Talking Politics in the Screen Era
By Wil Forbis
August 1, 2019
There's a particular idea floating around and it's one you are likely familiar with. This idea opines that the incivility that has so infected modern political discussions was instigated by the rise of the Internet and the corresponding decline of face-to-face communication. No longer do we chat about politics over coffee or dinner; instead we sit alone in darkened rooms and furiously type angry missives into blog posts and social media comment boxes. The distance this kind of communication puts between us, it is alleged, engenders an angry, rude and uncivil kind of discourse. It's simply way easier to be harsh with someone when you don't have to look them in the eye.
Now, this notion can be stretched to a nonsensical degree, like when it implies that pre-internet political discussions were devoid of rancor. Talking politics has always been tricky business. But I think the general idea rings true to those of us who have experienced both the pre- and post-internet worlds. Talking politics in the past was trepidatious but it didn't have that "putting your hand in the open mouth of a crocodile" feel that it does now.
There are various reasons for this. For one thing, it's simply easier to start an argument in the current era. In 1980, if you were sitting in your room and wanted to have a debate about levels of taxation, you had put some effort into it. You had to track down a person who disagreed with you and then coax them into taking the time to debate you. Nowadays you can find a willing debate partner on Facebook or a blog in about three seconds.
Also, how we interact online differs from how we interact in person. It's hard to look someone right in the eye and call them a "fascist, genocidal, feces-stained hate-monger" or an "anti-American, libtard goat fornicator" (feel free to use either of these liberally in your own discussions), especially when the person you are talking to is an acquaintance or relative. It's not so hard, however, to fling those words at someone "out there" on the internet, likely someone you will never see again.
Now, is it simply the loss of face-to-face communication that has coarsened us? I think there's more to the story. Part of the problem isn't that we are disagreeing with someone we can't see, but that it's someone we don't know. We have nothing vested in an interaction with some clown we stumbled across online who is espousing abhorrent political views. And---let's be honest---most of the time our communications are not really aimed at convincing our opponents but at showing off to members of our clique who have the "right" views. Our efforts are more performative than communicative.
Additionally, when we look through the annals of history we can see that it is possible to communicate respectfully with people who are not in our immediate presence. Many great thinkers explored contentious topics via lengthy letters they exchanged with friends and foes. These communications were separated by distance and time, yet they seldom devolved into vicious name calling*.
* I'm sure historians can easily dig up many exceptions to this statement but I'm going to maintain my perhaps naive belief that these were not the norm.
If the faceless nature of Internet communication is not to blame, what is? I think part of it has to do with the specific tools used to engage in political discussion on the web. Much conversation is conducted via comment boxes on social media apps like Facebook, YouTube, or via comments on blog posts, or through Twitter tweets. Comment boxes and tweets have limits on how many words can be typed into them and as such are not strong vessels for nuanced or detailed arguments. They are, however, great for short, vicious insults.
I also think time management is a factor. As many have noted, in the Internet era we have an onslaught of things vying for our attention. If we see a tweet or article we disagree with, our inclination is not to sit down and conduct a reasoned back-and-forth debate on its merits or lack thereof. Rather we want to drop off a pointed zinger and then move on to the next thing.
Fundamental to the lengthy, hand-written political debates of bygone eras was a measure of respect. If you sat down and wrote a ten page dissertation refuting an acquaintance's views, (and you promised you would read their equally verbose reply), you were saying their opinions were worth your time and attention. You were making an investment into that person. But taking a minute to send off an insult in a comment box requires very little from us. it certainly doesn't require that we seriously consider the topic at hand or recognize the humanity of our opponent in any meaningful way.
Is there a solution to this problem? It's unlikely we are going to throw our devices away or return to an era of close contact and long-form debate. But, I think we can become aware of the way our tools prod another or us in one direction. I generally avoid commenting on posts and tweets because I just feel I can't make any meaningful points within the limitations of those tools. (My political discussions are carried out via email or, occasionally, instant messenger at times when I can really commit to the discussion being had.)
But those small fixes likely cannot halt the progression we all sense coming: the increasing calcification of our social groups into hardened shells into which the price of entry is intolerance of any view that goes against the group's orthodoxy.What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.