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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Someogne is gnasty on the intergnet"

Here's a little thought for the day. You probably have interests that are remote from anything discussed on this blog. Perhaps you're obsessed with competitive water-skiing. Maybe you're an aficianado of Serbian politics. Or spy novels. Or ancient Chinese history.

Some of these topics lend themselves to passion and conflict more than others. Sport and politics are especially effective at getting people to take sides and arouse themselves to frustration and anger. But when I surf around the net looking at forums on stray topics that might interest me I see flame wars provoked by all sorts of seemingly innocuous topics.

In fact, there are two very common phenomena on the internet. Get a bunch of like-minded people together to talk about some topic that interests them - and on which they agree because they are that like-minded - and they'll soon be egging each other on to increasingly extreme positions and increasingly fierce denunciations of all opponents. But get a forum where there's disagreement - over, say, the respective merits of two leading Korean movie-makers, or two competitive water-skiers, who are known to be rivals - and you'll soon see a flame war, complete with boasting, namecalling, dubious accusations about other people's motives and emotions, angry threats to leave the forum, and weird meta-arguments about the epistemic status of opinions ("My opinion is a good as yours; you can't say it's false!" "It's just a fact that Betty Foo is the greatest women's water-skiier of all time, and you can't deny it!" "Sorry, fuckwit, if I'd known you were that stupid, I'd have prefaced every comment with the words, 'In my opinion' (:rolleyes:)!").

Part of this is just human nature, and part of it is the effect of anonymity. When I see this happening, I often despair - it looks like there's a lot of frustration and anger Out There, waiting to be expressed in situations where it won't provoke any serious consequences (lost friendships, lost jobs, actual rather than virtual shouting, physical violence, etc., etc.). And there's certainly the phenomenon that human sympathy can be lost when you're not seeing/expecting to see someone's hurt facial expression or tone of voice. The intergnet can be a gnasty place, and this is not something I enjoy about it, though fortunately most people seem to be robust enough to deal with this without serious emotional hurt.

This, however, is why it's pretty pointless drawing conclusions from gnasty comments made by anonymous people in large online forums - on any subject. You'll very likely find that the biggest forums on competitive water-skiing and Korean movies are full of anger, exasperation, personality clashes, feuds, moderators banning people, moderators showing favoritism, and all the other features of the internet that can make it a less than friendly place.

No one should, however, conclude that fans of competitive water-skiing or Korean movies, or folks with particular opinions on these matters, are especially uncivil people.

Just saying.


Ophelia Benson said...

I can't imagine what you have in mind.

Darrick Lim said...

Speaking of gnastiness and incivility, Jeremy Stangroom thinks you're a hypocrite. Though he can't help but slip in a little snark in the process.

And Massimo Pigliucci is puzzled (and it seems to me a tad peeved) over your apparently contradictory views of Sam Harris' 'you-know-the-book-I'm-talking-about' (which I've just bought and am up to Chapter 2).

I admire and respect you, Russell. Heck, I even started reading X-Men (New and Ultimate so far) because of you! And I loved your essay in the Australian Book of Atheism. So it causes me some distress to see other people I also respect be so, well, not nasty, but a little testy with you. But perhaps they have some valid points?

Anonymous said...

Another typically clueless posting from Blackford.

Rorschach said...

Did I miss anything ?

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks for playing, anonymous.

Darrick, why would I think that Stangroom in particular has a valid point?

Ophelia Benson said...

Note that Russell has the decency not to close comments when he disagrees with someone. Not everyone has that particular decency.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

This is why I am boggled that people hate PZ because some of the pharyngulites use bad words.

Marshall said...

Well said.

And I hope you will agree that there is a hard problem here. Good snark is all very well, but I'm not one of those who say that the tone and imagery of political debate here in the US had nothing at all to do with "an especially uncivil person" shooting actual bullets at his Representative and her supporters.

"Nature, Mr. All-Nuts, is what we were put on earth to rise above." Our common goal. And why is the snark level in these pages manageable? ...because you manage it.

George Higinbotham said...

Russell, I think you are exactly right. Bile on the web is not proof that we have a problem.

I think proof that "we" have a problem is stuff like this:

Do we want a world where rights to religious belief is universally acknowledged?

It seems to me that this article is a pretty fair summary of the aims of "The New Atheism" ... which seems to differ from the Old Atheism in one dimension, namely that its advocates don't want the right to live in a society that doesn't punish them for their unbelief, but rather one where no one should have religious beliefs ... that are unreasonable.

What I find annoying about all this "show me where other than on the internet is all this gnasty stuff" ... is that it seems to be a valid point that there really is an uptick in the idea that what atheists should care about is "challenging" people about "their belief in God".

While I don't want it to be illegal for people to "challenge" anyone - what this article shows is that the advocacy is pointing to people questioning "religion" as a human right ...

Here in Australia, a political party has formed, under the heading of "Secular" but if you listen to the leader of this party speak, what you hear is not "secular" but "anti-religious"

He says many of the right things, but clearly the entire message is "religion is wrong" "what is in your bibles can't be right" and there are statements about "what religious people are taught".

This kind of talk IS the outgrowth of, if not exactly a summary of the arguments in "end of faith" ... but here as you see, it is presented as political speech. This is a man seeking elected office on the premise that "religion is bad" and "we should use reason" ...

The article I linked above, and TomH on your other post are literally asking "should religion be accorded the status of a right".

I think these are legitimate questions, and I don't for a second think they shouldn't be asked, however I suggest that "the new atheism" has an opinion on this question. The logical progression from the ideas and thinking that are being generated by these sorts of statements and advocacy is actually quite at odds with legal principles and established rights.

I think all of this can and should be contested but lets not pretend that the problem is in the comments section of obscure blogs.

Mark Sloan said...

Russell, at least I feel some gratitude toward “Anonymous” (good user name choice!) for effectively, while perhaps unknowingly, illustrating your point.

Russell Blackford said...

George, the first example is Greta Christina writing on the internet. She's forthright and sounds off a bit, but it's not really uncivil. The guts of it is:

They [i.e. religious moderates] don't see that there's an option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief... while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we'd treat any other idea we think is mistaken. They don't see the option of being passionate about the right to religious freedom, of fully supporting the right to believe whatever you like as one of our fundamental human rights... while at the same time seeing the right to criticize ideas we don't agree with as an equally fundamental right. They don't see the option of debating and disagreeing without resorting to hatred and violence. They don't see the option of disagreeing with what people say, while defending to the death their right to say it.

That sounds fair to me.

I assume the second example is John Perkins. I don't agree with John on every point he makes from time to time, as he knows, but in my experience he's always civil. I'll check the second link if I get some time, but the first one was a fizzer.