Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Impersonal Internet and Political Discourse

I have to agree with conservative blogger and pundit Conor Friedersdorf, who had some interesting and astute comments about how ideological passions expressed through the impersonal (and sometimes even anonymous) nature of critical commentary on the internet aren't really reflective of the character personality types of the people making the comments. Friedersdorf's comments are made as a partial defense of talk radio listeners, but the examples he uses to make his point really come from an evaluation of his critics who post exceedingly harsh comments online about him and some of his positions. He claims that when he makes the effort to engage even the harshest of his critics in a more personal and direct way (and with respect), these critics generally tend to soften up by being forced to acknowledge (or at least directly confront) the humanity of the person on the receiving end of their harsh critical commentary. He writes:

The whole enterprise [of personally, respectfully, and directly engaging his critics on Mark Levin's Facebook page] was grounded in the assumption that Internet commenters aren't always being real. That is to say, if you read an Internet comments section, and see content that seems like it couldn't have been written by a reasonable person, what's happening is often that whoever wrote the remark wasn't intending to stand behind the literal meaning expressed, so much as engaging in a sort of game where what you do is produce zingers or blow off steam.

It isn't an approach to politics that I like, and it exacts a cost on the rest of us who take a more earnest approach, but I'm paid to engage in political conversations. I tend to hold my colleagues in media to a lot higher standard than people who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about political discourse. They've got other jobs! (Sometimes when I write non-media professionals who've criticized me in particularly harsh terms, they seem genuinely surprised to find out there is actually a human being who writes the stuff that appears under my byline on the Internet.)

Engage the authors of these sorts of comments regularly and you'll find that they're actually a lot more reasonable than their Internet personalities at first suggest, and particularly worth speaking with because they're exactly the kinds of people who don't share my assumptions.
I have to say, as someone who frequents the comment boards of conservative blogs and websites, that this would be my evaluation, too. And, of course, when I think about the people I do know personally (relatives and close friends) who are ideologically polar opposites of me, it is actually the norm that ideological difference doesn't get in the way of friendship, respect, and camaraderie. When you get to know someone in a much more human context, what is actually much more real about life and shared human experience melts away most knee-jerk hostilities to ideological or political positions. Humanity and civility almost always trumps ideological rigidity and rancor.

I have even had the opportunity to meet personally a couple of individuals for whom my ONLY contact and relationship with them initiated in the heady oppositional and impersonal medium of blog comment boards. And these meetings were intended to be social and pleasant encounters - usually going out for a bite to eat or for a drink. Without exception, these individuals, who can be quite persnickety and antagonistic on the blog comment boards, are some of the most friendly, pleasant, reserved, and modest people in person. And when that shared personal moment passes, and we're back to our contact being filtered through the blog comment boards, the tone of our relationship is markedly changed. We just aren't as eager to jump down the other person's throat, even when we vigorously disagree on a point. And it's all because we now have this shared human moment that we can't ever shake. We simply know that who we are as people just doesn't match how we come across on blog comment boards, and that the "real" people we are simply matters more in determining how we relate to each other in any other context from that moment on. I frequently have to remind myself of this when I read very strong criticism of my comments, even ones that are intended as personal, ad hominem attacks. And though I'm not immune to losing myself in the heat and headiness of some exchanges, too, I do think that I have become a bit more circumspect and sensitive to my online behavior towards ideological rivals because of this understanding.

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