Has The Internet Ruined Political Discourse ?
The Internet has given us many good things, but it's also led to a decline in political discourse that we'd do well to reverse before it's too late.
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.”
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, Callender wrote in a series of articles that Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings.
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.
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.
Engage your neighbor face-to-face.
Look into his eyes.
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.