On Discourse

Argument Clinic-CleeseMan: I came here for a good argument.
Mr Vibrating: No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.
Man: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
Mr Vibrating: It can be.
Man: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.
Man: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
Mr Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
Mr Vibrating: Yes it is!
Man: No it isn’t!
Man: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
(short pause)
Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

—Monty Python, “Argument Clinic”

I’d like to introduce the above exhibit as an example ad absurdum on the conduct of many individuals once they find themselves in the vast anonymity of cyber space.  Depending on the venue (with sites like YouTube and FaceBook being particularly susceptible), a disturbing number of “discussions” can be boiled down to roughly the same level of discourse that the Pythons so cleverly lampooned back in 1972.  In my own short time on the InterWebs, I have only found a handful of boards (the wonderful Druid’s Head Pub being one of them) where the Mr. Vibratings of the virtual world are taken to task for their inanity and disruption.

But trying to control the trolls and egomaniacs of the internet does have some rather unhappy ramifications, especially for sites which seek to promote the discussion of spirituality.  The major one is to create a feeling of hostility between long-time members and newcomers, who often times will be very enthusiastic, but less able in their argumentative capabilities.  Many groups respond with the old “use the search key,” or “read all (4 years worth) of archives before you post” as a method of negating the invariable awkwardness when a new member sticks his foot in his mouth.  But really, what is needed here is training in 1) courtesy and etiquette when responding in written form, and 2) a basic understanding of logic and debate.

Neither courtesy nor logic are easy to come by as they seem to have been eliminated from most modern forms of education.  (Latin, once the standard for building logical thinking through language, is no longer fashionable; meanwhile the elegance of the written word has been reduced to “LOL, WTFBBQ?”)  Still, is it the responsibility of “veteran” members of a community to instill these basics in the “newbs”?  While it can be wearing to respond to post after post of enthusiastic (but misinformed) discourse, I believe the initial attempt needs to be made by those who already know the ropes.  Their tone defines what is, and is not, acceptable, and without their guidance, it is ridiculous to expect any change in behavior on the part of the (ignorant but not necessarily stupid) newcomer.

Unfortunately, many veterans have become tired of the constant effort it takes to “edumacate” the uninitiated, resulting in bitter and sarcastic responses to what may in fact be genuine misunderstandings or questions.  This ends up benefitting no one—although it may indulge the old timer’s superiority complexes, however briefly.  Kindness is another lost art, one that needs to be paid particular attention when dealing with such anonymous internet interactions.

So in short, newbs: try to learn the basics of debate and discourse, and apply them liberally when you enter a new forum or email list.  And veterans, please try a little kindness.  Tolerance wears thin, but kindness is the spackle that allows us to preserve the illusion of patience.

—A.V.

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