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All the noise

One of the many things the Internet has accomplished is to make generally available the kind of commentary previously restricted to the walls of men’s rooms.

It’s all there: the relaxation of inhibitions afforded by anonymity; the indulgence in prejudice, hostility, anger and contempt; the hyper-masculinity*; and even an occasional lone flash of imagination and wit.

My estimable colleague, David Sullivan of The Philadelphia Inquirer, recently contrasted that kind of discourse with the kind people used to seek in newspapers: “Newspapers — which exist in a world of ‘Let us tell you something we have determined to be right and you do not know and realistically you could never find out on your own’ — simply can't compete with ‘Let me show you what a dude I am.’ "**

This coarsening of public discussion appears to go hand in hand with a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts. It is not just that there are differences of opinion being aired; one expects vigorous disagreement over aesthetic judgments and political views. What is disturbing is that if you differ from my perception of reality, I will simply heap personal abuse on you.

The phenomenon itself is not novel — one recalls the vicious pamphleteering between Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries or the scurrilous accusations that have marked American politics from the earliest days of the Republic.

But the sheer volume of it — volume in both senses, quantity and decibel level — is disturbing. It crowds out much of what attempts to be reasonable.

 

*Observation suggests that men who are assured in their masculinity see no particular need to comment on the masculinity of others.

**These comments should in no way be construed as a reflection on a certain popular Web site whose members — many of whom, I am assured, hold the Ph.D. — engage in freewheeling discussion, genial banter and amusing personal remarks.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:54 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

*Observation suggests that men who are assured in their masculinity see no particular need to comment on the masculinity of others.

Could the same observation be applied to intellect? For one so seemingly assured of his intellectual superiority, you do certainly seem to be casting oh-so-subtle aspersions onto a particular Web site.

Even Professor Pullum sunk to such uncouth depths with his girlfriend comment.

It is true that many denizens of Fark - and even, perhaps, the entire Internet - have not earned a Ph.D. And the site may indeed be better suited for a dark sociology experiment than for a constant stream of erudite discussion, but the site remains. Sometimes - and yes this happens quite frequently at Fark - you'd to discuss and learn about particle physics, and others you check in on the discussion about a 52-year-old stripper being attacked with a shoe by a jealous co-worker.

Fark, and the Internet, is what it is. I actually agree with the main argument of your post, but it is not a problem limited to the discussion forums of various Web sites. Please individual networks' coverage of the April 15 "Tea Parties," most notably MSNBC.

Amidst the sheer volume of everyone's perceived reality, earnest discussion can be found. Even at Fark. Again, I agree with your point, but this post seems a bit like throwing stones in a glass house.

Also, "disturbing" in the fourth paragraph is misspelled.

Toodles.

JEM: Typo has been fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.

...a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts.
Like the existence of weapons of mass destruction? A refusal to agree on that kind of fiction would certainly seem to be something to be thankful for. In any case, I am less than convinced about the "discourse" you say people used to seek in newspapers, as almost all news consumers seem to select the sources which most closely reflect their prejudices. Internet is not really different in that way, but it is at least less susceptible to the kind of deliberate distorsion we have come to expect from the Murdochs, Berlusconis and Hearsts of this world. A little grafitti-level discourse is a small price to pay, at worst a nuisance, like spam in your email (and sometimes even spam can be entertaining).

I think the biggest problem is that discussion no longer relies on how much information you have, but how outraged you are.

Trying to merely correct someone's perception with an indisputable fact or statistic is far too often answered with charges that you sympathize with the other side, not just that you can impart some knowledge to better focus the discussion.

Brian’s right, I think. Political polarization is now so thick that inserting facts to try to refocus a discussion does get taken as a partisan swipe. Trouble is, statistics can be squeezed or cherry-picked to support either pole. Cynics sense this and may be less willing to trust. Distrust may be a key reason online discussions devolve into name-calling; readers distrust presented information, distrust the people relaying that information and distrust other readers.

John’s right, too. The volume of vitriol, in mass and loudness, is amazing. Perhaps the written shouting is just another version of what happens on television, where if two people disagree they simply try to outyell each other.

@Mike C: John puts in those typos on purpose, to prove that everyone needs a copy editor.

Then I was just filling the role he set out for me.

It's unfortunate that the discussion pages for The Baltimore Sun often devolve into just such wall-scribbling, and it's not just the testosterone-enhanced that routinely use such venom.

Right after the recent Presidential election, I spent a week or two on those forums flagging vile racist comments about the Obama family. It was surprising to me how many ways one can imply that someone is a monkey.

Most were left in place. Perhaps the flaggers didn't get the implications, or maybe it's okay to call someone a genetic throwback if you don't use four letter words to do it.

It seemed pointless, so I gave up.

This isn't tu quoque -- I know you don't have any influence over those forums. The fact is, any reasonably well-read forum that doesn't have preemptive moderation ends up like that. You either get used to it or you leave.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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