Wednesday, October 03, 2012


"If the tongue had not been framed for articulation, man would still be a beast in the forest."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson"

I have friends that are leftists, atheists, who hate cats, who think fantasy books are childish, friends who can't stand comic book movies; I have friends with all sorts of opinions opposite of mine. I get along with them fine in person. Every once in a while, we have a clash online, though.
The problem is I'll post something on Facebook critical of Obama or they will post something supporting him and off to the races it goes.  I will tend to let just "yay I love Obama" pass because that's just an opinion; its a bad opinion, but welcome to it.  But if someone posts anything like that asinine graphic claiming Obama spent less than Bush in office... well we have a factual problem and I feel as if I should correct that when I see it.
I try to be polite and patient after years of battling online and realizing it hurts your case to really cut loose with fury and disdain for your opponent.  Its easy to do, but counterproductive.  Not everyone has that position, and when some topics come up, people just fly off the handle completely.
We tend to behave online differently than in person, that's something people have known a long time.  Back about a decade ago when I used to chat on IRC, I'd find people telling me stuff they wouldn't even tell their own shrink, because I was so distant and remote, it was safe.  If you get into an online relationship, you'll find that you share things with each other that would take years to admit in person.  So you get a false sense of intimacy and a bond that isn't real by being so very personal and open.
Elizabeth Bernstein writes at the Wall Street Journal about this effect, how the way we behave online tends to lose us friends and alienate people.
"Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement," says Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School and co-author of the study. "And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don't share their opinions." These types of behavior—poor self control, inflated sense of self—"are often displayed by people impaired by alcohol," he adds.
Why are we often so aggressive online? Consider this recent post to this column's Facebook page, from someone I don't know: "Why should I even bother writing you? You won't respond."
We're less inhibited online because we don't have to see the reaction of the person we're addressing, says Sherry Turkle, psychologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of the social studies of science and technology. Because it's harder to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other, she says.
Yet there's more to it than just the bravery of being out of range.  The things we type online aren't said vocally, they aren't spoken.  So they feel less real, somehow.  Everyone has several stages of communication in them, where you form a vague concept, solidify it into an idea, build the idea into words, then say them.  Typing online feels more like that internal formation into words, it isn't really said
And we learn early that we can think all sorts of stuff without saying it and its fine.  Yes, you are thinking "I hate you for making me clean my room mom!!!" but you don't actually say that, so she doesn't hear it and it doesn't count.  YOu can think all kinds of horrible things about your spouse, boss, that waiter, the girl wearing the outfit you wish you could, that guy who cut you off in traffic, and so on.  If you don't shout it out, you've kept things under control and its acceptable.
Online, we are one filter shy of the controls we live under in real life.  Online, we spew the stuff we only think of.  Its why I would never want to be a telepath.  This is an aspect rarely touched on in any storytelling, but if you could read minds, you'd hear all kinds of things you never, ever wanted to hear.  Things that people think, but don't say - and often don't even mean.
Consider all the times you've had a furious reaction inside your head, screaming horrible things you'd never say out loud.  You don't mean those things, I don't think.  You're unhappy and frustrated, you're hurt, but the words you form in your head are the emotional reaction given language, not genuine rational reaction.  And if you want to stay healthy and have a good relationship, you fight back those words and anger, you feel guilt about them, and try not to repeat it.  Because if you feed, it, then its more likely to become reasonable to you and end up being said.  You can't feed that beast because it grows within you, becoming more plausible and acceptable.
Which brings us to the current political climate in America, at least.  Its probably true elsewhere as well.  I can have a reasonable political debate with some of my leftist friends without it becoming a shouting match, a fist fight, or losing friends.  Most people can, I expect.  Discussing and debating politics used to be sort of an American passtime.
It isn't any longer.  People avoid politics (and religion) like folks used to avoid discussing pregnancy in the 40's.  It was shameful, embarrassing, not polite for company.  People have to avoid politics and religion in person more often today or it ends up horrible.  Folks are afraid to put Romney signs in their yard because they don't want broken windows.  Campaign headquarters for Republicans are shot and vandalized.  Cars that have a Republican bumper sticker are vandalized.  People ask Instapundit regularly to not publish any personal details about them for fear of losing their job.
It seems like lately the divide of ideology in the country is getting more and more stark, angry, and bitter. That what was once disagreement and tolerance is becoming hatred and violence.  No longer can people agree to disagree and yet work side by side, people are starting to fight each other over these differences.  You're not mistaken or different for having varied political views, you're evil and should be silenced.
I think the internet is largely to blame for this change in shift.  What was once kept inside is poured out in great, hateful detail online.  And each time someone would do that, they'd feel a certain satisfaction and power, get positive response from people who disagreed, and fed on that.  It continued to build through the Bush administration, where crazed accusation was piled upon demented theory until people started to believe anything, no matter how evil, must be not just true, but the tip of the iceberg when talking about the hated Bush White House.
Now, instead of having political debate, people scream at each other, feeding that beast inside hours every day.  Making things worse is how easy it is to isolate your ideology and input online.  You can simply ignore anything you don't want to be exposed to, pick the exact source of information, ideas, and influences you prefer, and become calcified in your ideas.
This election seems worse than most.  Romney fans are becoming absolutely certain he will win, not just win, but crush Obama in a gigantic landslide.  Obama fans are just as certain he'll win by gigantic numbers.  They stay where people reinforce that idea, avoid things that hurt it, and attack anyone who brings up anything that conflicts with that idea.  I believe Romney will probably win, but Obama certainly could.  Things look awfully close to me.
That separation reinforces the beast, making it seem normal and proper, and making the other side's beast even more horrific and evil than it really is.  Now, instead of being someone you disagree with, they seem insane and out of touch with reality.  They aren't just mistaken, they're crazed.  Their beast is clearly a ravenous monster, yours is the friendly lap dog everyone loves.
Without that final filter of social interaction, online debate becomes furious online warfare, and that reinforces its self until it spills out into the world at large.  What was once unthinkable to say out loud becomes typical.  That snark you reserved for particular moments of rage and internal dialog becomes standard response to the slightest annoyance.
Its kind of funny to listen to a comedian do a 90 minute rant on coffee and children, but you'll notice going home that some of it has rubbed off.  If you aren't around the comedian all the time, it goes away.  If you keep feeding that beast every day online over and over, it doesn't.  After a while it becomes a natural part of social interaction.
And that's what I think is happening to our nation.  Yes, America is less civil.  Yes, there are other social pressures (the loss of absolute ethical foundations, for example).  Yes, culture has become more crude, selfish, and focused on instant gratification.  But that loss of a filter online is the final straw in turning friends debating into enemies yelling at each other.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I think things appear to be worse than in the recent past because Facebook has made them more public, but I really don't think the rancor and incivility has changed much between the Bush and Obama administrations. People say the same things they were saying before, it's just that they now say it to 500 people at once instead of a small group of friends.