The politics of productive engagement
We can’t ignore the fact that persuasion becomes more difficult when your audience is pissed off. And the continuing focus on us vs. them rhetoric in the atheist community (mystifyingly, still often focused on atheism+, which might as well be on life-support) tends to do little more than encourage whataboutery and smug self-righteousness.
There are both political and epistemological dimensions to these perpetual squabbles, and we might be compromising the possibility of finding any agreement on the facts by ignoring one quite clear one: that persuasion is only possible if people are listening, and there’s little incentive to listen when you’re being shouted at. Basically, I’m concerned that many of our conversations and blog posts are having little effect outside of feeding confirmation biases and encouraging trolling.
The Internet has been great for broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines, or the blog network or author you choose to read (or ignore) reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so).
A further concern regarding online abuse is the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely. When the filter-bubble ends generating a congregation of the like-minded into one “room”, as it were, the possibility for debate can cease to exist not only because you can’t hear dissent over the shouting, but also because it seems pointless to express any dissent when there’s so little chance of it being heard, or fairly considered.
So, because there sometimes seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, people who might have otherwise engaged in debate cease doing so – some through measures like turning off comment functionality on their blogs, some through never engaging in comment threads. And eventually, some might cease engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all.
This has at least two consequences: First, the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, which makes them appear stronger and makes it even less likely that others will dissent. Second, those who would otherwise like to dissent are furnished with another example of why they are virtuous, and correct – and so, their homogeneity increases too.
One day we’ll perhaps end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Or so it seems, unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities. I don’t mean to deny that “deep rifts” can exist, but we should nevertheless be wary of thinking that disagreements are irresolvable, when they’re perhaps (even if only in part) due to our fondness for the caricatures we’ve painstakingly constructed.
As part of our set of strategies for addressing this problem, I’d like to offer a suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help to illuminate the more important question of how it can be ended.
Elements of this post are drawn from a column originally published in the Daily Maverick.