I’m going to begin this blog with a few posts on its purpose, nature, and intended tone. Here is one.

On the Internet, there are two cultures – even going back to the days of the BBSes, there always were. One is loud, vituperative, and denunciatory. The other is shocked by the first.

Here is a recent example of the second culture – a Wall Street Journal article describing yet another study explaining why we’re so rude on the internet (anonymity, it’s always anonymity) and how that harms our polity. This has become a commonplace.

I’m not so sure.

The article describing the study was more interesting than the study. The protagonist, or sacrificial victim, of the piece is a poster called “ER Doc”, who gets flamed for offering an informed opinion on a list of dog-bite incidents by pit bull terriers. The WSJ reporter takes a dim view of ER Doc’s interlocutors:

Then a childhood pal of Ms. Bristol piped up with this: “Take it from an ER doctor… In 15 years of doing this I have yet to see a golden retriever bite that had to go to the operating room or killed its target.”

That unleashed a torrent. One person demanded to see the doctor’s “scientific research.” Another accused him of not bothering to confirm whether his patients were actually bitten by pit bulls. Someone else suggested he should “venture out of the ER” to see what was really going on.

“It was ridiculous,” says Ms. Bristol[.]”

Hm. Frankly, most of those replies to ER Doc don’t even sound rude. They’re exactly the questions you’d ask if you were conducting any kind of academic inquiry into ER Doc’s conclusions. And that is precisely the style of inquiry held up as the ideal from which “internet rudeness” supposedly strays. Where’s your data? Do you have more than anecdotes? Do you even know the accepted definitions of terms (here, dog breeds)? Or have you not been listening, and expected to drop in and shut everyone up on the basis of a putatively impressive credential? That’s another way of being rude – both rude and paradigmatically irrational, when you’re arguing something incendiary (here, implying that some people’s pet dogs should be euthanized). I would expect such a response as a bare minimum, and it’s hard to see how it’s improper.

What we lack here is a good model of conversational expectation – virtually everyone who writes “incivility on the internet” articles would be horrified by even mild academic Q&A sessions. Every part of people’s claims are hashed over, often in raised voices. Academia is not a tea party, even when everyone is doing it properly and playing by the rules. The level of discourse at a tea party is not the model of reasoned discourse, nor how things are done when Rational People get together to Have Their Rational Discussions – those often get quite tense, and certainly ought to cut deeply into the muscle of what anyone says. There’s a troubling conflation of, on the one hand, tough questioning and passionate argument, which I think are not only fine but completely in keeping with the ideal of deliberative inquiry, and, on the other, verbal assault (threats, humiliations, vicious epithets, racism and misogyny and so on). I think most people, in practice, are pretty good at seeing the difference.

Except when the inquirer is after something we ourselves said – then it all feels pretty mean. Spinoza noted that in our fondness for our own opinions, we tend to identify them with our own selves, and when our opinions are attacked, we feel the attack bodily, as an attack on our own being. But that’s not how it is, and it’s precisely what a reasonable person, or at least a person trying to be reasonable, has to get past.

The claim “we are rude on the internet and we must stop doing that because we are fracturing into different universes of discourse and it is wrecking our democracy” – this is an easy claim to make, but I think it’s mostly false, definitely ahistorical, and ideological. The assumption that without calm amity, minds do not change is, I think, demonstrably untrue – I know that I’ve changed my mind both in amicable conversations and not-at-all amicable ones (bellyflopping in an argument in front of other people has a way of clarifying the mind). And we know that calm discussion has no special power to crack open and merge separated universes of discourse: as the Public Conversations Project‘s section on abortion found, long-term, calm, reasoned conversation over a divisive issue tended to re-assert social pressure for politeness, but it manifestly did not bring people’s opinions together or even open up common ground: opinions became even more polarized.

Johnathan Haidt’s book the Righteous Mind is one that echoes the Wall Street Journal piece above. He thinks the internet has brought a historical break in our “national conversation”, which is qualitatively worse now, and it’s because we each live in self-reinforcing, filtered bubbles of opinion. We hang out online with only the like-minded, we consume media that only echoes what we already think. That’s true, but it raises a question: has there really been a time when human opinion was not formed mostly by a process of selection bias? Was there ever a time when our political discourse was not noisy, noisome, and scurrilous? I think even casual acquaintance with our history shows that this is not just wrong but an absurd claim. (The names they called Jefferson!) I don’t think the level of political acrimony is unique even in American history, and saying that discourse is too divisive now is one that’s too easy to make when social subalterns have just started gaining their own voices. That’s one reason I think the Righteous Mind ended up being a deeply conservative book (in the end, it was blue-staters who were really guilty of living in a bubble).

That’s not to say it isn’t a complete waste of time to argue with people who are Wrong on the Internet. It usually is. But it’s not because they’re loud, and it’s definitely not because “minds never change.” You can change a mind when you start from somewhere close to where it already is, not from the far side of some massive gulf you have to yell to be heard over. And minds move gradually, inch-by-inch. Opinion change is a nonrandom walk – a series of twitches and stumbles, really. I’ve had my mind changed more, and more fundamentally, by interacting with people who are like-minded, but not perfectly like-minded. I share their basic assumptions, I easily assume their sincerity and good faith, but precisely because of this I do not need to be spoken to by them in the kindest terms. I check myself, I think more, I read more, and I take a step. Then another step. And those steps change the nature of the intellectual community around me – it repopulates with different “like-minded” people as my mind changes. After a time, I find I am in a quite different place, with quite different people, and I no longer share the same assumptions as the people with whom I began. In so doing, I sail past the implicit barrier of Davidson’s model of interpretive charity in Neurath’s boat.

(You’ll want to know what that last bit means. The philosopher Donald Davidson said that, in argument, you will often find things in your opponent’s position that seem unreasonable or foolish or unfounded to you; it is your duty to reconstruct your opponent’s argument into the strongest case that you can, and then try to disprove that; in so doing you avoid arguing against straw men. Yet it has been noted by others (José Medina and Naomi Scheman, for example) that Davidson’s model has a flaw: you may be wrong in your reconstruction, because what seems to you the strongest version of their argument will rest on your own background assumptions, which may be wrong – and your opponent may have better ones. “Neurath’s boat” is a metaphor by the philosopher Otto Neurath about language: you rebuild the boat while you’re already at sea, so you can’t just start over and rebuild it all at once, because you’ll sink, but you can do it if you do it one little piece at a time (you use temporary extra pieces to keep water from rushing in). After a while you have a completely new boat, even if you never lay up and rebuild the boat from scratch. See?)