Sunday, July 17, 2005

Against Mendacity (part 3): From Different Worlds

Via Kevin Drum, an encouraging experiment: the Washington Post Magazine flew two partisan bloggers, one liberal and one conservative, to DC for a day of tourism and polite debate. As one might expect, the article reveals them to differ in the facts they choose to emphasize (but they at least appear to acknowledge the validity of each other's evidence) as well as the lines of causality they see. The assumptions from which they proceed are obviously worlds apart, and they're both dyed-in-the-wool, so immediately the question arose in my mind: is there any point to inter-ideological conversation at all?

Many political junkies would say there's not, but not these two. One of the only points on which Barbara O'Brien and Betsy Newmark agree is the importance of high school debate teams. Of course, the bare fact that they both assented to the Post's request indicates that neither puts much stock in partisan insularity. The conversation stayed away for the most part from snark and mean-spirited jibes, hewing closely to the relevant issues at hand. And while many of their disputes are philosophical ("I've seen how poorly the government runs things" vs. "the Bushies lie, and we're screwed"), they don't neglect to back up their arguments with evidence (though the article wasn't as detailed as I would have liked in documenting this).

O'Brien and Newmark share many of the same political goals, including a better health care system, a successful government-administered retirement security plan, and the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. These shared goals are reason enough for honest, reasoned conversation between proponents of different strategies for achieving them. But what we tend to see all too often on the right and left sides of the blogosphere is the "echo chamber" effect, a process of concentration toward ideological extremes in the absence of significant dissent. In psychology this phenomenon is known as 'groupthink', and its often disastrous effects on group decisions are well-documented. Serious debate between true opponents helps reduce groupthink; given that this is true, so why is there so little of it on the Web these days?

Two of the most significant obstacles to honest debate are (1) the fact that many people simply don't enjoying reading foreign opinions, and (2) that collisions of opposing viewpoints on the Web too frequently turn nasty. The former is just something that people need to grow out of, but the latter is a less tractable and more widespread problem. Without impartial moderators to rein them in, inflammatory "trolls" can quickly turn a relatively polite debate into a partisan food-fight with heckles, slander, insults, and other childish behavior. Those who were formerly content to play by the rules begin to respond in kind, because they don't take kindly to being insulted or just can't help themselves or some other emotional excuse. At the end of the day, everyone leaves exasperated by their opponents' lack of reason and thus strongly (but unjustifiably) reinforced in their partisan identity.

It's possible that the ugly tone that characterizes much of the right/left conversation over the Web is a consequence of the Web's impersonality as a medium. Whether or not this is the case, I think that Barbara and Betsy set an example for all reasonable liberals and conservatives who are interested in troll-free discussion. Partisan sites such as DailyKos and have succeeded in keeping themselves free of trolls, but without dissent, they're little more than echo chambers themselves. A site committed to true debate between all sides would need a bipartisan team of honest moderators that would assiduously root out inflammatory commentary and leave the discussion areas safe for substantive talk. Maybe this is all a pipe dream and there's no audience for such a site. I know it'd be at the top of my bookmark list.