Friday, January 25, 2013

Civil Debate: Gone Forever?

There is a growing propensity in our culture—which is certainly not new but far more prevalent than ever—to mock or belittle the person with whose opinion you disagree and to do so in increasingly public ways. Are you familiar with the old Saturday Night Live parody of the 60 Minutes' Point-Counterpoint segment? "Jane, you ignorant slut," was how Dan Aykroyd's James J. Kilpatrick lampoon would begin every single one of his "debate" segments and it never failed to draw a laugh because it was so over-the-top. Well, that satire of a mere generation ago wouldn't find a nerve these days because it seems to have become de rigueur to ridicule the other party in any discussion or debate, even if you are good friends with them. Because I hold very strong opinions and I'm not shy about expressing them all over social media, I find that I'm on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour quite frequently. When it comes out of left field, from someone I don't know, I can very easily block or "unlike" them; however, when it comes from a good friend or a family member of whom I am rather fond it's a much more difficult situation.

When I posted my feelings about the current Becel campaign on Facebook yesterday (which eventually lengthened into an entire blog post), one of my friends thought I was being "hypersensitive"—which is his right to think, obviously—and told me to "lighten up"—which I find quite a bit more disturbing and insufferably condescending. At one time it would have been considered quite rude to tell someone to "lighten up" (or "you need to" do whatever you think they should do, as I also often hear); now, however, it is fairly ubiquitous and I do not care for it at all. I have written more than once on this blog about the constantly worsening lack of civility among humans in recent years and I don't presently see a way out of this spiral we're in. If you disagree with me on a point I am making or an opinion I hold, I totally accept your right to do so. If you wish to debate the point with me, I'm absolutely in favour of that—provided you come into the discussion from a position of having well-informed facts before you present them as such. But the moment you feel the need to disparage my opinion, thought process, information-gathering skills, intelligence or, especially, my level of emotional investment in whatever it is you disagree with—and decide to act on that "need"—you have immediately lost the battle. Your point is made no more valid by shouting me down or insulting me; quite the contrary: I feel you have invalidated your stance by coming into the discussion or conversation or thread from a position of hostility.

I am no saint in this area myself, not by a long shot. I am certainly not immune to the pull of throwing a few choice epithets or nasty monikers around when I am really riled up—and any good friend can tell you I am often really riled up. Last week I wrote a piece about the "Newtown Truther" idiots (see? I did it right there) which included words like "cartoonish", "nutters" and "mouthbreathers". Sarah read this piece through before I posted it and was jarred by my use of derogatory names for these people; she was of the opinion that it lost some of its power at those points and, of course, she was right. I was too angry to change it much, though, save from the removal of the single word "scum". I was reading it again today and, rather than making me feel outrage it mostly just made me feel...uncomfortable. Now, there are times when I think that making people feel uncomfortable should be the goal of a given opinion piece; I don't know, though, if that was one of those times. In any event I don't intend to go back and edit it as it is now an encapsulation of a moment in time. But for every time I "slip up" and let high emotions get in the way of something I write on here there are about a hundred times I manage to somehow wrestle them out of the picture (and sometimes onto other sites, such as Facebook, which is not a source of great pride for me). I guess what I am trying to say is that I understand it can sometimes be quite overwhelming trying to maintain lucidity and composure when faced with such rudeness and mean-spiritedness all around.

It would be very easy to blame the Howard Sterns and Rush Limbaughs and Ford Brothers of this world—and, believe me, I really do blame them, among others—but the truth of the matter is that our society has allowed this kind of attack mentality to take hold. None of those people would exist—at least, not in the public's consciousness—if we didn't let them exist—or even encourage them to exist. Everything seems to be so "in your face" at all times these days and it's virtually killed the spirit of good debating. I grew up playing, coaching and loving hockey. Believe me, I understand the "macho" culture of that sport in particular, not only on the ice but in the dressing room where the insults fly but almost always lead to laughter. I can appreciate a good ribbing as much as the next guy. But there's a time and place for all of that—or, at least, there used to be—and that place should not be in the arenas of discourse in public, "polite" society. So why has it leaked out of the dressing rooms and pubs of the world and into print and other media?

Well, it could be on account of all of the "noise" these days. I am a huge proponent of the internet and what it brings to society—if, that is, one uses it properly. I have often said that I think the internet as a whole is the greatest invention since the radio and possibly even greater than that. Just speaking from personal experience: one of the things I hated about completing a project or term paper in school was doing the research. I was always a voracious reader and eager to acquire huge quantities of brand-new information, but the mechanics of hunting down that information was far too boring and tedious for my liking. I would never have considered writing opinion pieces such as I do now in the days of digging through large stacks of books and files to find the one snippet of prose I needed to make a point. Now, however, it's not only no longer tedious to me but I actually revel in the hunt, which is pretty much a textbook definition of a "paradigm shift". The unfettered and almost instantaneous access to information is a wondrous thing and it's made all of our lives exponentially better (or potentially so) in ways we are only just beginning to comprehend. But there is a drawback to the Information Superhighway: there is so much of it coming at us at all times now that it's rather difficult to assimilate and extremely difficult to be heard over. (As a nearly-neophyte blogger and an absolutely neophyte content creator, I understand this very well.) So people have started shouting, literally and figuratively. Once upon a time, the only people yelling and hurling insults were those who weren't clever enough to present their positions in a clear and calm manner, or those who didn't have a strong argument to present. When we were all able to focus on one debate at a time it was much easier to listen to and comprehend the words and ideas of those people whose words and ideas were worth listening to. Now, though, being calm and rational and positive in one's message is very likely to mean that that message will not get through. When I was attempting to defend my use of epithets in my "Truther" piece to Sarah I opined that simply calling those people out on their actions would go unnoticed by them; no, I said, I was "sick" of that approach and it was time to "fight fire with fire". So in righteous indignation, I called some of them "mental defects" and, worse, I believed that was the appropriate course of action "in today's world". It may have been an effective course of action (and I'm truly hoping it wasn't) but I want it to never become an appropriate one.

I almost appended all of this to my blog piece yesterday, which would have severely diminished the point I was trying to make and, therefore, I am glad I did not. But what my decision to put this discussion off to today also accomplished was that it gave me an opportunity to "simmer down" a little bit and that made for a much better posting, in my opinion. For one thing, I had used "Storify" to link all of the comments on my Facebook posting together—including the "offensive" ones—and was intending to link to that here on my blog. This would have "outed" the person who was the catalyst for today's piece and that would have been just as wrong as the remarks he made were in the first place. There's no reason to single out any one person for this kind of behaviour: for one thing, as I've been saying here, it's a society-wide issue; for another, there have been several people in my circle of friends and, more hurtfully, in my family who have responded to some of my deeply-rooted opinions with such phrases as "get over it", "I challenge you to think", "you need to get a grip", or "I feel sorry for you". Some of them I have, reluctantly, "unfriended" after numerous warnings; some have "unfriended" me with no explanation; and some I still have enough respect for to keep them in my inner circle in spite of everything because they are basically outstanding people who simply seem to have lost their way in matters of discourse somehow. I have many failings in how I react to opinions I disagree with, but I do try very hard (to varying degrees of success) to be respectful of how I speak to my friends,  especially on their own feeds or blog pages. I have tried to think of it this way: if you came into my home and insulted or belittled me, I would ask you to leave and you likely would not be invited back. I think of my Facebook Timeline or this blog site or other areas of the social media sphere I have carved out for myself to be like my home(s) on the internet; I expect to, at the bare minimum, be treated with respect in those places by the people whom I invite there of my own volition, if not necessarily by the "party crashers" out there on the internet. Perhaps you will think I am being "hypersensitive" and that is your prerogative; however, I don't think it's asking too much that you refrain from using that as a weapon should you wish to debate this post—or any other, for that matter.

And if you do decide to use it as a weapon, then you are stupid. You are a stupid person with a stupid face and stupid clothes and so's yer ol' man. There. I win. Huh. Who knew it could be that easy?

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I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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