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September 24, 2007

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Roach

There are two important phenomena at work, though.

One, we learn at a top university setting to speak in measured, precise ways and avoid ad hominems. Outside of ethnocentric study programs, this tends to make one a better debater and learn when one is actually losing or winning or responding properly to opponents' points.

Second, anyone, even the moderately educated, can blog. This leads to a strange tone on the blogs of the half-educated: stupid name-calling, too-quick appeals to arguments from authority, and just general illogic and stupidity.

I'm not sure it was any worse than anywhere else. Americans still have strong consensus ona wide range of issues, not least of which is a near-universal rejection of the real hallmark of deadly polarization: political violence.

Erasmussimo

Yes, Mr. Reynolds, I think you are overoptimistic. The killer problem that renders incivility so common is captured in the aphorism "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Most of us (me too!) operate in anonymity, which removes many of the social inhibitions. Even when people post by name, the absence of body language and vocal intonation tend to increase the temperature of discussions. We've known about this problem since the very earliest bulletin board systems got rolling back in the early 80s. Yet in 25 years we've made no progress in solving it.

Perhaps the solution lies in setting up discussion areas in which nobody is anonymous. You can't even read the postings unless you've revealed your identity. Sort of like a mutual disarmament. May I suggest that you consider this as a policy for this blog? All the main contributors are (nonymous? a-anonymous?) Why not impose the same constraint upon readers and commentators? Indeed, perhaps it would be better to require each person to post adequate self-description (age, gender, occupation, education, pets, etc) Perhaps that would elevate the tone of the discussion.

curtisstrong

Eras and Roach,

It's been a while. Good to see you're still doing a bit of blogging yourself.

It seems that incivility is not necessarily in any way avoidable in a forum such as a blog. Even if you knew my identity, the detached characteristic of blogging makes it unlikely that you would restrain yourself when I say something that makes you angry (perhaps you both would, but there are quite a few people out there who would not...let's be honest).

How does something like that get changed? Even LAK, who is a person with a lot of education, admittedly uses (or used?) this very blog for something akin to "letting off steam."

I think, then, that the blogosphere is often used by people for different reasons. LAK will use it to insult Roach as much as possible, while Roach uses it to argue his theories. Eras, I think you seem to use the blog to test your ideas and come into contact with other people's views, while I'd characterize myself as somewhere between those last two examples (by the way, correct me if I'm wrong on any of this).

In any case, to avoid incivility on the blogosphere seems an incredibly daunting, if not impossible, task due to the dynamics created not only through the online, detached atmosphere, but also because of the different personalities and goals involved in this type of forum.

In addition, you have to wonder about the (general) type of people who blog in the first place. These are people who are 1) interested in the topic (in this case, politics), and 2) willing and outgoing enough to write their opinions for others to read and comment on. I may be wrong on this, but I think that type of person may be more likely to have strong feelings about something related to the subject matter, and as a result, may be more likely to use harsher words than some other people would.

Whether or not all of this leads to greater polarization, and therefore, greater political involvement seems rational, but I wonder,

Why aren't there any strong polorization gurus out there for the "middle ground," if that is, in fact, better for society? Is it that we simply feel better when there is an enemy to fight against? Is that a characteristic of the human condition? Or is the middle ground just a terrible place to be?

Erasmussimo

Good points, Mr. Strong. It's funny, but I don't consider myself a leftist even though I end up disagreeing with lots of right-wing people. I used to spend a lot of time on Daily Kos, and I often disputed some of the more radical claims made there. Overall, my political stance is definitely "independent" in that I do not subscribe to the great majority of the leftist agenda -- only a goodly portion of it. I am very much a believer in the "radical middle" concept and would like nothing more than to drag both sides into a less polarized approach.

You're absolutely right in the observation that there's a selection effect in favor of the more passionate believers, which in turn seems to suggest that discussions on blogs are pointless -- nobody will ever learn anything from anybody else. Still, I have learned some things in my years participating in discussions, and while the learning process was sometimes embarrassing, those moments of realization that I was wrong remain a powerful motivation to continue.

There's no doubt in my mind that a great many of the commentators on blogs are out to prove their manhood rather than develop it. But there remain a significant number of serious people willing to discuss the fine points. I have found only a few blogs where I could really plunge into meaty discussions. Obsidian Wings is one such blog. On too many blogs, as soon as we start digging into the details, interest wanes. {Sigh}.

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