On Tauriq Moosa on civil discourse and the dark side of the internet

I see that Tauriq Moosa has started a two-part post on the value of civil discourse, grounding his discussion in an examination of John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of freedom of speech. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (with no claim to originality), Mill’s main line of argument would tend to cover only rather intellectual speech, entered into in good faith. It needs to be supplemented in various ways to sustain an argument for very broad freedom to express yourself, without society as a whole preventing you through some exercise of political power. Nonetheless, when we defend freedom of speech we shouldn’t forget that the reasons why it is so valuable in the first place don’t apply well to such things as lies about other people and mere attempts to infuriate or emotionally hurt someone you dislike or oppose.

Even if the government should be reluctant to interfere in these kinds of speech (perhaps doing so only in extreme and clear-cut cases), we might still, as individuals, have every reason to subject them to harsh criticism.

Part 1 of Moosa’s post can be found over here, and it makes for good reading. I’ll doubtless comment further when part 2 appears.

For the moment, we find ourselves at a time when some odious forms of speech are being used to intimidate people, hurt them emotionally, or damage their good reputations and possibly their careers. Thus, we get the sorts of examples that Sam Harris complains about.

Harris is someone whom I’ve often criticised. But he makes the important point that someone who is branded as a racist on popular sites is going to be stuck with the label to an extent, no matter what their real views or motivations might be: once it is widely enough stated that you are motivated by racism and bigotry, the false charge can take on a life of its own, with consequent effects not only for your reputation and career but also for innocent loved ones (as when Harris worries about what might one day be read by his daughter).

Separately – or perhaps not so separately, as much of this seems to be tied up with general problems relating to the internet – we have the phenomenon of 4chan-style trolling; here, at its worst, individuals are targeted directly with piled-on hateful comments, just to be cruel or perhaps “for the lulz”. This sort of thing is not funny. Here in Australia, it has become a topical issue, following a recent incident in which a local TV celebrity was apparently driven to a suicide attempt by the efforts of vicious trolls. This particular type of troll is typically misogynist, as well as cruel – it usually targets women, particularly women who are seen as somehow emotionally vulnerable.

Here’s another recent example, one where somebody whom I consider, in some respects, an intellectual opponent was given similar treatment. Not good – and by the way, nobody dishing out such vile treatment to any opponent of mine should imagine that I am their friend or ally. Mere intellectual opponents should have nothing to fear from us beyond disagreement, argument, and whatever degree of good-humoured snark might be appropriate if their positions are absurd.

I love the internet. It produces all sorts of extraordinary utilitarian benefits, and indeed it has been enormously beneficial to me, personally, here in a country that is geographically distant from most other industrially advanced nations. A great deal of what I’ve done in the past 10 to 15 years would have been far more difficult without it – in many cases prohibitively so.

As I’ve observed previously, even the internet’s obvious contraints on fluid kinds of affective communication may have advantages for some people – it may, for example, free up shy people to say things that they would be too afraid to say in real time and real life. Moreover, people who have difficulty “modelling” other’s feelings, via facial expressions, body language, and intonation patterns, may find the more laborious process of using text actually more effective. One way or another, the internet is not only a setting in which people can quickly make (and perhaps harm) enemies; they can also make friends and even virtual-reality lovers, and some on-line relationships turn out to be deep and genuine. We all know (well, I do – don’t you?) folks who have ended up getting married – in real life, that is – after meeting in an internet forum of some kind. In fact, some of the communication on the internet is doubtless of higher quality than much real-life communication, which is itself plagued by plenty of misunderstandings of how people are feeling.

Nonetheless, whatever is gained by the creation and development of the internet – and I repeat that it’s a great deal – there’s also a downside. This includes flame wars, various kinds of vicious trolling, and a general encouragement of uncivil discourse.

I don’t know the best response to this dark side of the internet. Perhaps there’s a limit to what we should want governments to do. But all of us can take some sort of stand, a stand against all kinds of internet bullying, trolling, and harassment. We can’t all “just get along”, but at least we can treat each other with common decency.

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