So, when I got linked on Whedonesque last week, my first thought was “woo hoo! I’ve achieved one of my life goals!” No, I jest. But I was pretty excited. And then I read the first comment, which started “Wow, I hugely disagree…” and my heart fell. But then, I actually read the rest of it, and the comment thread as it unfolded, and I was impressed with something: a lot of Whedonesque viewers disagreed with me, pretty strongly, but they weren’t assholes about it.
On the Internet, that’s kind of a huge deal.
In fact, all of the comments about how I was “stupid” or “on a different planet” or “totally missed the point” or “mostly annoying” showed up on my website, not Whedonesque, which either means that those people didn’t have Whedonesque memberships, or they were just afraid of commenting there. (I admit that I’ve been a member for a while and I’ve rarely commented or submitted because well established Internet communities can sometimes be intimidating, although I waded into the fray when they linked to me and was actually given a very friendly welcome.)
The Whedonesque thread actually got really interesting; I know I got a lot out of it. People came up with really thoughtful, well-formulated dissent, challenging my logical inconsistencies and reading of the show, and for the most part, they did so in a really respectful way which focused on criticism of the content, not the author. And some really fascinating discussion started happening towards the bottom, even among people who strongly disagreed. A lot of people helped me better formulate and solidify my ideas by responding so thoughtfully, and the kind of reactive, knee-jerk “someone thinks something other than me so I must hammer them down” response was pretty much absent. Similar conversations happened here, with a lot of dissenting commenters adding to the discussion in a really great way (the nasty comments never made it through moderation).
I’ve actually noticed that, as a general rule, Whedonesque threads are pretty mannerly, and it’s one of the reasons I like the site, but it also brings up an important issue: why is it that most people on the Internet can’t disagree thoughtfully and respectfully? And why are we, as a collective society, losing the ability to engage in thoughtful debate? And what are we losing in the process? And why is it that women, in particular, tend to experience especially vicious criticism on the Internet?
People seem to be living under the impression that when someone disagrees with them or challenges their beliefs or threatens something important to them, that some sort of personal attack is being made, and that they must therefore respond reactively and decisively. And that makes it really, really challenging to engage in discussion with people, because you can’t be frank with them and you can’t challenge them, or the entire conversation totally shuts down. People seem to be actively seeking an echo chamber effect, in which they only hear views which support, promote, or justify their own.
By contrast, when people are able to set themselves aside and focus on the material, they can have really fruitful, productive discussions. They might not necessarily change minds, but they do generate more food for thought, more opportunity for future discussion, and more inspiration. Once I got over my initial sensitivity to people who shredded my work (in a very elegant and nonhostile way) and started engaging with them, I think that we all learned something. I think also that I got a little bit overwhelmed and stressed out around day two of being hammered with pretty horrible comments, but once I dropped off the front page and the commentary came from people who were genuinely willing to engage, I started to enjoy myself.
In a way, I think that the Internet has made it difficult to have thoughtful discourse, because the days of arguing in coffeehouses are being supplanted by arguments in text. And as I often discover to my chagrin, tone and meaning are sometimes obscured in text, and disagreements can erupt over comments which wouldn’t have been made in real life, or would have been interpreted properly in a face to face discussion. It’s really hard to formulate ideas in text, and honestly, I’m only really happy with the content in about one in every 12 posts I write, let alone in the comments I make on other websites.
The loss of the politely argumentative spirit online appears to be contributing to the decline of thoughtful conversation offline, and I think that’s an immense loss for society as a whole; I know that I benefit when people disagree with me and challenge me because it forces me to better articulate and back up my points, and sometimes it even forces me to change my mind or adjust my point. Why post deliberately provocative content, after all, if you don’t want to talk about it?
And why is it that thoughtful dissent is so rare? How do people effectively create a climate in which it can occur? Draconian moderation policies seem to be the order of the day, but why is it necessary to police people to have a rational discussion?