Friday, June 3, 2016

The First Stone . . .

Lately my newsfeed has been full of threads expressing outrage over the unfortunate death of Harambe, with everyone howling for the blood of the mother whose child slipped into the enclosure.  Without knowing the full circumstances, the virtual mob has set itself up as judge and executioner while consoling itself with its display of moral superiority and outrage.  My newsfeed is a hail of stones with no Jesus to intercede.  And the death of the gorilla is only the most recent instance of social media’s lust for vengeance.  The primaries have been one long stream of stones being hurled from Left and Right, because social media encourages the expression of self righteous outrage rather than ideas; and the prevalence of ad hominem arguments, the preference for invective, the laziness of brief retorts, the circulation of misinformation, and the constant resort to angry resentment have eclipsed civil discourse and rational analysis to the point where fewer and fewer people are capable of exercising it.  Critical thinking requires practice, and the necessary skills will disappear along with the civil attitudes if we continue to indulge these bad habits—habits, by the way, that profit the demagogues, the Super PAC funders, the NRA, ALEC, the social media moguls, and the press.  Politics is a rough and tumble business, and a bit of piss and vinegar is often a bracing element of any good debate, but when all you have to offer is vitriol, the debate serves no purpose other than to give you some cheap personal catharsis and provide massive profits for those who run the media.  As the president of CBS observed, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, . . . The money’s rolling in, this is fun.”  Let’s face it, we are being played by these ringmasters of orchestrated resentment, just like the Roman plebs filling the Coliseum.  What’s worse, it’s all circus and precious little bread.

So many people disparage Trump for his schoolyard tactics, but so many critics of such behavior behave just like him.  Yesterday, on a thread I posted dealing with a typical webzine article—long on rhetoric, short on substance—about the schism in the Democratic Party, an outraged Clinton supporter referred to Cornel West as “Brother house nigger West.”  Pretty illiberal language for a person whose biography page leads with this self-definition: “Liberal.”  West himself has gone in for plenty of invective and ad hominem attacks, and it’s a damn shame; but that doesn’t mean anyone should follow suit and call him a nigger.  No one in this media circus is free of blame, whether the stone is thrown from the Right or the Left.  The obvious misogyny behind much of the criticism of Clinton from both Parties is reprehensible; if you don’t like the candidates there are plenty of substantive points on which you can task them—and that goes for all the candidates, Sanders included.  (After all, these people are politicians, not saviors, so let’s not idolize them either.)  The illiberality and incivility that rule social media discourse are turning all of us into petty, querulous Trumps, utterly convinced of our own moral rectitude and disdainful of substantive discussion.  Everyone is anxious to throw the first stone at whatever new offender appears on the horizon of the newsfeed, regardless of whether we actually know anything about the matter.  And nowadays there is no end of stones.

Criticism in a democracy is necessary but, like any weapon, it needs some control.  There’s a big difference between legitimate criticism and puerile, Trump-style condemnation.  If you are disinclined to be tolerant, then think of it as a question of self-preservation.  If no one among us is without sin, then no one is safe from the stones, and heaven help you if the collective wrath of the virtual mob turns on you.  But even if your immediate well being is not threatened, your social well being is inevitably degraded when our discourse is dominated by the groaning and shrieking of trolls.  Who wants to live in an uncivil society?