Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The perils of polarity

The Internet is the best thing ever, but there is at least one way in which it is bad for politics – alongside the squillion ways in which it is good. This is the way that we mishandle on-line debate.

To start with an apolitical example; DVD reviews. When I rent DVDs, I use other users reviews to give me an idea of whether or not I shall like a movie. There are no incentives for posting reviews except the satisfaction of passing helpful information on to other users. I am very grateful to those who make the effort to write a helpful review, without spoilers, whether they liked a movie or not - I don't often have the energy to do this.

However, there are lots of people who couldn't be bothered with the whole helpful information thing but wanted to say something anyway. There are always a load of reviews along the lines of
“I turned this off/ fell asleep after the first ten minutes.”

“All [insert movie genre] is awful and this was no exception.”

“I can't stand the sight of [insert starring actor].”
which is irritating because they are so pointless. But far worse are those where people express their own opinion (an opinion about a movie) through a loathing for everyone who disagrees with them. Sentiments such as
“If you're a big wet girl or a gay, then this movie is probably for you.”

“The people who wrote reviews that said this was a good film must be blind and deaf as well as stupid.”

“If you are clinically brain-dead and need a car-cashes or explosions every five minutes then you won't like this.”

“Some people consider this movie pretentious. Au contraire, if I may paraphrase W. B. Yeats, I can barely contain my schadenfreude at their stupidité.”
And this is frustrating. It's not that our tastes say nothing about ourselves, but even where a film has upset and offended me, I cannot say that everyone who liked it has something wrong with them or is necessarily very different from myself. I don't think anybody can seriously think that (even about Sleepless in Seattle).

You'd only ever get away with making such comments on-line, where you don't have to see the resultant expressions on the faces of your audience. You'd never talk like that with your friends in the pub, let alone strangers. But physical absence can give us a little too much confidence. I know I have said things on-line which I wouldn't have said - or would at the very least, phrased better - in real life. Some people get far more carried away and it only takes a few of them to do a lot of damage.

This ad hominem culture bleeds into political discussion. Politics – and especially party politics – has always involved some name-calling and nonsense, but if you look at any comments section on a newspaper website or the BBC Have Your Say pages (see Speak Your Branes for highlights and commentary), they are dominated by posts which mirror the poor reviews on my DVD rental site. Lots of people have no point of view at all, but want to air their general dislike for the government or some specific group or figure. And very many appear to believe that people who are have different political views to themselves are stupid, ignorant, treacherous or even treasonous.

This culture alienates everyone – the people who keep posting this stuff clearly feel alienated (except possibly the ones who insist on representing the silent majority). And so we get what Jack touched on a few weeks back when he wrote about two rival Facebook groups – one having been set up to campaign for a ban on the other. On-line, we get to join very specific clubs. Facebook groups may be the epitome but this happens all over, on blogs and in forums.

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. The more we are surrounded by people with similar views, the more extreme our views become and the more hostile we become to dissenters. But also, the more polarised arguments become, the less thinking we all get to do. When you come across political discussions by accident, you often find a very aggressive environment but since nobody who disagrees is tolerated, they're all shouting (and swearing) at thin air. And it gets worse as the discussion goes on. Something like;
“All my other socks are in the wash today and I have to wear red socks. I hate red socks!”

“Yeah, red socks are crap!”

“I agree. Red socks are the socks of idiots!”

“More than that; red socks are the socks of criminals!”

“Wearing red socks is like denying the Holocaust!”

“I wouldn't let my children near anyone who was wearing red socks!”

“They should bring back hanging for people who wear red socks!”
and so on. I once did a search for information about a particular political figure and tripped over a discussion which started out as a beef about this lady getting an award, but descended like this, moving quickly away from her politics and onto more personal attributes, right through to the point where they were proposing that she ought to be raped and murdered. Seriously. Of course not seriously – they weren't laying down plans or anything, it was all a horrible joke, but there wasn't even enough dissent for someone to stand up and object to that, let alone disagree about ideas.

Another of Jack's posts was about how the political parties are failing to embrace the interactive nature of online media. They're publishing their stuff but not allowing Joe Public to communicate with them. This is probably because of this culture, but it also helps to contributes to it. If only members of the Labour Party can comment on the blog of an MP, then they are only going to get a very limited range of feedback and both they and their supporters will only be made more confidence of their righteousness. As working politics is all about compromise, decision-makers need to know and properly understand perspectives very different from their own.

“Extreme” views aren't inherently dangerous. An opinion or perspective is only dangerous when opposition cannot be borne. Whenever we find ourselves holding the people who disagree with us in contempt, then our views have become dangerous.


Anonymous said...

You make a number of salient and interesting points - particularly where you reference me of course* -although I curse myself for not referencing the polarising effect of groupthink before. Damn you!

And you're right about reviews - it's of little benefit for me to hear that "I wholeheartedly endorse this product or service" a la Krusty, than to hear "this product or service is pants". What a review ought to do is to provide you with the information about the product or service which you can then use to make up your own mind.

Oh, and you're wrong about the sock thing. The problem is not the colour of socks, but heretics who wear them with sandals. Burn them!

* this was a joke, for anyone thinking that I really am insufferably smug and arrogant. I may be smug and arrogant, but not quite that much.

FridaWrites said...

One of the problems with such reviews is that people don't define the criteria by which they are judging the work--doing so allows others to determine whether what they value in a good movie is the same as the reviewer's and gives the review more utility.

I've always thought groupthink is really dangerous, especially when it denigrates into suggested violence. It makes me understand how easily people fall into acts of violence or going along with others to harm someone else because of peer pressure (even adults). Often the tone gets more and more hysterical about people who believe differently until someone pops up and says, "I've got red socks and my life seems to be okay."

Gone Fishing said...

Wonderful, in NZ at the moment we have a massive example in a debate on why Accident compensation has balloned out in costs,

Labour is warning that people will be forced to take out private accident insurance if the Government slashes ACC cover.

ACC Minister Nick Smith yesterday revealed the corporation's soaring costs and liabilities, saying they would lead to unacceptably high levies unless "significant changes" were made.

Labour's ACC spokesman David Parker said last night "fundamental safeguards" were in jeopardy.

"New Zealanders need to know which entitlements and services they will now have to pay for out of their own pockets," he said.

"While some New Zealanders can afford private accident insurance, many on lower incomes can't."

Dr Smith said that under Labour, ACC had stopped acting as an insurer and had become more like a welfare agency. note that most online clients note that they Seldom receive any entitlements and get severely, repeatedly, slapped down as malingerers who deserve to be punished

From my brain injured, or not point of view I posted my own polarised tougue in cheek view.

As with any anti ACC news one can bet this discussion vanishes fast.

Someday someone will realise that ACC Clients or "Stock" are actual Human Beings: Who seldom see any of the vanishing zillions

Diane J Standiford said...

I hear you, and good point, but sometimes I'm just too tired, yet too dumb to just say nothing.

Anonymous said...

This has been troubling me too; you can find such sentiments almost anywhere online.

I was reading a discussion about certain products (and prices) that turned surprisingly aggressive, with claims that Brits should stop whining about the prices they're expected to pay; even a passing comment that seemed to suggest the British P.M. is bad because he's Scottish.

Then there are other, smaller discussion boards where some of the membership say that because they've heard such and such a view lots of times, they're tired of it, and will shout at people if they so much as brush close to that subject. They will not accept that other people (including new members) have a right to their opinions.

That came to mind when you said people mishandle online debate, saying things in a manner that they probably wouldn't if they were in a room with the people they were talking to. :-) Good post.