Thursday, March 29, 2007

The State of Internet Dialogue

The other day I was reading a back-and-forth debate between two people in the comments of an Internet blog, when one of them accused the other of an ad hominem attack. The response was some variation on “screw you” only he was much more colorful and it went to 2 or 3 paragraphs.

It made me hungry. I love hominy! I can’t imagine anybody attacking it, except maybe one of those Atkins diet freaks. I wasn’t familiar with Ad Hominy, so I figured that maybe it was genetically engineered or something and so maybe that was the source of controversy.

Then I re-read, and realized that the argument had gone a lot further than I realized: one of them had actually issued an attack ad against the other. You know the kind, where the music that they use has lyrics that are the exact opposite of the message the commercial is trying to convey. Like when Levi’s used the song “Favorite Son” but never bothered to listen past “some folks are born, made to wear the flag” to hear that he is clearly saying that he’s not one of those people.

But then I realized that it wasn’t an ad homonym attack, and I had to get out the dictionary. My first attempt failed over at Wikipedia, where “ad hominem” came back as “a dirty trick favored by Republicans, who are stupid and immature and fart too much.” Figuring maybe it’d been tampered with, I went to another dictionary, a paper one, and found out that accusing someone of an ad hominem attack is a debate tool used by overeducated people to avoid having to respond to grade-school slurs hurled at them.

Isn’t that typical of the state of discussion on the internet now? In one corner, you have a preening intellectual who is using all the tools of Latin conjugation and debate formality to pick apart the method of his opponent. And in the other corner you have a foul-mouthed troll who swears like a bankrupt pirate in a whorehouse whose debate strategy is to hurl four-letter curses at his opponent in an attempt to keep the level of the discourse no higher than 6th grade.

Oh, sure, occasionally you get two preening intellectuals who go on for pages and pages about ad hominem strawmen using sock puppets, and every comment page eventually ends up with filth-spewing guttersnipes attempting to out-vomit one another, but the general nature of the debate on the internet seems to always evolve into preener versus screamer. Then somebody says ‘Nazi’ and you can pretty much guarantee that the discussion is, for all intents and purposes, finished.

Internet debate has become like pro wrestling: it’s not about winning arguments, it’s about looking good to the people in your corner. The event is scripted so that both sides can believe that “their guy” won at least a moral victory if not a factual one; if he didn’t, they can retire thinking that it’s not his fault because the other guy cheated.

Heaven forbid that two mature adults engage in honest debate on an issue in the Internet without resorting to picking apart the apparatus of debate or lobbing verbal Molotovs at one another. That leaves the opportunity for a reader to say “hey, I never thought of that, that’s a good point.” That’s called learning, and outside of the University of Phoenix it’s absolutely forbidden on the Internet. At least, that’s what the popup ads tell me.

Far better to set up a mismatch: a philosopher gallivanting about on his rhetorical high horse versus a gutter-mouthed swamp thing wallowing in his own filth. Each round the philosopher can retreat to his corner where the others congratulate him on his rhetorical acumen while the troll retreats to his corner where the other thugs slap him on the back and chuckle about how good his insult was against the pencil-neck.

And therein lies the problem: both sides think they’re winning. The thing I don’t understand is why the rest of us keep reading it.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Mmmmm... grits!