Friday, December 12, 2008

Civility of discourse

For a variety of reasons, I've been thinking recently about what constitutes being polite, and when it's acceptable not to be. This started with a flame war in a forum I frequent, where someone posted a diatribe about how people having racial preferences in their dating partners were sick and prejudiced. When people expressed contrary opinions, he alternately told them they weren't addressing the point or else dismissed them in a snarky comment or two without answering any questions they raised, even when the questions were along the lines of "Could you clarify what you mean by X?" or "You've stated that my entire post is a mass of contradictions. Would you point out a specific contradiction in what I said?" Eventually, even those who started out on the high road grew increasingly sarcastic and dismissive toward him.

In another recent example, a friend apparently removed me from his list of friends on Facebook because I left a comment that his status message was factually inaccurate. That fact really can't be disputed; it concerned the number of senators of a given party who voted one particular way on an issue he cares about, and he attributed all the votes in one direction as being from one party when that was not the case. My comment was deleted very quickly; several hours later my status as friend was revoked. I've since sent him an apology. I don't actually see why what I said was inappropriate, but a mutual friend certainly felt it was and when there's not a larger principle involved, I'm willing to go along with the views of the majority on societal norms even if they don't make sense to me. Since I was apparently in the wrong, I apologized. Being right on this issue isn't more important to me than maintaining a good relationship with the person involved.

But all of this has me thinking about several larger issues.

One is the expectations regarding communication. This is an age-old question where social and technological change has brought it to light from a different angle. When someone expresses an opinion on a blog, or in an internet forum, or on a social networking site, what is the intent? If you disagree with something they say, either objective or subjective, what is the appropriate response? Who decides? The mutual friend in the latter case saw it as our friend expressing his frustration; I saw it as him both expressing his frustration and assigning specific blame. Even assuming that there is a true correct answer to what the comment was doing, when two intelligent people read the same comment and come away with two different impressions of what it means, that makes it seem that interpretation is important even on things which seem straightforward to any one observer. Those issues of interpretation are a big part of why I chose to go into a natural science in the first place; while there is still interpretation, there is far more in the way of objective fact and an underlying reality to be examined in those fields than in many others.

Then there's the line between public and private. Many people apparently consider social networking sites to be private affairs, despite the massive reporting on employers scouring the myspace and facebook profiles of applicants and even current employees. I take a very different view: these sites are meant to foster interaction between people even when they aren't physically present. I may be alone in my living room while I'm writing this, but once I hit publish it goes up for the wider world to see. Even though very few people read this blog, it's still available to the public even if I have editorial control over it. The more people who read something, the less private it is. If you keep a hardcopy journal or diary, that's private. If you publish comments on a social networking site where you're connected to dozens of your friends and coworkers, that seems pretty public to me.

I've always felt that dissent is one of the cornerstones of our society, and that on the whole it tends to be a good thing. Silencing people who disagree with you doesn't seem to serve a purpose to me, other than to place you into a false echo chamber where you assume everyone agrees with everything you say, and thus there's no need to think critically about it. That's one of the main reasons I've left up comments that are little more than ad hominem attacks against me, even when it's an issue I care about. I actually enjoy it when people attack my position themselves, but it's my impression that many people do not make the distinction I do between attacking a point and attacking a person.

Then there's the issue of how emotion is treated in our society. I've noticed a general pattern in life that the more passionate someone is about something, the more others excuse their behavior in regard to the subject and castigate others for doing or saying anything that might upset the passionate individual, even if the statements are objectively true. This happens in politics, in business, in social relationships...I can come up with examples from pretty much every aspect of my life. There is a certain deference given to those who act on emotion, which is why the rallying cry of "Think of the children" has an amazing ability to shut down discourse. The key word in that cry is "children"; the word "think" is hardly ever stressed.

Those who act on logic are often considered inhuman. That's backwards. We have plenty of evidence of non-human animals acting on and feeling emotion. We have almost none of non-human animals acting on logic. Even chimpanzees seem to be unable to learn the concept of delayed gratification in games where picking the smaller pile of treats leads to the bigger reward, despite being able to grasp it when abstractions are used; the sight of the reward seems to overpower the conceptual knowledge that they will get the large reward only if they select the smaller one. Your dog really does love you and enjoy spending time with you just being you, even if he's just laying down next to you. He doesn't, on the other hand, know whether or not it's his birthday, or make plans for what to do when he gets old. The ability to act on logic rather than emotion is one of the most defining characteristics of humans compared to other animals we know of.

I also have to say that people who act on emotion are not the only people who experience emotion. I almost always base my actions off of logic and reason, and I have a definite preference for facts over feelings. That in no way means that I don't have feelings, or even that my feelings are less intense and therefore less important than those of people who do act upon theirs more often. It is entirely possible that the difference between them and me lies not in the intensity of our emotional responses but in the strength of our self-control. As someone who has demonstrated that control in the past, I am expected to continue to do so, while those who lash out in a self-righteous rage are given a pass, and the rest of us are to keep our heads down and our mouths shut until they calm down. We are admonished to be polite even in the face of others being decidedly otherwise. I don't really see that changing anytime soon, nor even a way in which it could change. It just gets tiring at times.

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