Author: Vladimir Zark
As we’re approaching a critical period in the history of the world, it would seem that any freethinking person might sense a sort of discomfort about the madness we’re part of. It’s rational to be uncomfortable and even afraid of this madness, for it is an overpowering thing. Indeed, the madness I’m describing is the modern ideological cesspool known as “the death of discourse”, which comes from the misunderstandings, arguments, and even outright attacks that are now commonplace, particularly in the internet setting.
Discourse takes two parties who don’t necessarily see eye to eye and sets them against each other, using any knowledge, willpower, and imagination at their disposal. Discourse suggests that the two parties are interested in the ‘answer’, the so-called truth, to any number of significant or relevant issues. However, the death of discourse is becoming a widespread social phenomenon on public forums. If two sides are locked in partisanship and have no interest in their opponent’s claims, then discourse is impossible – discourse requires both parties to listen to one another and rebut the claims as they are made. Often, the problem in political or religious debates has nothing to do with the argument made or even the bias of the party; rather, the problem is that there’s no attempt even made at communication.
Furthermore, the problem of misconstruing claims or simply nitpicking the way they are made makes for a severe communicational gap. If a person hears or reads an argument and gets the wrong impression from it, yet believes that he understands the arguer’s exact intention, he will both mislead himself and the arguer. The same is true of the arguer, assuming that his argument or the way he presents the argument is lacking in clarity. I will give a concrete example, and in turn acknowledge some of my shortcomings as a communicator: several of my articles have faced enormous backlash, which is to be expected of any controversial material. In some cases, the backlash lies in an accusation that I’m ignorant of the topic I’m talking about, while in other cases the backlash simply has to do with the nature of the topic itself and how I present my argument for it. However, I will be clear, addressing those wonderful critics in places like the Libertarian subreddit, when I say that insulting my intelligence or reducing my argument to a straw man of what it really is cannot be called ‘discourse’. I won’t deny that it can be justified, especially if the criticism is productive, i.e. you missed a detail here, this argument could use some work, here’s a book that could help you, please consider more details; that’s different from simply saying that I’m a complete idiot and that all my articles are pointlessly awful. I’ll say, with respect due to r/Libertarian, that at least half of the critics there make reasonable objections. The really poisonous part of Reddit when it comes to discourse is r/Politics, which has a mindless chasm of insults for anyone who even dares say something different. It’s the true death of discourse when 3.4 million people have no political unity at all.
With free speech in play, every single idea is vulnerable to this, and such is the power of a democratic internet. The same goes for trolls and rabble rousers. But it isn’t productive. A person with bad ideas, if he does have bad ideas, needs to understand why his ideas are bad: telling him that he is wrong because the argument is implausible or stupid is circular, since it operates on the premise of ‘it’s wrong because it’s wrong’. That is how my journey with the internet feels sometimes, that I’m wrong because I’m wrong. Hell, I’ll admit in almost all cases that I’m wrong, especially if the accusation is justified. The problem is that in 9/10 cases, the person telling me I’m wrong does not propose an alternative to my claims, nor does he even acknowledge them – simply put, the point is to humiliate me or gain an ego boost rather than have a productive discussion. I’m no academic, sure, and I won’t be one after I finish my English and Philosophy degrees next semester. But I am interested in the beautiful thing we call ‘truth’ – and that sincere striving for truth, no matter how simplistic it seems to some of my readers, is my greatest interest. So enlighten me!
The fact of the matter is that no one on the internet has any moral obligation to anyone else, and nothing prevents criticism, good or bad. That is an objective fact, and indeed, many of the more controversial thinkers face the greatest amounts of opposition. The thing about controversial ideas, even if implausible, is that they’re often the most interesting, uncomfortable, and challenging, especially when well-reasoned. A poorly reasoned controversial argument is understandably shut down very quickly, especially when concerning race, gender, economics, science, religion, politics, among others – but a well-reasoned controversial argument is a blessing to discourse, since it generates conversation, builds interest, and deviates from the norm. The norm should always worry us, seeing as if we get too comfortable with it, we’ll allow it to become entrenched in our thinking, and then we either accept the norm because we think it’s right, or because we’re forced to. Right now, the norm is that the internet is not a place for intelligent, controversial discourse between two sides that think differently, which I think is the problem with popular sites like Reddit. And yet even seemingly apolitical networks like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube all have a less-than-subtle political narrative which can easily be used to threaten those who are not conforming to it. Reddit is similar, in that there’s a mob mentality to it. The mob swings both ways, since either it supports the side whose work is pro-them, or it completely cannibalizes the side that is anti-them. This is why the death of discourse is under way. Neither the Left nor the Right, nor anyone in the middle, are immune to this symptom. An ideology is problematic by its very nature, since it has no need to acknowledge its opponent – and today, it’s become quite fashionable to label ideologies you don’t like as ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and so on.
Notably, discourse is immediately dead when a person brings the so-called ‘weakest link’ of an ideology or its adherents: if a person arguing for liberalism uses traditionalist evangelicals as the opponent, he’ll almost always win the argument, seeing as those evangelicals are a poor representation of the Right, and not an ideal one. The same goes for a person who attacks the ideology of the Left by referring to groups as Anti-FA (a great minority and unpopular) and social justice warriors (more popular, but not taken seriously by any intelligent people). We must also be apt to decry those who incite violence, whether sarcastically or not. Having fun and mocking idiots is everyone’s favorite pastime, but those who spend their days saying “all commies must die” or “death to fascists” are not only NOT engaging in discourse, but they gesture at the fact that they are not mature or levelheaded enough to have any. This normalizes more and more extreme tribalism, where the other side is not only wrong, but a threat to our well-being also. I think it’s a sure sign of closed-mindedness when a person acts this way.
Indeed, discourse is a precious thing. It even brings us closer together. I am in favor of logical, heartfelt, and entirely unbiased discourse. I have no reason to attack my side or my opponent’s side more than necessary. I want the same thing my opponent does, just through different methods. That’s why I want to bring back discourse.