Monday, December 22, 2014

When Did We Become A World Of Debate Team Lunatics?

To me one of the weirdest things about the modern world is the way social media has brought out the debate team nerd in everyone.

Wasn't it not that long ago that if you talked to people about having an "argument" for their claims, or having an "objection," or a "rebuttal," that people would look at you like you were from Mars?

Maybe I'm sensitized to this because as a philosophy professor it's long been part of my job  to encourage people to engage in just these activities. For a long time, like in the 90s, that encouragement used to meet generally with just blank stares. Like, you want us to do what, exactly?

Some of those blank stares I understood as arising from the idea that communication was, for most people, not generally about convincing people of things. Communication, people seemed to generally feel, was about expressing feelings, or sharing something, or making a joke, or coordinating plans.

Sure, if you were protesting, or canvassing for a cause, or involved in a political campaign, you might get involved in the "making arguments" and "having rebuttals" business. But for most people, most of the time, that was not the main thing we were doing with words.

But now, with social media, it feels like that is all anyone ever does with words. "Having an opinion" is like the main currency of online communication. People are constantly challenging one another's epistemological credentials, standpoint biases, and unstated assumptions.

You click on the "comments" of almost anything and it's like you stumbled into some parallel universe where everyone signed up for lifelong membership in some focus-group-debate-team-mashup where it's really important to state an opinion and challenge those who don't agree with you.

Some of the constant comment arises because people with horrible offensive views now feel empowered to express those views and disagreement with those views is essential, and I get that. But it also feels like there's been a huge uptick in the expression of views about every conceivable thing under the sun: the relative merits of this or that thing; the right way to prepare this or that food; the hidden ethical and social implications of seemingly trivial and innocuous choices.

And if the thing you're sharing is SO innocuous and nice that it's impossible to generate some debate about it, you can rely on someone to start a discussion of whether sharing that innocuous and nice thing is OK and how and why and when.

You can't debate baby pictures, but you sure as hell can debate whether, how, why, and when it's appropriate to share them. I'm often astonished by how passionate people's opinions are on which cute or fun things it is and isn't OK to share.

Why is this happening?

Are people naturally full of opinions and the need to convince other people and social media just finally gave them an outlet for pent up demand?

Did social media just happen to evolve that way so that it's a culture of the thing and now when we get into it that's how it is?

Are we living in an age of indignation and OMG it's so unfair for other reasons so that in an act of psychological transference we are putting all that "I WAS DISSED" energy into pointless arguments that have nothing to do with the true source of indignation?

Maybe it's a perfect storm of all three. Anyway, thinking about all this always reminds me of the Paul Krugman quote from 1988:

"The growth of the Internet will slow dramatically [as it] becomes apparent that most people have nothing to say to each other."

Boy, was that ever wrong or what.

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