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.