Online Discourse: Tact and Fact vs. Getting Smacked

The Republican Party is in the midst of a terrific tug of war between core conservatives and moderates: John McCain and his supporters versus everyone who believes that McCain is insufficiently conservative. I've been involved in a group email chain where one person unequivocally supports John McCain, and the others do not. The emotions, needless to say, have been flying hot and heavy through the ether.

The point I'd like to make isn't about who will better represent the Republican Party, but to bemoan the fact that so many people are willing to toss civility into the trash when it comes to their communications on the internet.

In spite of its obvious downfalls like pornography and sites that promote Islamic jihad, I'm a steadfast fan of the internet: it provides a forum for Joe Q. Citizen to express his views on everything from national politics to the Tom Cruise Scientology video. The internet has become so powerful in its ability to give an unrestricted voice to everyone who wishes to use it that none other than Mrs. Clinton (when she was still first lady and smack in the middle of the eye of the Lewinsky hurricane) proposed the possibility of internet regulation:

Anytime an individual or an institution or an invention leaps so far out ahead of that balance and throws a system, whatever it might be -- political, economic, technological -- out of balance, you've got a problem, because then it can lead to the oppression of people's rights, it can lead to the manipulation of information, it can lead to all kinds of bad outcomes which we have seen historically. So we're going to have to deal with that.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's what King George's representatives in the colonies thought about people like Thomas Paine and his pamphlet Common Sense.

Now the emails I've been privy to in this tussle over conservatism have shown plenty of emotion, and a few insults have even been tossed in for good measure. But we've all been internet pals for several years now, and a few of us have even had the opportunity to meet in person. There has been quite a bit of well-reasoned logic in many of the messages as well. So let me tell you, we've been downright polite compared to some of the bile I've seen spewed on internet comment forums on various blogs and other sites. Just one example of this nastiness can be found on YouTube (in the comments section of a posting of NewsBusters' weekly comedy video). If you didn't think the video was funny, fine. But is it necessary to describe your dislike in vile, visceral terms? Here's just one of a number of offensive comments:

This f****** b**** is not funny at all I hate the laugh tracks and her retarded looking smirk every time she thinks she says something funny holy s*** I want to kill her wow

It's amazing what can come out of people's mouths (via their keyboards) behind the cloak of anonymity the internet provides -- although it must be remembered that not everyone is afraid to be identified when it comes to either comment forums or sending email. But it's so easy to type out a quick response to something and click "send" or "submit" before really absorbing what you might be reacting to. (The fact that you don't actually have a face-to-face encounter with the person you're belittling is another favorable aspect of this kind of attack.)

What's key in this discussion is "what you might be reacting to." Are you giving yourself time to think about what the other person has said before spouting off in indignation?

Is civility and reason dead in American discourse?

Dr. Thomas Sowell, whom I believe to be one of the greatest thinkers of our time and an American treasure, weighs in:

Too many people today act as if no one can honestly disagree with them. If you have a difference of opinion with them, you are considered to be not merely in error but in sin. You are a racist, a homophobe, or whatever the villain of the day happens to be.

Disagreements are inevitable whenever there are human beings but we seem to be in an era when the art of disagreeing is vanishing. That is a huge loss because out of disagreements have often come deeper understandings than either side had before confronting each other's arguments.

[...] Where an argument starts is far less important than where it finishes because the logic and evidence in between is crucial. Unfortunately, our educational system is not only failing to teach critical thinking; it is often itself a source of confused rhetoric and emotional venting in place of systematic reasoning.

Passion and enthusiasm can be wonderful tools when it comes to arguing a point. But passion and enthusiasm in and of themselves are a poor substitute for the critical thought process necessary for a reasoned and intelligent debate. And Dr. Sowell is right when he places a healthy portion of the blame on our educational system for failing a generation or two in this regard.

Even politicians looking to lead our country are guilty of using passion and enthusiasm (a.k.a. rhetoric) as a substitute for firm policy positions on the campaign trail. Face it: vague promises of "hope and change" are a lot more conducive to our sound bite culture than facts, figures, and other boring reality-based campaign talk. Bread and circuses, anyone? Or, as was falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake."

What to do?

Let's be clear: I don't advocate "dealing with" the internet in the sense that it would clamp down on an individual's right to free speech. McCain-Feingold was enough of an assault on the First Amendment for one century, thank you.

But how many quick, negative, and even angry responses based on emotion will this article, which has taken me more than two hours to write (with many edits in the process), inspire in the comments section? I don't expect everyone will agree with everything I write, but reasoned responses are so much more edifying -- not to mention welcome -- than insults tossed out on a whim, with no other reason for being than to crush my fragile spirit and perhaps encourage me to take to the bottle.

I've personally received both reasonably critical feedback and nasty slurs on my character in response to things I've written. The worst was, "You are a ****." I'll let you fill in the blank yourself.

In the end, it's really up to the individual, not more endless bureaucratic legislation. I'm sure our founders would approve. Let's not let technology allow civility and reason to go the way of the dodo. Think it out before you hit "enter." If you wouldn't say it to your mother, you probably shouldn't say it on the internet either.

Pam Meister is the editor of FamilySecurityMatters.org (the opinions she expresses here are her own), and her work has also been featured on American Thinker.