A farewell to online debates & communities

Back in the early 2000’s I used to be heavily active in political blogging.

Many of the views I held in that era, I’ve long since discarded, others I retain as personal moral principles which I have no interest in imposing on others. You may say I’ve gone from deeply political to an apolitical cynic, with some deeply held personal principles.

That time (roughly 2002–2007) was a time of intellectual exploration of principles and philosophy, as much, if not more driven by curiosity than any firmly held beliefs. That exploration was deeply enriched by the discussions that followed with people who had opposing and different views. Debates would often become heated, in some cases words would be exchanged that where later regretted — in those cases, private apologies would often follow by e-mail (often from me, sometimes from the other parties involved), and that would be that. It never got too personal and people with deeply differing view-points could mostly agree to disagree.

Fast forward ten years, and I have not really participated other than on the peripheries of any online communities. But what I’ve seen from the peripheries is quite enough to dissuade me from participating:

We have moved from civil debates to name-calling, from agreeing to disagree, to zero tolerance of even failing to agree fast enough. Context and nuance, considering opposing views has given way to seeking out offence and wrongs by distorting and grabbing things out of context to suit a narrative or end. Reality has become more surreal than any Dilbert comic Scott Adams could ever have imagined.

What makes the issue even more complicated is people conflating the mere act of disagreement with abuse. This can result in the perverse situation where people react to disagreement as if it where abuse, then duly proceed to abuse their perceived opponent in order to combat the first “abuse”. In 2016, two wrongs still don’t make a right.

Combine this with modern technology and social-media: our primitive brains and social instincts now have the ability to mobilise the worst of our character flaws, at scale and speed, towards anyone seen to be an “enemy”. Internet lynch-mob justice is dealt swiftly, sometimes before the victim even knows they’re a target, and certainly before they have had any time to explain or express themselves. The veil of anonymity that the internet grants also seems to remove social inhibitions: people do and say things to others online which they would never dream of doing to someone they had to meet in person. Technological evolution has far outpaced that of our biological brains.

Hate, abuse and harassment in all its forms is unacceptable, there is no case where the ends justify the means, even if you think you are doing so for a good cause. Where hate leads, no one wins, and collateral damage is almost a certainty.

There is no end of the spectrum that is without fault. Speaking of the political spectrum, it’s not a left vs right question - I’ve seen roughly equal amounts of abuse and harassment from people both on the left and on the right. The simple fact is that no cause is more righteous and no group is purer than the other. It’s really an individual question of being able to remain a fellow human to others: are we still able to see someone we disagree with as a human with value, or have they become “the enemy”, something subhuman, worthy of no respect or dignity?

Unfortunately, the way I see it, the internet has become a hate-filled cesspit, and seems to be on an accelerated trajectory for the worse. What used to be an amazing forum to test and explore ideas, teach and learn from others, has become a toxic wasteland hostile to almost anyone.

For those reason, I will do my best to no longer participate in online debates on any subject that risks becoming too infected. I will not participate in online communities of any sort apart from basic social media around subjects of interest. I will disengage from any online conversation the moment it becomes clear to me someone is more interested in proving a point or “being right”, than engaging in genuine discussion.

I’m sure I will sometimes fail in biting my tongue and give into temptation, but as a rule, I’m out.