On differing online

Three flashes of the spirit of the age:

  • A friend on Facebook recently posted something to the effect that “maturity in the 21st century means un-friending somebody instead of getting into an argument with them.”
  • Lauren Beukes’ SF novel Moxyland refers in passing to (and I’m paraphrasing this too) “news feeds so ideologically customized that people only ever hear what they want to hear anymore.”
  • “Troll, n.2: … In extended use: an unpleasant or ugly person.” (Oxford English Dictionary, Sept. 2008 draft addition)

A social network is a strange place when people start to disagree. Last November, a friend on Facebook re-posted a link I had shared — an op-ed about the exploitation of Remembrance Day on behalf of present Canadian military campaigns — and later reported that he had lost two friends over the posting. Seems he got into a status-update thread of debate over the piece, a debate that got so heated he ended up dropping the two friends.

–But surely these were just “Facebook friends,” I asked.
–No they were actual friends, he said (then mentioned that they’d been on his shit-list for other offences for some time).

Earlier this year, I commented on a different Facebook friend’s support for Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s suggestion to repeal a plastic bag tax. I commented because I found it odd that this person tirelessly fundraises for cancer research but opposes a tax that would curb the use of toxic products. No further comments, on- or off-thread, followed mine. More recently I’ve had lively discussions with yet another Facebook friend over the upcoming election.

While I’ve arguably played the troll in these exchanges, neither of these Faceook friends — who are definitively Facebook friends (i.e. not people I look up when I’m in the area, or people I’d send holiday cards to) — have un-friended me over them. They are people whose political convictions oppose mine, and I appreciate their willingness to field my comments, even if they don’t agree or even respond to them. Here I should say that I’m not, categorically, any firm believer in “free speech.” For one thing, any decent grounding in poststructuralist theory quickly reveals, like the red pill, what a restrictive matrix is the prison-house of language in the first place; for another, free speech has been arrogated by the more strident and extremist parties to public discourse, for which it’s become a moral-panic smokescreen to cover all types of barbarism. “Free speech,” as my ex-pat friend in NYC reminds me, “is no excuse for being an asshole.”

But while I wouldn’t defend to the death the right of someone I disagree with to say whatever it is that I happen to disagree with, I might defend it to the pain. Not just tolerance of but critical engagement with difference of opinion is a hallmark of both a robust research culture and a vital political culture. Unfortunately, both seem to be turning into cultures we may have actually have to fight to keep and strengthen. A colleague in MA-IS recently shared some thoughts on current developments in how the political right is exploiting discourses of accountability and ideological “bias” to silence leftist dissent, while funding private think tanks to more thoroughly colonize the public sphere with ever-further-right hegemony:

“Legally, replete with a full moral rationalization emphasizing public disclosure, freedom of information, and the elimination of political bias in the use of public funds, the political right comes to completely dominate the public sphere of discourse. As public broadcasting is defunded out of existence, tons of private money goes to propaganda strategists in the think tanks and to propaganda distributors on cable TV/radio (e.g. Fox News, a form of which by the way is coming to Canada). It’s not hard to imagine the day when any voice of opposition is effectively silenced either legally (criminalization of dissent when any aspect of one’s livelihood has anything to do with public funding) or economically (little private funding available to mount effective public voice or a grossly disproportionate availability compared to what is available to the above-mentioned propaganda machine).”

Larger socio-political machinations like this make the personal of the social network seem a lot more political. I don’t know that there’s any general principle of tolerance or openness that should be applied in each and every case of differing online; I’m not suggesting the friend who un-friended over Remembrance Day hostilities should instead have suffered fools, gladly or otherwise. And I certainly agree that trolls — of the anonymous and cretinous kind that lurk in the comment fields of major news outlets, and among the general-interest hash-tags of Twitter — are not to be fed. But I might counsel a moment’s critical reflection if and when the opportunity arises to un-friend or otherwise cut off some disagreeable associate or acquaintance. The postmodern feminist sex-performance artist Annie Sprinkle once said during an interview that she was glad of such a teeming abundance of different and diverging opinions in the world. The interviewer challenged her on this, citing zealous anti-NEA conservatives like Jesse Helms, with their total, dehumanizing disregard for controversial art (which I’d say has only extended since to cover most art in general) — who, the interviewer pointed out, would never afford Sprinkle the same courtesy. Sprinkle stuck to her guns, and insisted on everyone’s right to a different opinion, however radical or extreme.

Like I said, I don’t think I could bring myself ever to excuse ignorant assholery as principled free speech. But does the health of the public sphere perhaps depend on cultivating its biodiversity, rather than culling its noxious weeds? And who gets to define “noxious”? I’ve blogged before about the inherent ideological premises of social networking technologies; so where on the political spectrum sits the one-click ability to cut off a voice with whom you disagree?

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

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