I’m going to approach this post very carefully because I’ll be talking about a online minefield where a single word can lead to fairly vicious denunciations. So I’ll leave out most of the particulars and instead make comments on the process.
In Dr. Dennis’ post about online vs offline behavior and identity one area both Dr. Dennis omitted and then I omitted in my musing about her idea is that of online controversy. In specific, blogging and its comments threads and the way a discussion degenerates into mere snarkier-than-you debate and then eventually to name-calling and just a lot of frothing about the mouth where the original ideas have been entirely lost. Do people act differently online, hiding behind anonymous identities and as a fundamental property of social media being able to ignore normal social protocol, especially civility – absolutely!
As part of my own blogging exercise, as I’ve commented before, now that I’m writing I’m also doing a lot of reading. And occasionally that also means commenting, although frankly I’ve always found comment threads, among mostly strangers, to frequently disintegrate into childish squabbling. I started online in the way old days of Usenet. As a novice I thought it might be interesting to join in the discussion. Almost instantly my, to my mind, fairly innocuous comments were jumped upon and I was personally attacked. And attacked unfairly as the attackers merely jumped on what they thought I said, IOW, their preconceived notions of the “other side”, rather than what I actually said. The attacks were rarely on substance but usually on some trivial point, often no more than attacking the entire substance of a comment over a mispelling or grammar mistake. Some intelligent discourse, eh? Forget that. And I did until restarting in this “new” era of social media.
So there is a collection of blogs, enough to represent a fairly diverse range of views within a single “unifying” theme (if unity is even a term that can be applied). Some incident occurred IRL that was viewed as totally outrageous by some and a forgivable mistake by others and actually defended by trolls who wished to stir the pot and/or attack the unifying thread. This broke down into charges and counter-charges far removed from the original incident but even further removed from the lofty and sound social goals that actually most agreed to. In short, relatively little disagreement over substance, a ton of disagreement over tone and words. Everyone is shouting and only listening enough to fashion a rebuttal, although completely snarky (I love that word, it didn’t exist back in Usenet days but it applies perfectly).
So I pose it as this. There is side A and side B. Within side A there are a few extremists and within side B there are a few extremists. The extremists treat everyone on the other side, even of a minor dispute, as defending or being part of the extremist position of the other side. Moderation is entirely wrong since ideological purity has completely taken over. The fight is sterile and unproductive because any point not somewhat more extreme than the extremists of your side is treated just as badly as if it were the extreme. So there is no discussion, no questioning, no enlightening, just a brutal fight over purity. I lived through the era of the Red Guards in China, today it exists in the U.S. in the Internet.
The Republican party seems to be having quite a bit of division at the moment. After decades of using the religious right for the votes to get tax cuts for the true owners of Repug party, the rich, now the religious right wants to stop candy-coating their extreme positions and actually go fight it out in the bigger world, abandon the dog-whistles and release the full throated and intolerant roaring. The party pros of course want to win elections and know that forcing purity is a really bad way to get votes and so the pros push for inclusiveness, to stick together as a coalition to at least fight for the goals the party holds in common. Of course what is “in common” is exactly what the ideological debate is about so, compromise, consensus, and inviting in the undecideds and independents is lost in the storm and fury between the extremes.
In my own view of history this has already happened to the Democratic party and as a consequence it is well on its way to oblivion. The decline, IMHO, didn’t start with Reagan (and the “Reagan Democrats”) but much earlier, out of the turmoil of the 1960s. The 1960s, on the left, had two major themes: the Vietnam War and the peace movement resistance, and various social “liberation” movements. Anti-war and xxx-lib were very divisive and even if the fight needed to be fought the consequence was the destruction of the old FDR coalition. What was actually mostly agreement was destroyed by the intractable pockets of violent disagreement.
The “tipping point” (in modern parlance) was the attack of the hardhats against the peaceniks in NYC that eventually culminated in the awful 1968 Chicago convention and the loss to Richard Nixon. No matter how much the sides within the Democratic party grew to hate each other, both sides lost with Richard Nixon. So rather than seeing their shared interest they saw their differences. And Republicanism, esp. the tax cutting for the rich and the disastrous economic politics are the consequence.
I took a labor relations course in bizschool and we had to do a mock contract negotiation. My team (labor) got all sorts of concessions and lots of economic goodies, but we gave up union shop. The professor (who had been actual blue-collar worker before getting a PhD and subsequently a labor dispute mediator) gave our team a failing grade. His basic point was that monetary concessions are meaningless without solidarity and every union guy knows that (of course, none of us students were from working class background so we only understood ‘union’ in some abstract way). The point is that as some as you relinquish power, which for the 99% only comes from numbers, you lose.
So the unions went off on a macho chest-thumping “patriotic” exercise and completely broke their always fragile relations with the “intellectual” side of the Democratic party, the true “armchair liberals.” Now simultaneously the armchair liberals sought their ideological purity, ultimately to become the Taliban-ish political correctness, over the social issues. And the Democrats fractured. The south lost their distaste for Republicans, acquired during reconstruction, and continued as the solid south, but now on the Republican side. Combined with the traditional midwestern Republican bastions the Democratic party was now reduced to an also-ran.
So then came Reagan, on the back of union voters who hated anti-war “pointy-heads” and feminazis and threw a few swing states, and, bam, the air traffic controllers strike was their reward. A vicious anti-union campaign was in full swing, and, frankly the other wing of the Democratic party was not so inclined to ride to the rescue of unionist who a few years before had been beating up their fellow Democrats. And the complete economic stagnation of the middle class is the consequence. Reagan was one of the few politicians I ever heard in person. After the 1964 Goldwater debacle (another bout of ideological purity with disastrous election results, in fact, now the textbook case, professional pols use to remind themselves not to go there) Reagan emerged as the spokesman for the extreme right (totally moderate by today’s definition). He had this viciously anti-union shtick he was peddling in high schools so when I saw unionists supporting Reagan my first reaction was you’ll be sorry. And guess what, the Walker union-bashing in Wisconsin is almost the final step (after outsourcing most union manufacturing jobs service unions are about all that is left). So the unions shot themselves in the foot, but meanwhile all the factions of the Democratic party were now in the same leaky boat.
Rather than rebuild the FDR coalition, from their protected enclaves in academia, the armchair liberals struck back, via political correctness. It was easy for tenured academics to demand quotas in union jobs, because after all the unionists had beaten up the intellectuals. But this tit-for-tat feuding did just degenerate into a circular firing squad.
And I saw the consequences of all that political correctness in some young white males I hired who had become radical libertarians. After four years of being denounced as racist and sexist and xxxist they were sick of that and naturally rebelled against orthodoxy in exchange for “freedom”. And the tea baggers are the logical successor of that whole set of grievances and now ready for complete anarchy.
Now what does any of this have to do with online vs offline behavior? The characteristics of online, esp. comments in any discussion software (blogs or forums) de facto encourages the extremism. People are probably much nastier in written (and mostly anonymous) words than they would ever be in person. It’s just the same as those union guys who got so hyped up on seeing a flag burning that they wanted to shave the hair off every kid they met – a silly, emotional and personal dispute over symbols than over substance. In the war going on in these blogs it’s the political correctness risen from the dead, thundering over a use of a word while simultaneously using equally insulting words on their side.
And the consequence. A tiny minority, overwhelmed 20 to 1 in contemporary politics is eating its own tail. Any form of dissent, even a mild question, is treated as a retreat from purity and grounds for name-calling and then banishment. Real smart. Your real opponent outnumbers you 20:1 and you kill each other. In Reading Lolita in Tehran it was interesting to see how a unified opposition to the repressive regime of the Shah “won” and then promptly proceeded to eat itself. The “liberal” element of the resistance movement was quickly overwhelmed by a new repressive regime, the rule of theocracy. All that heady idealism was quickly dashed on the reality of power. The few moderates in Iran were equally quickly thrown under the bus and we have the extreme Iran of today, probably only supported by 10% of the population, but with the other 90% equally ineffective as the OWS/99% here in moderating the extremists and no chance of overthrowing them.
So one thing the Repugs get from their business background and, frankly, male-dominated structure is fairly rigid authoritarian structure that knows how to stay on-message. The left is a great debating society but when it comes to organized power it really is herding cats. The right uses their corporate-honed organizational skills (and money) and just grinds down the other side. I was actually hopeful that the increased ideological purity in the Repugs, at witnessed by the brutal primary season with the theocratic faction really trying to grab power from the plutocrats was an opening, perhaps this primary season was the beginning of irreparable fault lines in the Repugs. Even if that is true, the Democrats continue to fail to find unity and exploit this opportunity.
So when we wake up a couple of election cycles from now and the mullahs have taken over and the 0.1% has acquired all assets, we not only have “conservatives” to thank for the destruction of American, but the progressives as well, who let petty differences distract them from the real war.