Umbrage & The Web

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek recently wrote a column on umbrage and the web. While I agree with some of his claims, the article does require a response. As such, I will reply to his main points and offer both commentary and criticism.

Alter begins with a common theme: the umbrage that is present on the web. As Alter notes, the web provides an anonymous vehicle for lies, crudeness and degradation. Of course, the use of the written (or typed) word as a vehicle of umbrage is nothing new. While I am not a professional historian, as a philosophy professor I research the times and backgrounds of many philosophers.  Based on what I have learned over the years, I can assure you that umbrage has been with humanity since we started writing things down. Interestingly, after I read Alter’s article this morning, I saw a show on the History Channel about two rival Chinese gangs who wrote slurs against each other in the American newspapers. This was during the 1800s. I later read an article in the June 2008 Smithsonian about Darwin (Richard Conniff, “On the Origin of a Theory”, 86-93). The article noted some of the written sniping between various people regarding the concept of evolution.  Before Darwin published his work, Robert Chambers wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845. One geologist replied to the work by expressing his desire to stamp “with an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put and end to its crawlings.” (page 90). That is eloquent bit of umbrage every bit as venomous as the comments inflicted on the web today. Of course, it does not quite match the concise with of “boitch u r teh suckz.”

If one turns to politics, examples of venom throughout history are far too numerous to list. For those who wish to search for examples, I suggest beginning with political cartoons from the 1700s and 1800s. You will find that the poison pens of old crafted many venomous cartoons.  Other excellent sources the are various anonymous political tracts from the same time period. As such, umbrage and venom in print are nothing new.

Like Alter, I believe that the umbrage and venom are negative and undesirable. Such venom adds nothing to the quality of discussions and simply serves to inflame emotions to no good end. It also encourages intellectual sloppiness because people feel that they have made an adequate reply when they have merely vented their spleens (to use the old phrase).

Alter next turns to a matter of significant concern: while bloggers offer a great deal of commentary, they rarely provide people with news in the true sense. While some blogs do post the news, it is (as Alter points out) generally taken from some traditional media source. Newspapers and other traditional media sources are, as he notes, are currently laying off reporters due to financial problems. This means that there will be less original investigation and reporting. Fortunately, some bloggers are stepping in and doing their own investigations. I suspect that this might lead to the more substantial blogging sites gradually stepping into the openings created by the decline of traditional  print media. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether a web based organization can afford to do robust investigation and reporting. In principle, however, there seems to be no reason why they cannot partially replace traditional print media.

A third point made by Alter is that print media is moving towards the web’s style of writing. To be specific, there is a push towards short articles like those in blogs. Presumably this is to match the alleged shorter attention span of the modern audience. I do agree with Alter that there can be a negative side to taking this approach. While a short piece can be fine, there is still a clear need for depth and details and this requires more than a blog entry sized block of text. As you can see from most of my own blogs, I tend to go on at considerable length. Hence, it is hardly shocking that I would support him in this matter.

A fourth point that Alter makes is the very common criticism that people exploit the anonymity of the web to launch attacks and spew venom. This is, of course, a concern. However, this is nothing new. History is full of examples of anonymous writings that are quite critical and venom filled. The web merely makes it easier to make such works public and to avoid being identified. After all, if I have to print and distribute an anonymous tract, there will be a fairly clear trail leading back to me. But, on the web I can easily make use of a free service that ensures my identity will remain unknown by making my posting effectively untraceable.

As Alter points out, the “web culture” tolerates anonymity. However, many writers do identify themselves and people are often quite critical of those who hide behind anonymity when they spew forth venom. While there can be good reasons to hide one’s identity (such as fear of reprisals from oppressive governments), most people lack a legitimate reason to remain hidden. My view is that if someone believes what she is typing, then she should have enough courage to actually claim her own words. There is also the matter of courtesy. Anonymous posting is like talking to people while wearing a mask. That is a bit rude. Unless, of course, you happen to be a superhero.

His fifth point is that people often prefer rumors to facts. As he points out, some people believe the emails about Obama being a Muslim and similar such things. What is new here is not that people often prefer rumors, but the delivery mechanism of the rumors. In the past, people had to rely on newspapers, gossip, and public broadsheets in order to learn of rumors. Today, rumors can be sent via email. As such, we have the same sort of rumors using a different medium.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that people prefer a rumor that matches their biases over truth that goes against them. I am also well aware that people generally prefer something dirty, juicy, or titillating over dull facts. Hence, the appeal of rumors is hardly surprising. Obviously, people should have better rumor filters so as to avoid believing false things (or even true things on the basis of inadequate evidence). The internet has just changed the medium and not the basic problem: most people are poor critical thinkers. Fixing this requires what philosophers have been arguing for since before Socrates: people need to learn to think in a critical manner.

Alter’s sixth point is about a commonly remarked upon phenomena: the internet (email and web comments) seems to be especially awash in venom. As noted above, this is nothing new. However, as Alter points out, the web and email lead to disinhibition. While he does not explore the reasons for this, there are three plausible causes. First, email and web comments are effectively instant. With a written letter, you have time to think about it as you put it in the envelope and go to mail it. During this time you might think better of what you said. With an email or web comment, you just push a button and it is done. Second, email and web comments are generally not edited. Professional newspapers and magazines are edited and hence venomous comments generally do not get into print. Hence, the web seems like a more venomous place. Since people know that what they type will appear, they are less inclined to be restrained. Naturally, this feeds the beast-when people see the first venomous remark, they are (like someone who sees trash already on the ground) more inclined to follow suit. Third, the web allows for anonymous posting and emailing so people can (as noted above) spew from behind a mask. This, naturally enough, encourages people to be less nice.

Some web sites deal with this problem by reviewing comments before publishing them. On the plus side, this does help filter out some of the venom. On the minus side, such editing does tend to interfere with the freedom of expression. It is, obviously enough, very tempting for an editor to delete comments because she disagrees with the contents. Of course, this approach does not deal with the main causes of the problem: poor impulse control, poor ethics and poor reasoning skills.

Philosophers have been trying to deal with those two problems for centuries. Aristotle provided some of the best advice on how to deal with poor impulse control  and poor ethics in his Nicomachean Ethics. Of course, most people do not seem very inclined to follow that advice. Almost all philosophers have tried to encourage people to work on their reasoning skills. However, this has not met with great success. Until more people have better impulse control, better ethics and better reasoning skills, the deluge of venom can expect to continue.

Alter’s seventh point is the usual lamentation about how the web was supposed to bring us breadth in coverage but did not live up to the dream. As he notes, bloggers tend to mainly follow right along with the cable networks. For example, as the American financial system was taking serious hits,  most bloggers and the cable news focused mainly on the “satirical” Obama cover on the New Yorker.

Obviously, this behavior is hardly shocking. Bloggers do the same thing the traditional media does: they focus on the stories they think people will want to hear about. While they can be criticized for pandering to the masses, the masses should also be criticized for wanting such things. When my students ask me why the media focuses on the sensational over the substantive, I provide the easy and obvious answer: the media gives people what they want. Thus, in order to have more substantial coverage, people would need to switch their desire from what is sensational to what is substantive. Good luck with that.

That said, there is actually significant breadth in the realm of blogs. If you leave the mainstream blogs and search around a bit, you will easily find blogs on vast array of topics. For example, there are many blogs devoted to philosophical issues (such as this one). As another example, there are blogs devoted to science. These bloggers do not blindly follow the main media. This, obviously, means that they do not get as much attention as the bloggers who stick with the mainstream. As such, much of the perceived lack of breadth is merely a lack of looking.

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