Thursday, August 26, 2010

Polite Blogs


U.S. writer and citizen Robert Heinlein once gave advice on how to chair a series of community meetings. As you know, regular people can feel involved and follow what is being said for the big motions. These motions, debated at length, are the main event. At the same time, ordinary people are not well versed in the intricacies and procedures of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Heinlein said not to be embarrassed to always explain in full, for the crowd’s benefit, the consequence of every little procedural motion they are being asked to vote on. Do so each time. It only takes a minute, a minute that feels sooo long when you are under the spotlight. But it has to be done. Otherwise, some people won’t “get it” and over time they will end up feeling bamboozled. And then they drop out.

Likewise, I thought “better too long than too short” as I wrote explanations to help us all to help out those few who “don’t get it...” My fear is that over time, as regular people are bothered by some “desensitized barbarians” at our blog "meetings," they may get fed up and drop out. And then we all lose.

Polite Blogs

Call me mean and cruel, if you wish, but I am not going to give people a free pass anymore to be barbaric in public. By this I mean strangers on the world wide web. Or even my “Uncle Albert,” who is a shrewd high school drop out who seldom writes on a page or a screen. If he is impolite then I will correct him too.

I like going to a pub with my uncle. There we will shout and pound the table and indulge in all sorts of careless messy logic. And we’ll call people names, too, behind their back. It’s all good face-to-face private fun. But in print on a screen, since it is public, we are not just a couple of yahoos: we are citizens. This means due care… and no name-calling.

It’s a mistake to assume that every blogger can go from reading Peanuts cartoons to reading print in high school to automatically knowing how to talk and write among grownups. Sure, sometimes learning is semi-conscious, or unconscious, but it’s not automatic. And so if we allow foolish faults to pass uncorrected then we end up being burdened with fools.

I dimly recall a 1950’s Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown and Linus are arguing. Then one abruptly name-calls, saying something like, “Oh yea? What about your stupid old coonskin cap?” The other one replies “Yea? What about your silly shirt?” … It was funny, way back then, to see a cartoon version of ad hominem attack: criticizing the man to escape the effort of criticizing his argument. It was ugly, just last month, to read of a poor disfigured surgery survivor, on his own blog, being attacked by a commenter as “looking like an abomination…” This was because the commenter disagreed with the blogger’s opinion on art.

What if, as a fellow commenter, I accepted my responsibility to rebuke such behavior? I could comment, “(Person’s name) don’t be rude. In our group discussion we are all playing with words, like passing a ball around, to help our whole team move closer to the goal line of truth. In soccer you play the ball, you don’t body-check the man. A cheater merely mars the game, but to blatantly attack a man, to be a spoil sport like you were, is to ruin the game for all of us.”

Despite my being more of a lurker than a commenter the quality of public blog forums concerns me because, as Marley’s ghost said to Scrooge, all of mankind is my business. While I hold to a value of “Freedom! Freedom for individual commenters,” I also hold dearly to a value of “Citizenship! Responsibility for the community.”

Once, at the rosy dawn of history, in a little desert community, a shepherd asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” …Yes! ... Because, today, the sum of our hours and days on the Internet, and the quality of our written web dialogue, becomes a measure of our democracy. “Democracy! Power to the People!” Yes because a blog has power, a power to help and to harm. Not like in a pub. Yes because there is a higher standard of care for permanent words than for spoken words. 

I realize that some people “think by speaking,” and some can “touch-type speak” as fast as they talk. I myself think more by talking than by reading or writing. In fact, once I was conducting a small group seminar at university when a nice classmate burst out, “Hey! I've just realized- You’re an oral learner! You talk like my LD (learning disabled) kids!” The trick is to talk but not impulsively hit the “post” button. The harm to myself by having to “think before you post” is far less than my harm to others if I forget to “never post without politeness.”

I could write, “(Person’s name) gentle Einstein never devalued a person. He didn’t even devalue ideas: he focused on presenting positive replacement ideas for people to consider. Disrespect doesn’t help the community.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that some commenters are “inexperienced” in life. As a student I used to ride the #13 Mount Royal College bus with a college English teacher, Diane Patterson. Unfortunately, as Diane noted, MRC was a “commuter college.” “No (typical student) late night talks in the dorms.” Diane found that when she put her class into small groups to discuss things… the students could not accomplish anything. They would be awkward and silent.

I could write, “(Person’s name) instead of being rude, you might find it helps to remember “boundaries.” If I am with a group trying to solve a problem, seeking the Truth, then, whether the group is in person or in cyberspace, once an idea leaves my mouth it belongs to the group. My boundary means I do not own the idea, nor feel any need to defend it. I only offer it to the others as another piece of the puzzle. Rudeness to me, or to anyone, is seldom helpful to everyone.”

Of course it is common sense that, in theory, after their first semester, “everybody knows” how to “appropriately” discuss. A nice theory for those who have been to college. As for me, a graduate of Vancouver Technical School, I think of my unknowing Uncle Albert: Some people attended a trade school to “learn the answers,” not an academic college with discussions to “learn the questions.” And so I prefer the journalism theory, as taught by Strunk and White, “There are babies being born every minute who do not know.” (how to  discuss)

Judging by what I have read, on certain forums for gathering together pages from various computer nerd blogs, some of those babies can grow up, graduate with a university degree in computer science, and still not know: I find nerd commenters using swear words, sarcasm and other sorts of blatant disrespect.

Perhaps I could respond, “(Person’s name) don’t be disrespectful. Being passionate is no excuse. Even the most passionate people are accountable for having enough self-discipline to show respect. For example Ben Franklin and Socrates were passionate about discovering truth, even risking death by hanging (for treason) or by hemlock. They surely felt some passion when encountering “foolish” ideas from people. ... 

Especially Franklin, a man utterly determined to persuade the French to believe in the “noble experiment” of a republic. He wanted them, at best to believe in, and at worst not to oppose, this fragile new thing called democracy. Both Franklin and Socrates, whether in a dainty French salon, or a marble Greek forum, mastered their passions. They kept the atmosphere polite and nurturing. Never poisonous. All of us today, we who are risking so little compared to those giants, could do likewise."

Much of my talking these days, which has furthered my understanding of web culture, is done at my toastmasters (public speaking) club. My old club’s culture had two distinctions: "tough love," and being a "jeans and T-shirt" place. Jeff was a young member who always wore a blazer and necktie. When he left to start up a new club I said, “Whatever culture your club starts out with will be carried on for years.” He grinned and said, “The tie stays on!” … Soon afterwards I joined a second club, a kinder, gentler non-competitive club. When my new buddies proposed something "tough," such as dinging a bell every time someone said “uh” or “um” I felt bi-cultural. I said, “I would really like that proposal in my other club, but I wouldn’t like it here.” Later I dropped my first club; I assimilated into my new club. My preferences changed; I changed. But my two clubs have never changed. Culture endures.

I think Internet culture is still like fresh cement: it’s been poured, but it hasn’t set. There is still some uncertainly. For example, we still don’t quite know yet whether to correct someone who comments impolitely: usually we let it pass. I have finally decided to go with my old slogan from the Canadian Airborne Regiment, "Never pass a fault." Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with a specific site being expressly for witty yahoos. But whenever we first come across a new blog… what should we normally expect? In computer terms, what is the default?

To paraphrase resistance leader John Conner, “The default is not set, our culture is what we make.” Right now it takes only a few courageous civilized people to make a difference.

There are precedents. For example, at the local armory the vast majority of reservists are young guys, passionate and impulsive. Nevertheless, it takes only a few tubby middle-aged people, civilized warriors, to set a tone of excellence. They lead by example, and they give swift rebukes. And they’re respected. They have the moral authority to rebuke because they have credibility and, equally important, because they are not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeve: They care.

I care: A democracy needs civilized Internet dialogue.

Unhappily, rudeness short-circuits thinking, which makes barbarians happy.

Not thinking is not good. A few years ago, the previous U.S. president, to paraphrase a sentence about war, after going into Iraq, found out the hard way: “Thinking is too important to be left to the generals and their friends.” We the people are accountable.

Thirteen years earlier, overseas, the problem with Hussein’s Iraq was not solely that Saddam Hussein’s relatives in the palace couldn’t be accountable to each other, and to Hussein, but also that they were inexperienced in thinking at all. It’s hard to think aloud, “Maybe we should pull out of Kuwait…” Not when some jerk does a scornful “Oh yea? Why?” If you are unpracticed at discussing, how can you suddenly learn to do a chain of reasoning to explain national self-determination, especially when your extremist partner is unskilled in having any attention span, unskilled in politely listening? Barbarians think their lack of skill is their strength.

You might as well answer, “Uh-… Because!”

“Oh yea? What about your stupid old baseball cap?”… I would hate for rude people to destroy the web as a place for practicing democratic discourse.

At this point, I have carefully composed some thoughts of what I could write to rude people; I do not yet know exactly what I will write. I only know I have to try.

Sean Crawford
Humble before the challenge of cyberspace
August 2010
Footnote: Of course my kitchen journal is a private (not public) space, and so I see any Live Journal blog as a sunny private place too.

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