Monday, October 22, 2012

Becoming a Better Internet Citizen: Disagreeing agreeably

We have seen a fair amount a disagreement on the interwebs in the last few weeks.  I am sure that we will see plenty of it tonight after the presidential debate and I am sure it will not end there.  In the last few months we have had dustups over gun control, gay marriage, free speech, and the location of Romney’s binders full of women to name a few. 

Regardless of your level of eloquence or passion on a particular issue you have probably disagreed with someone at some time.  This is not a bad thing!  You have a right to advocate for yourself and be heard.  There is nothing wrong with this but how and why you do it makes all the difference. 

Let me begin by emphasizing that disagreements aren’t bad.  They are vital to life.  If no one ever had the courage to disagree with you, you might begin to think that you were always right.  Tyrants and despots are created in such environments.  This is why we need to be careful how we label those who disagree with us.  If every person who thinks differently than you do is labeled as negative or arrogant or stupid you have a problem.
The problem, at least where I am standing is that we live in a conflict confused society.  It seems like we avoid conflict in person like the plague but fan it into absurdity online.  We don’t know how to fight so we avoid it in person or troll around online reposting memes.  I don’t claim to have all the answers but I feel like if we stepped out of ourselves a bit we could have more civil and engaging conflicts both on and offline.

A typical internet argument during an election year goes like this:

LiberalLarry:  Obamacare is the best!

ConservitiveCalvin:  Obamacare is crap because Obama is an socialist kitten killer.  You liberals are all idiots!

LiberalLarry: No you are crap because all conservatives are fundamentalist whack-jobs who failed basic math!

ConservitiveCalvin: At least I’m going to heaven you godless heathen!

Ok that conversation has probably never happened but this kind of senseless stuff is so common on the internet I think that we see it as fair play.  No facts, no clear communication, just attacks on character.  This is called an ad hominen attack and if you are on the receiving end of this it can be hurtful for a number of reasons.  It also has an isolating effect that can become unhealthy.  If everyone who disagrees with you is labeled as too conservative or liberal or negative or whatever then you are living in a world where only you can be right. 

Most of us have learned to consider the source of information before we accept it.  This is an invaluable skill in the information age but it has a subtle twist that we must be aware of.  “Consider the source” has also become a way to completely ignore vast amounts of information.  Certain news outlets proclaim themselves as the one true source of information and everyone else is “biased.”  This has the negative effect of ghettoizing information and creating worlds where your view makes perfect sense and everyone else is an idiot.

The problem is that when we become like this nothing can persuade us.  Only information that fits our narrative is acceptable.  If you believe Obama is the anti-christ and wants to destroy America then there is a website for you to get all the “information” you need to confirm that narrative.  If you believe Romney is an outsourcing megalomaniac bent on making us all wear Mormon underoos there is a chatroom that will fulfill that need.  Neither one of these narratives is true.

Let’s stop assuming that because someone reads that they must be wrong or out to get us.   I understand that it is good to consider sources but completely shutting out all thought that doesn’t come from your preferred version of reality seems like bad policy to me.  It seems more like insecurity masquerading as discernment.  For some of us it is not enough to hold an opinion, we have to tear the opposing one down in order to justify our choices.  I know that I have been guilty of this from time to time.

Most of this comes down to fear.  We are afraid of the future, afraid of obscurity, and afraid that we might just be wrong.  We shut people out because their existence reminds us that there is another way of looking at the world.  But this fear is a good thing.  It shakes us out of complacency and causes us to think differently.  It may lead to a new perspective or a firmer conviction.  This of course can lead to conflict but that is just fine.  If we can learn that at the most base level we typically agree and fear the same things then we can come into conflict in ways that help sharpen each other, not tear each other down.   

When talking/tweeting/texting with others we need to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s choose to disagree on merits and not just on sources.  If they think that politician X is great, let them explain and love them anyway. You don’t have to tear them or politician X down in order to have your own opinion.  It is about believing the best about people.  I think we need to do more of it this election season.

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