Arguing Over Argument in the Internet Age

The Internet means that today anyone can discuss any topic at any time with anyone who is interested in it.

When the possibility first appeared it seemed to open up a brave new world. Whatever your interest you could always find people who wanted to discuss it. The innovation also seemed to have political consequences that came at just the right time. Serious public thought was becoming concentrated in an ever more careerist academic world. Journalists were becoming more credentialed, journalism more professional and dominated by a few major outlets. The age of intellectual independence and skeptical hard-hitting reporting seemed over, and public discussion was becoming the preserve of a small self-perpetuating class with its own interests, alliances, and biases. It seemed that the Internet would break up the monopoly and make the public forum a true forum, where attempts by powerful interests to control the discussion would inevitably fail, and we could all meet and discuss common concerns as we saw them.

To some extent that’s happened. It’s much harder to cover up the news today, or to keep ideas and information away from those who want to find out about them. If you want to see what actually happened, you can look it up on YouTube. Nonetheless, the brave new world of the Internet has turned out not so brave or new. A cacophony of thoughtless words and images has become a white noise background to the same official views approved by the same kind of people who dominated public discussion before it came along. There is still a conventional wisdom that is found on the editorial pages of The New York Times, and it’s no wiser than before. If anything, it is less so.

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There are a number of reasons for how things have turned out. The ease of entering discussions has meant a lot of very bad discussion, much of it hardly worthy of the name. Obstinate people who have one answer for everything and ignore what others actually say find it easy to churn out commentary. Combox exchanges especially tend to devolve into repetitious gibes, slogans, and personal abuse. Normal people give up, and the bad drives out the good.

Intelligent discussion is work, and often unrewarding, since the same errors and dodges come up again and again and resist correction. Even if someone wants to understand a position it takes a great deal of imaginative effort to do so if he doesn’t already almost agree with it. If someone hears an assertion, he thinks of what it would be for him to make it. If he believes that “gay marriage” advances the purposes of public recognition of marriage and hears opposition, what he hears is “I want to pick on gay people.” That’s what it would mean if he took such a view and all his other beliefs remained the same. Such barriers can be quite difficult to overcome.

To make matters worse, the very diversification of opinion and information promoted by the Internet has put a premium on more effective ways of dismissing disfavored views. All too often people don’t want to understand because it would complicate matters to do so. To maintain the stability of their intellectual and social world in an age without legitimate authority they find ways to exclude whatever doesn’t fit. The result is that the more open public discussion seems to be the more partisan and taboo-ridden it becomes. Opposing positions are not described fairly or understood correctly, and what’s presented is less argument than insult, sophistry, bludgeoning, and half-truth or outright fiction. Issue is never joined, and discussion goes nowhere. At times in the past there has been a conception of honor that demanded a certain standard of honesty and good faith in public discussion. Those who violated it were discredited and ignored. In today’s marketplace of ideas that’s disappeared, and cheating pays off as long as it supports the answers people want.

Those who wish to carry on an intellectual struggle against dominant positions, including almost any serious Catholic who wants to take part in public life, need to consider how to respond to such a situation.

It is true that discussion can seem pointless today. How often do we convince anyone? How often do we even think we’ve made ourselves understood? Saint Ambrose commented that it has not pleased God to save His people through argumentation (“non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”). If so, it seems even less likely He’ll save His people through blog posts and combox rejoinders, or even thoughtful essays on esteemed websites.

Nonetheless, the pointlessness of argument is easily exaggerated. Discussion is important because man is a rational animal. That doesn’t mean he is always sensible, but it means that in most respects he is mostly so. If people weren’t mostly rational they wouldn’t survive.

Rationality is basic to what we are, and deeply affects what we think and do. If nothing else, it saves effort to have our thoughts in order. That is why language is such a rational system. A study of grammar shows that the language spoken by even the stupidest and most unreasonable people is a model of order and logic. Even its irregularities can be laid out in neat tables. If something so basic to our way of thinking and expressing ourselves is universally so logical and systematic, why not other aspects of our intellectual world?

We all have principles that explain a great deal about our lives. Those principles can be discussed, and the discussions can ultimately affect how we live. If nothing else, argumentation can help us hold whatever position we hold in a more intelligent and stable way. We have to think about our beliefs to present them and respond to objections, and in the end the need to think them through forces us to face the issue of whether our position is actually correct or needs to be modified or abandoned.

Those who try to engage in serious discussion are affected by the experience, so why not assume that others have the same capacity? Argumentative exchanges have a cumulative effect. They can clear up confusions or point out unsuspected problems, and sometimes someone says something that supplies the missing piece we needed so a question suddenly becomes clear. Even if those directly involved get nothing from the exchange onlookers may do so. That is one reason it is important to maintain standards in what you say and how you say it, no matter how objectionable your interlocutor. Paul gives reliable advice that applies to almost any serious topic: “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season … be unfailing in patience and in teaching.” You never know who might be reading, and you want your side of the issue to seem as reasonable and well-motivated as you believe it to be.


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