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Has The Internet Ruined Political Discourse ?

There’s a provocative article up day at Big Government that argues that the Internet is largely responsible for the level to which political discourse has devolved in this country:

The internet is the worst thing that has ever happened to civil discourse in this country.

Before the internet, political disagreements were hostile.  Everyone believed the other side was wrong.  No matter the argument presented, regardless of its basis in fact, it was almost impossible to sway the other side to one’s viewpoint.

With the internet, political disagreements have become toxic and destructive.  The partisanship, the arguments, the daily slander – they have all escalated out of the realm of sanity.   There are literally fights going on the streets.   Sure, we’ve seen it before, but never with this level of ferocity.

The internet is to blame.  Why?

We look to Marcus Aurelius, who tells us, “Of each particular thing, ask: ‘What is it in itself, in its own construction?”

The internet does not exist as anything more than various forms of technology strung together.  The worlds created by it are constructs.  They are virtual worlds, not real ones.

Given that the internet itself is not human, our interaction with it only serves to depersonalize the communication it allegedly facilitates.  In point of fact, interpersonal communication has eroded since the internet became ubiquitous.

With depersonalization comes dehumanization.   We now see the Other as more inhuman than ever before, because we now longer see him face-to-face, or eye-to-eye.

All we see are the Other’s words, taken out of context, printed, reprinted, disseminated, distorted, and reworked to fit an agenda.  No different perhaps than traditional print media, except now the misinformation is created and distributed instantaneously.  With each successive iteration, the original text, subtext, and context are stripped away.  In the end, there is no there, there.

(…)

Worse, fringe elements that never had a voice now have one.   While everyone may be entitled to their opinion, the irrational and insane ones now have equal stature.  The Village Idiot now has a megaphone and he’s screaming at us from the center of town.  Even worse, he can scream with complete anonymity.  He’s an expert because he says he is….and if what he says fits the agenda of another nutter, a voice that should be ignored suddenly has power.

Finally, and regrettably, the internet provides us with what we truly want – not to have to think for ourselves.  If we seek to argue a point, all we need do is troll cyberspace until we find the a truth we agree with, and cite it.   There!  It’s true because this website says so!  It’s true because aforementioned Village Idiot has a flashy website – which provides a multi-generational derivation of an already derivative piece of text or film.

It’s a powerful statement, made all the more so, I think, because it appears on a site owned by Andrew Breitbart, the man who was at the center of an internet-created firestorm last week that led to an innocent woman losing her job and being unjustly called a racist, all so Breitbart could prove some point he was trying to make about the NAACP. Arguably, Breitbart is part of the problem that Lawrence Meyers is talking about in his essay.

But what of Meyer’s argument, has the Internet really made discourse more difficult in society as a whole ?

It’s certainly true that it’s incredibly easy for online conversation to turn vicious in a short period of time. Just venture into the comment thread of most political blogs and you’ll see that happening. It’s also present on Twitter, where some people seem to take special joy in using @ replies to taunt someone they’ve never even met. Before the World Wide Web even existed, the level of discourse on USENET forums or on sites like Compuserve or AOL would often get very nasty very quickly. Meyers is right in guessing that the lack of real human contact is largely responsible for this phenomenon; when you aren’t looking someone in the fact, it’s much easier to insult them.

Its also certainly true that with the rise of the Internet, talk radio, and 24/7/365 cable news networks that mix opinion and actual reporting with a surprising degree of regularity, have made people much more politically engaged than they were in the past. While that’s probably a net positive, it also means that people tend to become much more emotionally invested in political arguments than they would if they acted like the average voter in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, who got their main news from television and the newspaper, and didn’t spend the better part of the day pontificating about political issues. One of the supposed benefits of representative democracy is that it means that the general public doesn’t have to be involved in politics as if it were their main profession. In today’s internet-fueled political climate, there are large segments of the public who follow politics the way some people follow sports, and every “win” or “loss” is treated with far more importance than it probably should be.In that atmosphere, it’s not at all surprising people would feel free to unload viciousness on political opponents.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that offensive political discourse is hardly a product of the 21st Century, and for evidence of that I give you the case of James Callender:

Out of jail, seeking less controversial and more stable employment, Callender asked Jefferson to appoint him Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, warning that if Jefferson did not, there would be consequences. Callender believed erroneously that Jefferson was conspiring to deprive him of money owed to him by the government after the pardon, and that Jefferson was insufficiently appreciative of the sacrifices he had made on his behalf. Jefferson refused to make the appointment: placing the ill-tempered Callender in a position of authority in the Federalist stronghold of Richmond would have been, in the words of Jefferson biographer R.B. Bernstein, “like whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick.”[14]

With his career and his upward social ambitions thwarted, Callender returned to newspaper work, as editor of a Federalist newspaper, the Richmond Recorder. In a series of articles in which he struck out at corruption on all sides, Callender eventually targeted Jefferson, revealing that Jefferson had funded his pamphleteering. After denials were issued, he published Jefferson’s letters to him to prove the relationship. Later, angered by the response of Jefferson supporters, which included the smear that Callender had abandoned his wife, leaving her to die of a venereal disease,[15] Callender wrote in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings.[16][17]

Callender’s reporting on the Jefferson – Hemings relationship was infused with an exaggeratedly racist rhetoric; ironically, although he had expressed vehement anti-slavery views when he first arrived in the United States, he eventually adopted a position on slavery and race similar to Jefferson’s in Notes on the State of Virginia.[18]

After the Hemings controversy ran its course, Callender then turned to publicizing Jefferson’s attempt to seduce a married neighbor decades earlier.

So, you don’t need the Internet to engage in personal attacks for political purposes, but it certainly does make it easier.

Meyers closes with a piece of advice that I think we’d all do well to follow:

The only way to reverse this course is simple.

Unplug.

Engage your neighbor face-to-face.

Look into his eyes.

Use your intellect. Recognize there are things called “fallacies” that render most every statement invalid and untrue.

You stand as a sentinel to your own mind.   If you only allow those thoughts to enter it that you know to be 100% true, then you have the basis from which you can argue a point.  Anything that is less than 100% true is, by definition, false.

If it’s false, then shut up…and seek out the Truth.

Sounds like good advice for all of us.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Are you really this dense, Doug? Or are you just playing goofy to spur discussion? The Internet is merely a tool, just like PACs or non-candidate-specific party-funded advertising. A lot of people will point to guys like Rove, or Newt Gingrich before him, but really, political discourse was ruined by the generation of GOP operatives birthed by Nixon whose philosophy begins and ends with: win at any cost, regardless of what’s good for America.

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  2. Brett says:

    While everyone may be entitled to their opinion, the irrational and insane ones now have equal stature. The Village Idiot now has a megaphone and he’s screaming at us from the center of town.

    I’d argue that. It’s not so much that the Internet has given cranks a loud voice, so much as it is that they now have a much, much more efficient way to meet other cranks and organize. You can still just ignore them, and most people do ignore crank sites like Prison Planet or god-knows how many Truther websites there are.

    Before that, the only way for cranks to organize on anything other than the local level was by mail and newsletter.

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  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Legion is right, it’s the Republican’s fault.

    Seriously, the internet has cesspools scattered about because we tolerate them. We tolerate impolite behavior and crass language thinking it’s okay because the internet is like the Wild West. Elevate the tone, the politeness, and the civility while castigating and banning those who won’t conform to basic levels of decorum and soon the norms will change for the better. It won’t happen overnight but it will evolve for the better in the better websites.

    I still believe anonymity contributes immensely to the problem. I’ve heard the arguments from some that their jobs prevent them from posting with their real names but life’s not fair. Using your real name is required when testifying at city hall or the state legislature so why not in this or any other public forum? If a person knows they are leaving a trail of writings they are more likely to act responsibly.

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  4. Brett says:

    Using your real name is required when testifying at city hall or the state legislature so why not in this or any other public forum? If a person knows they are leaving a trail of writings they are more likely to act responsibly.

    No, they’re more likely to be bland and non-controversial if they are in any type of position of power. There are a lot of arguments that can easily be distorted into nonsense by political enemies via quote mining and selective coverage.

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure that it’s “ruined political discourse” so much as allowed anybody to play.

    In refutation of the proposition I would point to the dilution of the collegial relationships among attorneys. 50 years ago plaintiff and defense might call each other sons of guns in the courtroom and go out for lunch together afterwards. At least to my eye that appears to have changed. Basically, I’m saying that the quality of political discourse mirrors the rise in zealous advocacy among attorneys.

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  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Legion is right????? In what regard. Why is it Democrats are ALWAYS the party of those who are accused of manipulating elections? Al Franken is a case in point? ACORN, accused nation wide of cheating on registering voters backs who? Were it not for the internet and a certain cable news outlet, most people would have a very difficult time hearing or reading the truth. This site, which is becoming Daily Kos lite since Mataconis started bloging here adds to the BS available. There was a time when a more balanced comment section appeared here. The furthest left was Anjin the Marxist. Now there are many voices who’s grasp of truth leaves a lot to be desired. We would not have known Shirley Sherrod was a racist if it were not for the internet. Fact is, Breitbart did not intend to show her as being racist but rather the NAACP was. Go figure. The NAACP racist. I am shocked, shocked at that revelation. Ms Sherrod revealed herself to be racist when she accused Breitbart of wanting the return to slavery. Breitbart has held to the King standard. That a man should not be judged by the color of his skin but rather by his character. There is no racism, there is only poor character. Using race is an excuse to cover up a lack in character. Look to Sherrods husband for answers to whether or not she holds racist beliefs. Why was she not featured on Sundays news shows? Maybe there is more to Shirely Sherrod the media wouid rather keep from the American people. Good job free press.

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  7. Wayne says:

    Most of the village idiots I have known have uses loud and rude talking behavior to discourage opposing points of view. Some try similar things in these blogs. The difference is that it easy to ignore them here and for others to get there two cents in. Also it easier to shut them or at least their arguments down by posting links and facts.

    IMO it has elevated the debate. In many places you will hear many sides of an argument and are able to research the facts using the internet. You not limited to being a part of a “yes me to” crowd unless you want to.

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  8. Michael says:

    There is a certain level of degeneration going on, but if anything, the internet has just provided a microphone to millions of people who would have never gone beyond the ubiquitous political conversation.

    This soapbox for the common man has resulted in the deplorable comments seen on YouTube, where the site would honestly be improved if comments were to be either seriously moderated or not allowed at all.

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  9. G.A.Phillips says:

    I talk, er, type like a liberal most of the time, so you can blame me and Im a Republican, a real Republican……

    People have a voice, information and a platform now, this is a good thing! I will rip and make fun of idiots including myself, but I would never want to shut them up…..

    Then again the comments on YouTube are a site to see, lol, I think most of them are young liberals………..

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  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    ****If he hired all black and brown people, now that would be cool!They would all be liberals and that would suck,
    john personna says:
    Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 19:22
    Heh, suggesting that all black and brown people are liberals was a little bit of a fail there, GA.****
    I could not respond on that post so forgive me:The key here is “If he hired” meaning Obama.
    Come on John work with me…

    Im trying to use their own logic to get more people of color in that white house, I think it would be cool, that they would all be crazy kool aid guzzling donkey pooping liberals would suck.

    I want to see an all minority administration for the same reason I was happy Obama won the election, to show our American youth that they can be anything they want to be in this country, and make it become a fact.

    You would think with all crap that the liberals preach that this will be our best chance to come close?

    I would love to see it, I would prefer it to happen, with people who are qualified to hold such positions, but I will take what good I can get out of each administration, and so far Obama being the first president of color and what it means to the aspirations of young americans is going to be about it.

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  11. Vast Variety says:

    I believe that for the most part our level of discourse in politics has all ways been about where it is today. The Internet has simply made that discourse more accessible and more immediate. The sad part is that we aren’t learning from the experience and trying to move to a more civil debate, as people like Britbart simply enjoy throwing more fuel in the fire.

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  12. Tom Betz says:

    Breitbart’s only publishing Meyers’ a-historic complaint about the present lack of civil discourse (Meyers must never have read about the 1800 presidential campaign!) because the Internet makes it so quick and easy to prove, to anyone whose mind is not locked tightly closed to reality, that he and those who prop him up with burning money and free publicity are liars.

    This feeble attempt at butt-covering by Breitbart is as transparent as glass.

    He wouldn’t know civil discourse if it came up and kissed him on the lips.

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  13. steve says:

    I am not sure it is the internet, but it is difficult to talk politics anymore with people unless you agree with them. I think it makes some people more politically engaged. It seems to make relatively few informed.

    Steve

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  14. mannning says:

    The net is a maelstrom of comment, rebuttal, and invective, and I believe we are all the better for it. Countless people have cut their teeth on net argumentation, and I think many have learned lessons of great value from the experience. Simply attempting to write down one’s belief on a subject is worthwhile, not for the momentary consumer necessarily, but for the eventual learning of how to set ideas forth. As suggested earlier, becoming even slightly acquainted with fallicies in arguments is a real plus.

    The noise has to be filtered out, but for the Radio/TV generation that is used to blanking out intrusive ads, such filtering comes quite naturally. Then too, learning how to filter out the noise is a good step as well. So let it all out. It is all grist for the mill!

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  15. wr says:

    ZR sez: “Why is it Democrats are ALWAYS the party of those who are accused of manipulating elections?”

    Because Republicans refuse to acknowledge reality when they lose, and rather than go on to participate in the process, they scream and cry and whine about how they were cheated, and the other side stole the election and that kid down the street was mean to them. When they lose elections they fight to have the result overturned, despite the fact they’re opposing the will of the people. In short, Democrats are accused of manipulating elections because Republicans like to accuse them.

    The real question is why you believe all these accusations, even when there is no evidence, or when the evidence is proven to be lies?

    Oh, right. The question answers itself.

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  16. Juneau says:

    Anything that is less than 100% true is, by definition, false.

    Unfortunately, when you believe as most liberals do that there is no absolute truth – nothing is 100% true- then you are truly lost in the woods. The fallacies contained at the link are for logical deconstruction of arguments, not conversation. You don’t have to believe the same things I do, and I don’t have to care about whether you believe what I say or not.

    The “truth” is found only in the fruit produced by the grown tree, which can be observed and tasted. It is not found in what somebody tells you they planted in the field.

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  17. Juneau says:

    In short, Democrats are accused of manipulating elections because Republicans like to accuse them

    Pot, meet kettle….

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  18. Juneau says:

    This feeble attempt at butt-covering by Breitbart is as transparent as glass.

    He wouldn’t know civil discourse if it came up and kissed him on the lips.

    Don’t you get it yet? While desirable, we “unwashed” conservatives don’t give a hoot about civil discouse any longer. It got us nowhere but in the back seat, driving around with boys, and being called “easy” behind our backs the next day at school.

    Welcome to the jungle, baby…

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  19. Juneau says:

    Because Republicans refuse to acknowledge reality when they lose, and rather than go on to participate in the process, they scream and cry and whine about how they were cheated

    Sure, like the recount that the Democrat insisted on in the WA state gubernatorial race – not once, not twice, but THREE times. Until they literally “found” enough votes to put her ahead.

    One thing you can count on. When a liberal makes an accusation, its just cover to keep you from noticing that they are doing exactly what they are accusing you of.

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  20. Jimmie says:

    Call me when people start duelling regularly in the streets over political discussions. Our political discourse has been far more harsh, and far more deadly, in the past. I’m not worried about it now.

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