People who probably get along quite well gathered around the water cooler or standing along the backyard fence become mortal enemies when safely separated by a buffer of cyberspace.
The recent election cycle found me hearkening back to grad school and the paper I wrote on how the Internet would likely affect public discourse on the political issues of the day. I was bullish on the prospects, and optimism swelled in my assessment.
I put forth that the Internet would expose people to diverse opinions, allowing them to explore issues from many angles before arriving at an informed position. They would seek and easily find others to challenge their preconceived notions. Vigorous and respectful debate would flourish like in no other time in history.
I was certain this convergence of diverse insight and opinion would spark the dawn of a new age of enlightenment.
Wrong. It turned out to be more paleolithic than I ever could have imagined.
The bucolic public square I so quaintly imagined never came to pass. Today, it’s more of a cave, where grunting citizens figuratively conk each other with wooden clubs, while civil debate has devolved into primitive name-calling and animus.
The Internet — as you may have noticed — has been overrun by packs of rapid partisans. For them, there are no ideological counterpoints to consider — only enemies to ridicule and despise. Every issue is viewed through a tint of red or blue, and party-issued talking points pass as original thought.
Quotes are readily taken out of context, and the worst possible motivation is assumed of every action.
There is very little root-root-rooting for the home team on the Web. Nobody has much praise for politicians they admire or policies they support. Instead, the people take part in democracy by engaging in the black art of mudslinging.
This new political class seems to relish being outraged and disgusted, but what they really like is to point their fingers and laugh. A YouTube video of a candidate mispronouncing a word or falling dumbstruck during a debate is the stuff of much mirth. Howls abound when it’s revealed that a pol is a tax cheat or adulterer.
Sure, sometimes it’s fun to crack jokes about politicians’ gaffes and sordid pasts, but if you need to check to see if there’s a (D) or an (R) after their name before laughing, then the joke is also on you.
The populist fervor afflicting the left and the right contaminates all that it touches. If the Weather Channel website allowed visitors to comment on forecasts, I’m positive that every looming cold front and storm event would be blamed on the incompetence of some or other caucus.
So that’s what it’s come down to. People who probably get along quite well gathered around the water cooler or standing along the backyard fence become mortal enemies when safely separated by a buffer of cyberspace.
I used to dip my toes occassionally into this cesspool, engaging in debate on my blog and various social media sites. But whenever I did this, I often came away feeling dirty. Or unnerved. Or sometimes rude. And I just don’t have the stomach for it anymore.
Now when I come across a political discussion on Facebook, I just start humming loudly and think of non-partisan bunny rabbits until I can safely scroll past it. Maybe I’m missing out on an intelligent and respectful debate, but it’s a pretty good bet that somebody is going off half-cocked. Better to stay out of the line of fire.
Some might say that I’m shirking my duties as a citizen for no longer participating in political discourse. Others might think me wimpy for ducking a harmless fight. But when I see so many people consumed by — if not downright hatred then certainly a well-tended animosity — for folks who vote the other side in primaries, I’m just happy to not be one of them.
Dan Naumovich is a freelance writer and the author of BlogFreeSpringfield. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.