Getting past that threshold of “a little knowledge” tends to breed humility and create the conditions that make genuine dialogue possible. But that threshold will never be crossed if all we ever do is skim the surface of reality, and this seems to be the mode of engagement encouraged by the information ecosystem sustained by digital media.
We’re in need of another Socrates who will teach us once again that the way of wisdom starts with a deep awareness of our own ignorance. Of course, we’d kill him too, after a good skewering on Twitter, and probably without the dignity of hemlock. A posthumous skewering would follow, naturally, after the video of his death got passed around on Reddit and Youtube.
I don’t want to leave things on that cheery note, but the fact is that I don’t have a grand scheme for making online discourse civil, informed, and thoughtful. I’m pretty sure, though, that things will not simply work themselves out for the better without deliberate and sustained effort. Consider how W.H. Auden framed the difference between traditional cultures and modernity:
“The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.”
For better or worse, or more likely both, this is where we find ourselves–either we deploy deliberate effort of will and intelligence or face perpetual decay. Who knows, maybe the best we can do is to form and maintain enclaves of civility and thoughtfulness amid the rancor, communities of discourse where meaningful conversation can be cultivated. These would probably remain small communities, but their success would be no small thing.
Update: After publishing, I read Nick Carr’s post on the revival of blogs and the decline of Big Internet. “So, yeah, I’m down with this retro movement,” Carr writes, “Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet.” I thought that was good news in light of my closing paragraph.
And, just in case you need more by way of diagnosis, there’s this: “A Second Look At The Giant Garbage Pile That Is Online Media, 2014.”