Civil Discourse

In a recent Internet post, Scientific American posed an interesting question. “Why is everyone on the Internet so angry?” It is an interesting question, and I only need a brief examination of my Facebook page to recognize that there is some truth in what they say. A recent NPR story, indicates that while most of us think we are objective in our search for information, almost all of us tend to focus on that information with which we already agree.  Recent opinion polls indicate that when it comes to ascribing blame for the current polarization in Washington, both sides tend to blame the other.

So what are we to make of this current situation in discussing issues of significance in our day? It is true that the Scientific American article points out the complications the Internet presents engaging in dialogue.  “Communication, the scholars say, is really about taking someone else’s perspective, understanding it, and responding. “Tone of voice and gesture can have a large influence on your ability to understand what someone is saying,” Markman said. “The further away from face-to-face, real-time dialogue you get, the harder it is to communicate.”

In the instant nature of Internet dialogue, or perhaps the instant nature of Internet diatribe, the ability to remain anonymous when making comments, the ability to react immediately to one side of an opinion, and the belief that one side or the other presents the objective truth while the other has a bias, are challenging realities to the nature of objective discourse.  While it is true that there have always been heated arguments in the course of human history, the absolute pervasiveness of information available on the Internet, and the seemingly unlimited ability to comment on this content immediately, have created a challenging circumstance.

Too often in commentary today, things are presented as an “either-or”. There simply is too much black and white thinking on both sides of most issues. For example, there are those who decry the Supreme Court’s ruling on citizens United, which gave person status to corporations. But these same voices defended issue oriented ads purchased by nonprofit organizations and unions. It seems both sides would be better served with eliminating the ability to contribute anonymously to any organization. But the ability to stand up and confront people who make their views known is an important component of honest dialogue.

For all those who claim that news can be objective, the evidence suggests otherwise. Fox News, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and a whole host of Internet news sites begin from a basic editorial bias. Such is human nature.  It could be argued that any reporting of the news, is the reporting of the news as seen by a particular individual, with a particular understanding, with a particular bias, with a particular set of experiences and opinions that make it difficult for any of us to say with absolute certainty that what we witness is in fact objective truth.

This is not to suggest that objective truth is not real.  It is to suggest however, that when suggesting something is objective, it is perhaps best done in the method of an ancient medieval scholar. The method of St. Thomas Aquinas was in fact to consider the most persuasive arguments on a variety of topics that were available in his day, both those with which he agreed and those with which he disagreed. His method of “getting at the truth” often involved considering the strongest evidence from both sides of the equation. Were Aquinas alive today, I suspect that he would be encouraging these same types of real debates, rather than the thirty second soundbites where people usually simply argue with one another at the same time, or political debates where the answer is prepared before the question is asked.

Such is the hope of what is written here. Namely, reasonable, intelligent, dialogue, using a variety of sources to raise important questions of our day.  Of course, not everything discussed here will be deep, profound, or life-changing. Some things that are discussed here will be frivolous, quirky, and really won’t change much of anything. Perhaps this site will only serve a need to share ideas, to place out in cyberspace, one more silly attempt, to search for truth and meaning. And after all, isn’t that the challenge of mature human life?

“Working out solutions to the kinds of hard problems that tend to garner the most comments online requires lengthy discussion and compromise. “The back-and-forth negotiation that goes on in having a conversation with someone you don’t agree with is a skill,” (Art) Markman (professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin) said. And this skill is languishing, both among members of the public and our leaders.”

So, as I tell my students, when they write something in cyberspace, they are best served to remember the person that reads it is in fact, a real person.  Would that we all could remember this.  Let’s hope this is the start of something new.