Some thoughts on rational discourse.

This is, as the description text helpfully points out, a blog about “life, work, play, parenting, relationships, homemaking, food, drink, books, music, movies, writing, crafts, martial arts, spirituality, religion, philosophy, politics, and dreams. And sometimes ponies.” (Or something like that, anyway.) These are all subjects that interest me, and I generally like to talk about things that interest me. These are also all things which, as conversational topics on the Internet, often have the potential to incite white-hot, reality-warping flame-wars, the likes of which have ended relationships, schismed churches, laid waste to entire countries, and changed the very course of history.

Of course, I’m mostly talking about ponies. But the other stuff has been pretty bad, too.

Being the hip, cultured, and intelligent individuals you are, I’m sure you’re all aware that The Internet is amazingly good at turning even the hippest, most cultured, and smartest people out there into frothingly partisan berserkers who use their keyboards to verbally eviscerate anyone with the temerity to voice a dissenting opinion.  (Yes, I’m talking about ponies again.) While I’m as susceptible to that urge as the next person, I’ve worked really hard to smother it.  Believe it or not, I’m a survivor of the BBS scene of the mid-1980s and 1990s, so I’ve been doing this stuff a lot longer than most people on The Internet… longer than most people have been on The Internet, in fact.  In that time, I’ve learned a few things about discussing subjects—serious or trivial—which inspire passionate response.  Most of what I’ve learned can be summed up in three words: “Don’t do it.”

No, I’m serious.  Just don’t.

Sadly, here on The Internet, everything has the potential to be somebody’s pet passion.  And I do mean “everything.”  There is literally NO subject so trivial, inane, and meaningless that someone on The Internet won’t use it as an excuse to escalate a difference of opinion into a generational blood feud.  There have been evisceratingly rage-filled epic arguments about what kind of antenna you should put on the roof of your Volkswagen New Beetle, which Tw*l*ght character is the best/coolest/sexiest/least annoying, and whether or not $MUSIC_ARTIST_OR_BAND really counts as $MUSIC_GENRE_LIFESTYLE.  And $YOUR_CHOSEN_DEITY_OR_RANDOM_CHANCE help you if you wander into discussions about things that might actually have real-life impact, like whether or not it’s damaging to infants’ psyches to breastfeed them in public, or the relative merits of various political candidates, or the reality of global climate change. Hoo, boy.

So, yes.  No subject is safe, and no forum is immune.  However, since I came back to blogging to express opinions and hold discussions with people who find opinions and discussions to be worthwhile things to foment, it seems that a certain amount of recklessness is in order.  What I’d like to propose, then, is a compromise of sorts.

Let’s call it a return to sanity.

If you’re reading this blog, and especially if you choose to comment on this blog, I’m going to assume you are willing to agree with and abide by three simple principles, as outlined below.  If you decline to do so, the rest of the Internet is thataway.

1. Trolls, jerks, and assholes do exist. We sometimes talk about “the Internet” as though it were a mystical, otherworldly cyber-realm where lolcats and unicorns frolic around fountains of free data and the rules of real life don’t apply. I think this is a mistake, one that leads to people making bad decisions of every stripe and variety. So, let’s face some truth: there are real people in real life who derive real (if emotionally stunted) pleasure from being utterly hateful to random strangers. These people, emboldened by the (pseudo-)anonymity offered by the Internet, are going to be hateful jackasses online even more than they would in person, where being an asshole can get a drink or a punch thrown in your face. That is, as they say, a hard, pipe-hittin’ fact of life. However…

2. Most people are acting in good faith. Even the ones who disagree with you. As difficult as it may be to believe that someone who is so demonstrably wrong about $ISSUE isn’t simply an Internet troll whose mission in life is to give you a brain aneurysm by elevating your blood pressure with their stupidity, it’s usually true. Trust me, I have a hard time believing this, too… but a difference of opinion does not a troll make. If someone expresses a datum you believe to be erroneous, please feel free to offer a courteous, citation-backed correction. However, if someone expresses an opinion with which you disagree, ask yourself the following question before replying: “What am I hoping to accomplish with my response?” If you’re hoping to change the other person’s mind, you’re almost certainly going to fail… but any hope of success depends on getting the other person to see things as you see them, and no one has ever been convinced to see another person’s perspective by having a random stranger scream at them on the Internet. Therefore…

3. Be polite, go away, or shut up. I have no patience at all for trolls, fools, boors, or jackasses, and this is my blog. I don’t mind vigorous discussion, and there are even moments in an argument where a certain amount of heat is called for.  I’m fine with that.  However, the moment I see someone behaving in a manner that could, in my opinion, be reasonably be described as rude, trollish, or hateful, I will delete that person’s comments and do all in my power to remove their ability to comment here. This is not an open forum; this is my personal blog, and I won’t hesitate to use the Trollhammer on anyone who can’t act like a rational adult.  If they don’t like it, they can go throw a tantrum on their own blog.

So, there’s my humble proposition: Start with, and act from, the assumption that other people are acting in good faith, unless they demonstrate otherwise, at which point they should be removed from the conversation until they’re grown up enough to sit at the big kids’ table.  These aren’t new ideas, and they’re certainly not original to me.  They’re simple and obvious principles which, if applied, would allow us to sidestep about 90% of the potential fights, flamewars, and trollhunts that perpetually plague every public or semi-public forum on the Internet.  In fact, they could be applied to all public discourse, everywhere: on the Internet, in public debates, in personal conversation.  If that were case, something like a new age of sanity might dawn. Even political discussions could be made tolerable.  (No bets about YouTube comments, however.)  You may say I’m a dreamer, but… oh, never mind.

What are your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on rational discourse.

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