Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Civility, Or: Real Life Versus The Internets

Those of us who have spent a considerable amount of time discussing and debating politics and current events online have a tendency to become quite the vitriol spewing blowhards. There is something about this medium – primarily the anonymity and lack of physical proximity to one’s opponents – that just fosters over-the-top invective. As an admitted and experienced online socio-political demagogue, I’m more than qualified to express this observation. I’ve spent enough time engaged in this activity to realize that those of us who do this become cartoonish caricatures of normal, opinionated human beings.

That’s not to say that it’s a completely negative or non-worthwhile hobby. To the contrary, if you hang out in the right online locales and tangle with enough well-informed, intelligent opponents, it can be quite the learning experience. But almost as a rule, it gets very nasty very fast and otherwise mature, reasonable adults end up in virtual shit-slinging fests that would (or should) be completely humiliating in a less anonymous, real world environment.

I’m all for debate and discussion. Indeed, it is a pity to me that discussing politics is considered such an impolite taboo. It’s one of the things that drives me to online discussion forums. In the real world we are so concerned about not offending our peers that we have conditioned ourselves to just not discuss these matters that really do affect all of us very deeply. It’s like we’ve admitted that we lack the capacity to have grown up discussions about grown up topics. This, in my view, is a serious mistake. Vigorous debate is healthy, necessary even. Especially in a democracy where, allegedly, peons like us actually have some control of our political fortunes. It’s okay that we have strong disagreements. That is actually the point of a democratic republic; to have a structured and civilized way to direct public policy in a manner that accounts for differing viewpoints and preferences. It is more than a little tragic that it’s socially acceptable to spend hours arguing about sports or reality TV shows that have zero real impact on any of our lives, but it’s a big no-no to talk about the debt ceiling or healthcare debate, or tax policy, or our wars – things that, unlike whether or not Lady Gaga has a penis, actually do matter.

The reason for me saying all of this is that yesterday I actually did call both of my senators (John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchinson) and my representative (Dr. Michael Burgess) to “make my voice heard” on this debt ceiling debacle. When an online demagogue like myself does something like this, the first thing you realize is that ranting and raving like a hysterical lunatic will get you absolutely nowhere. When you have an actual person on the phone (much less face to face) and they are speaking to you intelligently and with courtesy about these issues that you may feel so passionately about, you realize that, like you, they are human beings just trying to do the best they can. Pardon the corniness. Granted, this doesn’t apply to everyone but I think it’s safe to say that it applies to most. When talking to Michael Burgesse’s aide, who was (thankfully) being bombarded by calls yesterday, it certainly applied to her. When you are used to communicating these issues through hyperbole and angry rhetoric, actual contact with a reasonable human being kind of deflates your balloon. And what you realize – or what I realized – is that articulating your thoughts respectfully and in real time, to someone who is treating you – despite your strong disagreement on the issues – with courtesy and kindness, is a very rewarding and challenging thing.

Being polite, sticking to facts, being specific, avoiding insults and inflammatory rhetoric, certainly feels more constructive than the ad-hominem, ball-kicking, hair-pulling internet brawls that have become the norm for many of us. But in our defense, because of the aforementioned strange cultural norm, the interwebs are the only outlet available to those of us who enjoy and see value in spirited debate and open political discourse.

Now I may very well be deluding myself. My call yesterday might have been utterly meaningless in the scheme of things. But I don’t see how it could have been any more meaningless than getting in juvenile(ish) pissing matches with complete strangers online. The online thing has its place and purpose and I won’t deny that. But in theory, this democratic republic of ours affords some actual say and power to us individual citizens, and that power is not being put to any kind of meaningful use by simply yelling at people we disagree with online. There is probably not a single one of us who does not want change in some form and directing all of our political energy to the blogosphere will not do much to affect that change. In real life, calling someone a teahadist or libtard will do nothing but guarantee that other people will immediately discount you as an unreasonable extremist. If you want change, you do not want to be discounted. If you want to be able to persuade or inform your fellow citizens, you cannot come off as a blowhard. There will always be the real-life blowhards and they will always be the laughingstocks of everyone else.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is here. I do know that I had a conversation with someone yesterday who was near someone in power, and we were/are on opposite ends of the political divide. We talked in specifics, in a reasonable manner, and listened to one another receptively and at a bare minimum my views were registered and acknowledged. My “voice was heard”, for whatever that is worth. I’m as cynical as the next guy but that style of discourse sure felt more constructive than the anonymous, online variety.

I’m familiar enough with history to know that social progress and positive change has always started from the ground up, with seemingly inconsequential people like you and me. Maybe the internet has, among other things, served as a kind of trap where otherwise politically active people who give a shit get stuck, instead of taking an approach that might have an actual impact. Just a thought.


benmama said...

It might just be "a thought" to you, but to me and hopefully others, much more. Thanks for the motivation to get my 2 cents out there to local politicians. I've got all day tomorrow to accomplish one simple task, whether it is meaningful or meaningless will matter not.

Anonymous said...

We are all socially engineered to our back teeth Ben and happily/ignorantly go along with it.
I'm writing more and will post when I'm finished (don't hold breath).


ps congratulations benmama
pps wv paingsom - yes it's all very paingsom and painful too

jansir said...

I once knew my congressman well enough to have actual personal conversation with him. He basically told me that for every person who feels like me there is an equal and opposite voice. Therefore, he votes as he thinks is best because he is equally supported either way. All I can say is take the VOTE very seriously and actually do it.

Ben There said...

benmama - Glad I managed to motivate some action on your part! I'm starting to think we have to at least do what little we can.

Tony - Your comment(s) is spot on as usual. It's interesting because conservatives in this country like to use the phrase "social engineering" when referring to any government safety net to help the unemployed or poor, but don't seem to realize that NOT have those kinds of programs has major (negative) social consequences as well.

Hi jansir! - Okay, I have to admit that your congressman's comment sounds a bit like a cop out to me. But I'm sure there's some truth to it. I say vote but also take the time to write/call our politicians to let them know that we are paying attention and that we do care about what is happening. Surely the more people that participate in a democracy the more vibrant and healthy it will be.

Anonymous said...

The impression I get (in Australia.) of the People v Politics in US is that most don't want to know (50/50 vote/don't vote) and the politicians are OK with that.
I read an article, true or not, but a chap was refused the right to vote because his bank account wasn't big enough or he didn't have enough transaction taking place.
Social engineering, in US, encourages wtp not to get involved in politics.

Unlike Australia where the people consider pollies as more like used car salesmen - not to be trusted but it's compulsory to go to polls and have name marked off register at least, at best present a legitimate vote; 100% vote).

Regularly, the state incumbents for an area will set aside a day to talk to locals one on one in their town (smaller towns) or in bigger town/city the door is always open.
Not too many take advantage of this. I went once to see a chap who was after our vote, he was throwing a b-b-q in the park in our main street; 'Old Bob' took me along (Yeah). There were about three other fellows there.
Only the nutters turned up!

Our local council set aside a special desk and chair for Old Bob so he can sit in on council meetings - no one else from the public go, just Old Bob (and he's a Pom!). The councillors treat him well and every now and then ask if he has any questions...
... there is evidence that they did/do take on his advise – beat that!

I had a friend (once) who was a local state member for our area (his office was in the closest bigger town). When I asked 'how did he feel he was going' he replied he didn't know. I said 'Ugh!' He said no one came near him (for three years).

Now for something different - tell me this wasn't/isn't a social engineering exercise:

Grey Power political party – early 80's was an Australian political party lobby group and had a good following; the public liked their policies - the oldies had a voice.

Then along came public casinos to Australia – mid 80's and were to support non-profit community based groups out of their profits (government stipulation).
Not long after that every club and hotel had poker (and gaming) machines.
Gambling was thrown open to the general public and was not just privy to the few private clubs that it had been in the past.
The clubs are very nicely appointed and put on good cheap meals along with cheap booze; it gets the oldies off the streets – keeps them busy for hours on end.

Australia has over 20% of the worlds gaming machines - one game for every 101 people.

I checked last year (2010) for the Grey Power political party – devastated, non existent.
In fact the chap I talked to (an old Dutchman in another state) said if I wanted to run with it he would help me. Ha!

To sweep up the excess oldies, those who don't frequent clubs, pubs, etc. the support available from the casinos for non-profit projects now has produced another socially engineered group called Men's Shed - beautiful industrial type sheds, air conditioned, nicely appointed (kitchen, toilets, b-b-q area, work area with all the latest quality heavy duty wood working/metal working equipment and conference area) - really nice. These are located all over Australia in most country towns. The town I live in has a population of <1,000 and the members in their Men's Shed is about 50.
More oldies off the street with their minds off politics and religion which in the climate of political correctness (more engineering) is a no, no.
Our PM's better half is the patron of the movement – over 500 Men's Sheds Aussie wide.

Who was it that said 'Vorsicht vor falschen Freunden '? It wasn't the Greeks because they're not doing too well at the moment either.


nb I read that it takes only 10% of any particular group to push an idea and that idea will take off – sounds promising for us bloggers

Ben There said...

Wow Tony, Gambling as a policy to keep senior citizens pacified and complacent...TV serves that purpose here. And not just for senior citizens. The tee vee is a soothing, numbing, hypnotizing influence on the masses here. Keeps most people distracted from substantive issues and focused intensely on the most banal and trivial contrivances imagineable.

Your view into US politics is pretty accurate as far as I can tell. Generally speaking we have very low voter turnout which works out beautifully for those who want to maintain the status quo (which of course are those doing excessively well under the status quo).

Anonymous said...

This from WRH - 9.08.2011
This is our biggest problem and as Ron White says;"You can't fix stupid!
Early this year, Cornell University in the US did a "study" which was designed to see if Americans equate the money they receive from the US government with government "programs". They asked a large number of "ordinary" Americans if they had ever used a government program. The findings – as reported by the New York Times in February this year – were astonishing. Forty-three percent of Medicare recipients said NO. Forty-four percent of those on Social Security said NO. Forty-three percent of people on unemployment "benefits" said NO. And to crown the whole study – FIFTY-THREE percent of those getting student loans – likely including Cornell students – said NO.


Ben There said...

Tony - I love Ron White. We were actually beside him at a stop sign one day last summer and he was laughing at me and my wife because we were staring trying to figure out if it was him. He is one hilarious Texan.

I heard about that study and I agree, stupid is the problem.

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surfing the new normal said...

Spot on! "When you are used to communicating these issues through hyperbole and angry rhetoric, actual contact with a reasonable human being kind of deflates your balloon. And what you realize – or what I realized – is that articulating your thoughts respectfully and in real time, to someone who is treating you – despite your strong disagreement on the issues – with courtesy and kindness, is a very rewarding and challenging thing." Great blog. You should write again!