The Ethics of Information Literacy

Yesterday, I caught Derek Thompson of The Atlantic discussing the problem of “fake news” on NPR’s Here and Now. It was all very sensible, of course. Thompson impressed upon the audience the importance of media literacy. He urged listeners to examine the provenance of the information they encounter. He also cited an article that appeared in US News & World Report about teaching high schoolers how to critically evaluate online information. The article, drawing on the advice of teachers, presented three keys: 1. Teach teens to question the source, 2. Help students identify credible sources, and 3. Give students regular opportunities to practice vetting information.

This is all fine. I suspect the problem is not limited to teens–an older cohort appears just as susceptible, if not more so, to “fake news”– but whatever the case, I spend a good deal of time in my classes doing something like what Thompson recommended. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve claimed that among the most important skills teachers can impart to students is the ability to discern the credible from the incredible and the serious from the frivolous. (I suspect the latter distinction is the more important and the more challenging to make.)

But we mustn’t fall into the trap of believing that this is simply a problem of the intellect to be solved with a few pointers and a handful of strategies. There is an ethical dimension to the problem as well because desire and virtue bear upon knowing and understanding. Thompson himself alludes to this ethical dimension, but he speaks of it mostly in the language of cognitive psychology–it is the problem of confirmation bias. This is a useful, but perhaps too narrow way of understanding the problem. However we frame it though, the key is this: We must learn to question more than our sources, we must also question ourselves.

I suggest a list of three questions for students, and by implication all of us, to consider. The first two are of the standard sort: 1. Who wrote this? and 2. Why should I trust them?

It would be foolish, in my view, to pretend that any of us can be independent arbiters of the truthfulness of claims made in every discipline or field of knowledge. It is unreasonable to expect that we would all become experts in every field about which we might be expected to have an informed opinion. Consequently, it is better to frame critical examination of sources as a matter of trustworthiness. Can I determine whether or not I have cause to trust the author or the organization that has produced the information I am evaluating? Of course, trustworthiness does not entail truthfulness or accuracy. When trustworthy sources conflict, for instance, we may need to make a judgment call or we might find ourselves unable to arbitrate the competing claims. It inevitably gets complicated.

The third question, however, gets at the ethical dimension: 3. Do I want this to be true?

This question is intended as a diagnostic tool. The goal is to reveal, so far as we might become self-aware about such things, our biases and sympathies. There are three possible answers: yes, no, and I don’t care. In each case, a challenge to discernment is entailed. If I want something to be true, and there may be various reasons for this, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a skeptical critic. If I do not want something to be true, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a sympathetic advocate. A measure of humility and courage are required in each case.

If I do not care, then there is another sort of problem to overcome. In this case, I may be led astray by a lack of care. I may believe what I first encounter because I am not sufficiently motivated to press further. Whereas it is something like passion or pride that we must guard against when we want to believe or disbelieve a claim, apathy is the problem here.

When I have taught classes on ethics, it has seemed to me that the critical question is not, as it is often assumed to be, “What is the right thing to do?” Rather, the critical question is this: “Why should someone desire to learn what is right and then do it?”

Likewise with the problem of information literacy. It is one thing to be presented with a set of skills and strategies to make us more discerning and critical. It is another, more important thing, to care about the truth at all, to care more about the truth than about being right.

In short, the business of teaching media literacy or critical thinking skills amounts to a kind of moral education. In a characteristically elaborate footnote in “Authority and American Usage,” David Foster Wallace got at this point, although from the perspective of the writer. In the body of his essay, Wallace writes,  “the error that Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making—the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn.” The footnote to this sentence adds the following, emphasis mine:

Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind — anything you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue — your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for. Because (1) and (2) are so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (‘This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree’) and something that the writer merely opines (‘My reasons for recommending this are as follows:’) . . . . I therefore submit that the hoary cliché ‘Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think’ sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it.

I take Wallace’s counsel here to be, more or less, the mirror image of the counsel I’m offering to us as readers.

Finally, I should say that all of the preceding does not begin to touch on much of what we would also need to consider when we’re thinking about media literacy. Most of the above deals with the matter of evaluating content, which is obviously not unimportant, and textual content at that. However, media literacy in the fullest sense would also entail an understanding of more subtle effects arising from the nature of the various tools we use to communicate content, not to mention the economic and political factors conditioning the production and dissemination of information.

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Do Things Want?

Alan Jacobs’ 79 Theses on Technology were offered in the spirit of a medieval disputation, and they succeeded in spurring a number of stimulating responses in a series of essays posted to the Infernal Machine over the last two weeks. Along with my response to Jacobs’ provocations, I wanted to engage a debate between Jacobs and Ned O’Gorman about whether or not we may meaningfully speak of what technologies want. Here’s a synopsis of the exchange with my own commentary along the way.

O’Gorman’s initial response focused on the following theses from Jacobs:

40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.

46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.

O’Gorman framed these theses by saying that he found it “perplexing” that Jacobs “is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong.” I’m not sure, however, that Jacobs was denying the meaningfulness of things; rather, as I read him, he is contesting the claim that it is from technology that our lives derive their meaning. That may seem a fine distinction, but I think it is an important one. In any case, a little clarification about what exactly “meaning” entails, may go a long way in clarifying that aspect of the discussion.

A little further on, O’Gorman shifts to the question of agency: “Our technological artifacts aren’t wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it.” It is on this ground that the debate mostly unfolds, although there is more than a little slippage between the question of meaning and the question of agency.

O’Gorman appealed to Mary Carruthers’ fascinating study of the place of memory in medieval culture, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, to support his claim, but I’m not sure the passage he cites supports his claim. He is seeking to establish, as I read him, two claims. First, that technologies are things and things are meaningful. Second, that we may properly attribute agency to technology/things. Now here’s the passage he cites from Carruthers’ work (brackets and ellipses are O’Gorman’s):

“[In the middle ages] interpretation is not attributed to any intention of the man [the author]…but rather to something understood to reside in the text itself.… [T]he important “intention” is within the work itself, as its res, a cluster of meanings which are only partially revealed in its original statement…. What keeps such a view of interpretation from being mere readerly solipsism is precisely the notion of res—the text has a sense within it which is independent of the reader, and which must be amplified, dilated, and broken-out from its words….”

“Things, in this instance manuscripts,” O’Gorman adds, “are indeed meaningful and powerful.” But in this instance, the thing (res) in view is not, in fact, the manuscripts. As Carruthers explains at various other points in The Book of Memory, the res in this context is not a material thing, but something closer to the pre-linguistic essence or idea or concept that the written words convey. It is an immaterial thing.

That said, there are interesting studies that do point to the significance of materiality in medieval context. Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, for example, dwells at length on medieval reading as a bodily experience, an “ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.” Then there’s Caroline Bynum’s fascinating Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, which explores the multifarious ways matter was experienced and theorized in the late middle ages.

Bynum concludes that “current theories that have mostly been used to understand medieval objects are right to attribute agency to objects, but it is an agency that is, in the final analysis, both too metaphorical and too literal.” She adds that insofar as modern theorizing “takes as self-evident the boundary between human and thing, part and whole, mimesis and material, animate and inanimate,” it may be usefully unsettled by an encounter with medieval theories and praxis, which “operated not from a modern need to break down such boundaries but from a sense that they were porous in some cases, nonexistent in others.”

Of course, taking up Bynum’s suggestion does not entail a re-imagining of our smartphone as a medieval relic, although one suspects that there is but a marginal difference in the degree of reverence granted to both objects. The question is still how we might best understand and articulate the complex relationship between our selves and our tools.

In his reply to O’Gorman, Jacobs focused on O’Gorman’s penultimate paragraph:

“Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve ‘wanting’ for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.”

It’s an interesting feature of the exchange from this point forward that O’Gorman and Jacobs at once emphatically disagree, and yet share very similar concerns. The disagreement is centered chiefly on the question of whether or not it is helpful or even meaningful to speak of technologies “wanting.” Their broad agreement, as I read their exchange, is about the inadequacy of what O’Gorman calls “philosophical volunatarianism” and “technological instrumentalism.”

In other words, if you begin by assuming that the most important thing about us is our ability to make rational and unencumbered choices, then you’ll also assume that technologies are neutral tools over which we can achieve complete mastery.

If O’Gorman means what I think he means by this–and what Jacobs takes him to mean–then I share his concerns as well. We cannot think well about technology if we think about technology as mere tools that we use for good or evil. This is the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach to the ethics of technology, and it is, indeed, inadequate as a way of thinking about the ethical status of artifacts, as I’ve argued repeatedly.

Jacobs grants these concerns, but, with a nod to the Borg Complex, he also thinks that we do not help ourselves in facing them if we talk about technologies “wanting.” Here’s Jacobs’ conclusion:

“It seems that [O’Gorman] thinks the dangers of voluntarism are so great that they must be contested by attributing what can only be a purely fictional agency to tools, whereas I believe that the conceptual confusion this creates leads to a loss of a necessary focus on human responsibility, and an inability to confront the political dimensions of technological modernity.”

This seems basically right to me, but it prompted a second reply from O’Gorman that brought some further clarity to the debate. O’Gorman identified three distinct “directions” his disagreement with Jacobs takes: rhetorical, ontological, and ethical.

He frames his discussion of these three differences by insisting that technologies are meaningful by virtue of their “structure of intention,” which entails a technology’s affordances and the web of practices and discourse in which the technology is embedded. So far, so good, although I don’t think intention is the best choice of word. From here O’Gorman goes on to show why he thinks it is “rhetorically legitimate, ontologically plausible, and ethically justified to say that technologies can want.”

Rhetorically, O’Gorman appears to be advocating a Wittgenstein-ian, “look and see” approach. Let’s see how people are using language before we rush to delimit a word’s semantic range. To a certain degree, I can get behind this. I’ve advocated as much when it comes to the way we use the word “technology,” itself a term that abstracts and obfuscates. But I’m not sure that once we look we will find much. While our language may animate or personify our technology, I’m less sure that we typically speak about technology “wanting” anything.  We do not ordinarily say things like “my iPhone wants to be charged,” “the car wants to go out for a drive,” “the computer wants to play.” Although, I can think of an exception or two. I have heard, for example, someone explain to an anxious passenger that the airplane “wants” to stay in the air. The phrase, “what technology wants,” owes much of its currency, such as it is, to the title of Kevin Kelly’s book, and I’m pretty sure Kelly means more by it than what O’Gorman might be prepared to endorse.

Ontologically, O’Gorman is “skeptical of attempts to tie wanting to will because willfulness is only one kind of wanting.” “What do we do with instinct, bodily desires, sensations, affections, and the numerous other forms of ‘wanting’ that do not seem to be a product of our will?” he wonders. Fair enough, but all of the examples he cites are connected with beings that are, in a literal sense, alive. Of course I can’t attribute all of my desires to my conscious will, sure my dog wants to eat, and maybe in some sense my plant wants water. But there’s still a leap involved in saying that my clock wants to tell time. Wanting may not be neatly tied to willing, but I don’t see how it is not tied to sentience.

There’s one other point worth making at this juncture. I’m quite sympathetic to what is basically a phenomenological account of how our tools quietly slip into our subjective, embodied experience of the world. This is why I can embrace so much of O’Gorman’s case. Thinking back many years, I can distinctly remember a moment when I held a baseball in my hand and reflected on how powerfully I felt the urge to throw it, even though I was standing inside my home. This feeling is, I think, what O’Gorman wants us to recognize. The baseball wanted to be thrown! But how far does this kind of phenomenological account take us?

I think it runs into limits when we talk about technologies that do not enter quite so easily into the circuit of mind, body, and world. The case for the language of wanting is strongest the closer I am to my body; it weakens the further away we get from it. Even if we grant that the baseball in hand feels like it wants to be thrown, what exactly does the weather satellite in orbit want? I think this strongly suggests the degree to which the wanting is properly ours, even while acknowledging the degree to which it is activated by objects in our experience.

Finally, O’Gorman thinks that it is “perfectly legitimate and indeed ethically good and right to speak of technologies as ‘wanting.'” He believes this to be so because “wanting” is not only a matter of willing, it is “more broadly to embody a structure of intention within a given context or set of contexts.” Further, “Will-bearing and non-will-bearing things, animate and inanimate things, can embody such a structure of intention.”

“It is good and right,” O’Gorman insists, “to call this ‘wanting’ because ‘wanting’ suggests that things, even machine things, have an active presence in our life—they are intentional” and, what’s more, their “active presence cannot be neatly traced back to their design and, ultimately, some intending human.”

I agree with O’Gorman that the ethical considerations are paramount, but I’m finally unpersuaded that we are on firmer ground when we speak of technologies wanting, even though I recognize the undeniable importance of the dynamics that O’Gorman wants to acknowledge by speaking so.

Consider what O’Gorman calls the “structure of intention.” I’m not sure intention is the best word to use here. Intentionality resides in the subjective experience of the “I,” but it is true, as phenomenologists have always recognized, that intentionality is not unilaterally directed by the self-consciously willing “I.” It has conscious and non-conscious dimensions, and it may be beckoned and solicited by the world that it simultaneously construes through the workings of perception.

I think we can get at what O’Gorman rightly wants us to acknowledge without attributing “wanting” to objects. We may say, for instance, that objects activate our wanting as they are intended to do by design and also in ways that are unintended by any person. But it’s best to think of this latter wanting as an unpredictable surplus of human intentionality rather than inject a non-human source of wanting. The wanting is always mine, but it may be prompted, solicited, activated, encouraged, fostered, etc. by aspects of the non-human world. So, we may correctly talk about a structure of desire that incorporates non-human aspects of the world and thereby acknowledge the situated nature of our own wanting. Within certain contexts, if we were so inclined, we may even call it a structure of temptation.

To fight the good fight, as it were, we must acknowledge how technology’s consequences exceed and slip loose of our cost/benefit analysis and our rational planning and our best intentions. We must take seriously how their use shapes our perception of the world and both enable and constrain our thinking and acting. But talk about what technology wants will ultimately obscure moral responsibility. “What the machine/algorithm wanted” too easily becomes the new “I was just following orders.” I believe this to be true because I believe that we have a proclivity to evade responsibility. Best, then, not to allow our language to abet our evasions.

“Civility” Reconsidered

A few days ago, I wrote about why online communication so often turns vile and toxic. I did not, however, provide any examples of the problem; rather, I relied on a series of posts in which others had lodged their own complaints and provided illustrative instances of Internet awfulness. Basically, I took it for granted that readers would already know what I had in mind, and, of course, that’s always a hazardous assumption to make. I was, at the time, more interested in identifying the sources of the problem, than in clearly delineating the problem.

As I’ve thought about that post over the last couple of days, I’ve found myself a bit dissatisfied with what I had written. I couldn’t quite put my finger the problem, but a couple of recent posts, by Freddie deBoer and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig respectively, have helped me think more clearly about the problem. DeBoer and Bruenig both vigorously criticized the rhetoric of civility. This initially struck me as a rather odd tact to take; after all, I’d just written myself about the lack of civility in public debate, particularly as it unfolds online. But, from a different angle, I’d already half-formulated my own critique of the concept of civility. I’ll start with that fledgling critique and then move on to the more developed concerns articulated by de Boer and Bruenig.

As I thought about my post, specifically its vagueness about the exact nature of the problem I was addressing, I wondered if I’d not inadvertently negated the possibility of vigorous, impassioned exchanges–exchanges which might verge on the uncivil, or at least seem to. I remembered, then, that I’d written about this very thing nearly three years ago in a post about civility and friendship occasioned by the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Think what you will of Hitchens, I wasn’t a great fan myself, but the man knew how to turn an acerbic phrase. In any event, I went on to make the following (slightly edited) observations about civility.

To some, the problems with our current public and political discourse stem from a lack of civility. Yet, this depends on what we might mean by civility. A friend recently suggested that the inverse is probably true. We are too civil to speak forthrightly and honestly, it is all obfuscation. In which case, it is not civility that is the problem, but civility’s unseemly counterfeits — slimy flattery, ingratiation, or cowardice. In any case, compared with previous ages, our political discourse is, in fact, remarkably tame.

More to the point, I would say, what we have is not so much a failure of civility as it is a failure of eloquence, made all the worse for the narcissism that frequently attends it. Few, I presume, would mind a little incivility so long as it was to the point and artfully delivered. Hitchens was the master of this sort of artfully acerbic incivility, and he deployed it to great effect. Nothing of the sort characterizes our political discourse. We are plagued instead with the shallow and inelegant shouting matches of cable news programs or that manner of speaking without saying anything mastered by politicians.

I closed, riffing on Aristotle, by suggesting that when people are friends they have no need of civility. In a subsequent comment on the post, I went on to clarify that claim as follows:

Aristotle’s claim is that when people are friends they have no need of justice. I read this along the same lines as C. S. Lewis’ observation that humility makes modesty unnecessary. One is a posture that becomes unnecessary when the true virtue is present. I realize a lot of this comes down to how we are defining terms, but what I was trying to capture is the sense that among friends I have to worry less about “civility” if civility is understood as a kind of artificial restraint. I rely instead on the bonds of friendship which allow for greater freedom of expression and even a little well placed humor or “incivility.”

I’d still stand by that, although, again, much of it hangs on how civility is defined.

What’s more, it struck me that, given my own standards of what is right and admirable, I’d better leave some room for the flipping of tables and rather pointed criticisms of personal character.

Taking all of this together, then, it would seem best to say that, first, civility can be a fuzzy category, and, secondly, that civility is not the only or final word in human communication. Indeed, in some situations, demands for civility may be downright perverse.

This is where deBoer and Bruenig come in. DeBoer’s post was occasioned by a heated controversy in the academic world, one, I’m afraid, I have simply not kept up with. Bruenig’s post, cited by deBoer, appears to have been inspired by her own recent experience with online debates. Both of them remind us that calls for civility sometimes mask and perpetuate asymmetrical relations of power. To put that less clinically, calls for civility sometimes allow the corrupt and powerful to obscure their corruption and retain their power.

For instance, deBoer closes his post with the following summation: “That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

Bruenig’s thoughts are more extensive and organized with almost scholastic clarity, so it is harder to select a shorter representative sample. That said, here is one passage for consideration: “If you don’t know how to ‘talk the talk’, if you’ve grown up speaking in slang and playing the dozens and you’re not really clear on the delicacies of civility, you’re going to be ruled out of the discourse at every turn. Not for any real reason of course, but because you can’t speak the way upper class parlor sitters do.”

And here is the passage that deBoer cited in his own post:

“It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.”

I’m not sure I would’ve said that civility is merely about establishing common ground, but I think Bruenig makes a sensible point here. She forced me to think more carefully about what I am asking for when I make my pleas for civility or lament the lack of it.

Indeed, I am at some level simply asking for people to employ the sort of rhetoric with which I am most comfortable. I prefer, as she puts it, “the aesthetics of the afternoon salon.” I’d like to think, of course, that I have good reasons for this and that it is not merely a matter of self-serving preference. But, the rhetoric of civility, insofar as it presumes a neutral common ground, can be deceptive. We might think of it as the communitarian critics of the liberal democratic project think of the modern secular state’s pretensions of neutrality toward competing visions of the good life.

In fact, by assuming a posture of ostensible neutrality, the liberal democratic state already smuggles in certain substantive judgements. In cases of morality, for example, the enforcement of neutrality is equitable only on the assumption that the matter is, finally, not one of moral consequence. The deck is stacked against those who would argue otherwise, and, coming back to the point at hand, it is easy to see how calls for civility may analogously stifle the voices of those who are morally outraged. From this view then, civility is, like certain calls for tolerance, the thin gruel we’re left with when we’ve been stripped of a more robust and sustaining moral grammar.

I’m not sure, however, that I want to abandon the pursuit of all that is wrapped up with the concept of civility. Perhaps we simply need a better, richer grammar of virtuous discourse. May be we do better to speak of humane discourse, rather than civil discourse. When, for instance, we condemn the death of innocents, it may not be very humane at all to speak with civility as some might define it. To speak of humane discourse also gestures toward an acknowledgement of the fullness of our humanity. We are not, as certain modern version of the self have it, merely thinking things. We are feeling being as well, and a well-ordered soul is one which not only thinks clearly about the world, but one whose whole being responds appropriately to the world it experiences. We should, in other words, be revolted by what is revolting, we should be enraged by pervasive injustice, and so on. Calls for civility may only be a way of hamstringing legitimate human responses to the very broken world we inhabit.

But, aye, there’s the rub. As I write that, I immediately realize that if only we could all agree on what is revolting and unjust, we wouldn’t have a problem adjudicating the proper place of civility rightly understood. I find myself coming back to one of my complaints in last week’s post. Part of our problem, as I see it, is that we are too damn cocksure about the moral uprightness of our own positions. But, again, perhaps civility is the wrong antidote to prescribe. Humility is what is needed, and humility is at once a more challenging and more effective cure. Unlike bare civility which may only deal with the surface, humility goes to the root.

All in all, then, even as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve talked myself into deeper agreement with Breunig. I encourage you to read all of what she has to say (as well as her follow-up post). I’ll leave you with her own closing remarks, which suggest that we might do well to reframe our civility talk as a matter of rightly ordered love instead.

“None of this is to argue for being cruel, vulgar, intentionally insulting, etc. But there’s a peculiar tyranny of ‘civility’, and it’s to argue that the good of civility should be judged according to the particular conditions of argument, and should always be balanced against the stakes of the actual content of the debate. We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues. But we should also see that love is at times bracing, especially when it is operating in defense, and that a little rupture and agonism are sometimes necessary for an honest reconciliation.”

I take that back. I think I’ll leave you, instead, with W.H. Auden, who, as Richard Wilbur put it, “sustained the civil tongue / In a scattering time.” Here is Auden’s deceptively simple plea to which we should all frequently return: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”


UPDATE: Compare Alan Jacobs’ take on this whole “civility” thing. Basically, he thought Bruenig and deBoer went in the wrong direction with their mostly accurate assessment of the problem.

Waiting for Socrates … So We Can Kill Him Again and Post the Video on Youtube

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.”