January 05, 2008

The rising tide of hatred

The 90s and 00s have been the years of vitriol. Whether its Anne Coulter accusing Democrats of 'treason' or its Michael Moore accusing George Bush of being a Saudi puppet, whether its the mad bloggers of the right rounding on appeasers or its the mad bloggers of the left rounding on chickenhawks, its open season on the internet and in the newspapers. There is perhaps something peculiar about the times that we live in: George Bush has been a uniquely divisive President in US history partly because he has been so ambitious. In the UK, the parties have begun to alternate for much longer periods of time in and out of office- the stakes are therefore higher in any election. Though we shouldn't overrate it: Nye Bevan afterall said in the 1940s that Tories were lower than vermin and fights in the House of Commons are not de rigeur as they were when Hugh Cecil confronted the Irish MPs in the 1900 and 1906 Parliaments. In the US, duelling politicians contend on the airwaves- not as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton did at sixty paces. Nobody at this election looks like doing what Lee Attwater did or even repeating Karl Rove's antics in 2000. Its easy to get overexcited and assume that today's events are novel- when they are merely repetition.

So why then are such notable bloggers as Ashok and Ruthie worried about the state of conversation on the internet? Are they wrong? The real answer to that question is that they aren't wrong. Because something has changed and its brought more of the gutter out into public view than ever before- that is the invention of the internet. Effectively whether its Guido in the UK or Drudge in the US or those commenters making death threats against Dick Cheney or those columnists who revel in the facile comparison of George Bush to Adolf Hitler, they are only out there because of the creation of this medium. Blogging can do many good things- but it can also do some things to retard political conversation and even education. If academics can use it to hold virtual conferences in which someone from Utah can speak to someone from the Ukraine about their research, then so too can nutcases and fascists, conspiracy theorists and loons. Imagine the joy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone else is interested in the mating habits of the millipede- and then imagine the joy you get when you realise that you aren't the only one who feels that Bush is Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin rolled into one and multiplied together. Lunacy is profitable on the internet because the lunatics can gather into communities and support each other, reinforce each other, leave comments on each others' posts telling themselves they are all great and be happily ignorant of the fact that they are morons.

In a broader sense- one of the key and best insights of conservative thinkers down the years has been the power of convention. Convention not law moulds the way that we think and behave and the ways that society is generated. Convention exists in regular life- so that for instance certain things are conventionally rude, if you say them you are shunned. It is conventional not to think in most communities about assacinating the President of the United States: but on the internet you have more choice. You can shape your community to reflect your prejudices and thus the prejudices of the community become its conventions. Weird behaviour like over exuberrant political hatred or unthoughtful vitriol can become conventional habits. The internet ressembles thus nothing so much as a vast student union societies fair, where you chose your society and end up singing about Stalin in the Labour society and Hitler in the Tories. Most people grow out of university though and realise that they have to fit into the conventions of wider society which preclude talking about how 'they' control the world (in language reminiscent of the third reich) and about how liberals or conservatives are evil- but on the blogs they can loose those aspects of themselves, they can regress to the student hack hurling hate and use the fact they have an audience as validation. Just look at some of the worst blogs and how they use their stats as an alibi for instance.

And they do it in public. As a blogger you put forward your most objectionable side to the world. Lets take another simple example. Readers of this blog will know Matt Sinclair. Matt Sinclair is a really good friend of mine- yet we often disagree about politics. On our blogs the disagreement about politics is the central thing about our relationship- though we both try to keep it civil- in real life its not the central thing at all. And that goes for many of the regular commenters who I actually know here. Writing about politics is not the be all and end all of anyone's life and most bloggers to exist in society have to have friends with other opinions, workmates etc. And yet on the net we are reduced to argument- so consequently we sometimes look and sound much worse than we are. Allow as well for the fact that whereas when in conversation with someone I can say with a wry smile, oh you just are interested in fleecing the poor to pay for the lusts of the rich- with a blog you don't have the luxury of tone or the ability to catch someone as they listen to you and moderate your thoughts to their sensitivity. All you have is the brutality of the written word- a word which is sometimes more stark than you want it to be and consequently more offensive. As Ruthie says there is also the fact that anonymity liberates us to become much nastier- I wouldn't dream of saying to someone's face that they are an idiot, I might say it on a blog though.

All those things combine and they drag the traditional media with them- afterall the traditional media always want to sell papers. That and the increasing popularity of tabloids leads to a perceptive coarsening of public debate- a coarsening that Ashok and Ruthie have spotted. In my view there is some coarsening going on, but there is also a lot of stuff that is happening because of technological change- because the gatekeepers have gone away, the long tail is triumphant and therefore the conventions that hold society together have less force. On the internet I have no need to socialise with those I disagree with- unlike in real life!

9 comments:

marvin said...

Well, as most things, it's being tested in the courts. The UK blogger known as 'Lionheart' is being arrested on the return to the UK.

The Tin Drummer said...

Gracchi, you need to check out the discussions on "In Search of High Places" between Matt & Alex (and others) - they constantly grapple over the existence of God and you never get any insulting or hatred there - it's a great place to watch people with different views argue civilly.

Phil A said...

If you are worried about coarsening public debate, you may not have read the Sun or the Mirror … ever?

Also many blogs manage to have lengthy and detailed discussions between people of opposing views - and you can see this on some of the ‘Blogsphere’ blogs, (Mike Ion, Some randon thougts, Crushed by Ingsoc, etc) without resorting to vitriol, abuse, or hatred.

Conviction comes through and sense and logic.

This primarily is a written medium. You are correct that the ‘naked’ written word can be open to misinterpretation. Punctuation and emoticons are useful and important means of signalling meaning.

To be truthful, though there are examples of everything you speak of and though blogs can undoubtedly provide hothouses for strange views, never-the-less this medium is a vital (in the sense of full of life) and evolving thing that allows ‘out of the box’ discussions to consider many novel ideas.

Also comparisons with fascism are not necessarily wide of the mark. One of the primary means of the ‘third way’ (remember that expression being bandied by Blair and Clinton) was state control and regulation of businesses and the individual. No one is suggesting New Labour are polishing up their jackboots but it is arguable that there is a hint of Fascist-Lite about some of their methods.

People have been rude about politicians for years, Look at some 18th century political cartoons sometime.

If you start worrying about people expressing themselves then you start slipping away from free speech.

Tim Worstall said...

*Cough*, * Cough*

"Imagine the joy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone else is interested in the mating habits of the millipede- and then imagine the joy you get when you realise that you aren't the only one who feels that Bush is Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin rolled into one and multiplied together. Lunacy is profitable on the internet because the lunatics can gather into communities and support each other, reinforce each other, leave comments on each others' posts telling themselves they are all great and be happily ignorant of the fact that they are morons."

*Cough*

"There is one way in which such free-form interaction will have an effect. As Natalie Solent (one of the more astute British bloggers) puts it: “One way in which consensus opinion changes is when scattered individuals become aware that many others share their opinions.” Those who found their ideas ignored or dismissed in the mainstream media (derisively called the MSM or legacy media) are able to find like-minded souls and thus realise that they are not alone."

Nov 2005.
*Grin*

Gabe said...

I don't want to sound pedantic but you wrote "assacination" in your post instead of "assassination."

I pretty much agree with what you said, anyway.

Ruthie said...

I agree, of course. This is nicely put.

Blogs have so much potential for eloquence and meaningful discourse. Often they achieve it-- Tin Drummer's comment about In Search of High Places is spot on, and there are many other blogs and bloggers who write about extremely divisive and difficult issues, if not entirely disinterestedly, at least respectfully.

I'm glad for that.

But there are myriad other Internet fora (comment threads, message boards, etc) that are chock-full of the lowest form of bickering and name-calling in the name of political debate. I feel like the professor in The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe, muttering, "Logic! Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"

"Weird behaviour like over exuberrant political hatred or unthoughtful vitriol can become conventional habits. "

They certainly can, and I think the best rule to follow is to never write anything that you wouldn't say to someone's face.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

So why then are such notable bloggers as Ashok and Ruthie worried about the state of conversation on the internet? Are they wrong? The real answer to that question is that they aren't wrong.

Correct and so is the Tin Drummer.

Phil A said...

It is a fact that not all people are as sensible, mature, intelligent and civilised as others, there is a bell curve in all of these -This goes for bloggers and blogs too.

If anyone finds a blog and those who comment in it too rough, too full of spite and vitriol, or too stupid, then express your opinion in a comment in the hope of influencing them, or vote with your feet.

Such blogs are reasonably easy to get away from, just don’t visit the sites. No one is forced to wallow in some of the verbal slurry. Deplore it maybe, worry about it, try to improve by example, but the next step is a slippery slope towards authoritarianism and censorship.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Still here. I never went home.