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.”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
“All [insert movie genre] is awful and this was no exception.”
“I can't stand the sight of [insert starring actor].”
“If you're a big wet girl or a gay, then this movie is probably for you.”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).
“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.”
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!”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.
“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!”
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.