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Thursday, August 12, 2010
A FEW years ago I and countless others believed the ‘digital age’ would usher in a new era of direct democracy and that, with the advent of blogs, every man, woman and child had the potential to be their own publisher and thereby capable of winning public support for their chosen causes and ideas – new or old.
Now however, I’m not so sure; all too often online comment is angry, destructive and hurtful. I have frequently seen horrible and hurtful things written, sometimes about people I know from personal experience to be honest, honourable and totally committed to the welfare of our country.
At first glance, my reaction was that these comments were merely a response to the various crises in which we find ourselves embroiled, represented nothing more than an honest expression of the public mood and, as such, were to be embraced wholeheartedly as a welcome new dimension to our public discourse.
On further reflection, however, the specific tone of the blogs and online comment pages doesn’t quite match the public mood. Yes, there is an undoubted sense of anger among us all, directed at the establishment in general and the financial institutions and politicians in particular. However, the vast majority of us want to learn what went wrong – not to facilitate our fuller participation in the national blame game, but in order that we can minimise the risk of a recurrence.
We want to build a better Ireland, not wallow in rage or go "postal". Nor do I believe public anger should be used as a cover to destroy people by tearing someone’s hard-won reputation and good name to shreds.
No less than anger not being a solution, rage is not always right – what Ireland needs is justice, and not revenge, and one of the fundamental components of justice is that of a basic human respect, one for the other, right throughout our community.
On still further reflection I began to realise the defining characteristic of this new ‘virtual’ medium – a forum contributed to by so many – is the fact that the vast bulk of online comment is effectively anonymous; it’s akin to a dialogue consisting of a series of anonymous telephone calls, but with the great advantage of having eliminated all risk of identification.
This anonymity facilitates bitterness, vitriol and, at times, sheer poison – the internet provides a platform for contributions and a playground for cranks. The type of person who in the past would have sent an anonymous poisoned-pen letter now has a wonderful new facility at his or her disposal – one in which he or she can attack anyone unfortunate enough to incur their displeasure, without leaving themselves vulnerable to identification or retaliation. And then there is the real bonus of a potentially massive audience with whom dialogue (anonymous, of course) is actually facilitated, and indeed encouraged, both in the general and the particular.
One of the cornerstones of our ‘traditional’ debate is honesty, and one of the ways in which this is facilitated is by having an awareness of the identity of others involved in the discussion – at times to the extent of face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball; there are certain implicit rules of engagement and there is also the factor of body language.
All of these elements have a direct bearing on the nature and quality of the dialogue. One can also see if a participant is being discomfited or indeed pained from time to time, and just what the relevant pinch points are.
Put simply, the fact is that human nature dictates that the vast majority of us just don’t like hurting people. One might say something hurtful in anger, but usually an appropriate apology for having done so will be readily forthcoming – we know what is to feel pain and we have no real desire to inflict it on others. In this new online world of ours, we’ve been deprived of the opportunity to look into the eyes of others and have no sense whatever of the body language.
As a consequence, even the most decent among us are tempted to express themselves in a manner that would be beyond their contemplation were it to be done in the ‘real’ world.
We humans have strong, deeply-rooted, natural inhibitions against causing pain to others; military, and indeed some sports, training and conditioning is largely directed at the dilution of these basic instincts. In wartime we derogatorily nickname opponents with names – ‘Hun’, ‘Jap’, ‘Yank’, ‘Brit’ – in an attempt to dehumanise the enemy.
This is to help us forget that our opponents are mere human beings like ourselves, with the same feelings, families, hopes and dreams. Regrettably, the online world does not facilitate an awareness of any aspect of the humanity of our opponents/correspondents, the hurt we are capable of inflicting on them, or their capacity to cope with their pain.
If bitterness and bile are to be the predominant tones of online debate, then it is reasonable to believe people will begin to switch off and tune out from these debates. Were this to come about, it would be a real tragedy for democracy as online communication does have massive potential as a transformational agent for the entire nature of political debate, with a marvellous capacity to bring about the much needed revolution in the way we conduct our public discourse.
The Obama 2008 presidential campaign clearly displayed just how an effectively delivered message of hope could mobilise mass participation and organise hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to canvass, contribute and vote for a candidate who embodied positivity in a time of great national despair.
WHAT can we do about it? For a start all of us can discuss politics in terms of ideas and not personalities. Let’s remove the bile and instead analyse the arguments being advanced, and not those by whom they are being advanced, or indeed what their grandfathers and grandmothers might have done.
Secondly, let’s inject some positivity into our public discourse. There is an old saying that "a leader is a dealer in hope, hope is what inspires people, hate simply causes people to choke on their own intellectual vomit".
Thirdly, let’s debate the kind of country we want to build for our children. Many of the difficulties in which we now find ourselves have been caused by us allowing ourselves to be swept along by events rather than taking charge of them and charting our own course, if necessary at times to less attractive places.
The nature of the online debate required is that of a conversation between adults who actively listen rather than passively hear, who actively persuade rather than passively absorb, and who always remain open to and conscious of their own fallibility and the distinct possibility that maybe – just maybe – they mightn’t have all the answers.
If we can initiate this kind of debate in Ireland we will have gone a long way down the road to our economic and social recovery and the consequent renewal of this battered little republic of ours.
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