Media reports suggest that, like me, most Canadians breathed a large sigh of relief when Joe Biden won the US election and ended the proto-fascist regime in the USA. Not that I think he’s some sort of saviour of American politics: for all the rhetoric the Trump campaign spewed at him and his party, the Democrats are not leftwing, let alone radical. The most “radical” of them all — Bernie Sanders — would barely qualify as a centrist in most Western nations. And most of the rest would be firmly in conservative camps. What Americans chose was not a leftwing president, but rather a more moderate rightwing one.
And to be fair, Biden is far better than any of the proto-fascist Repugnicans who have risen over the past two decades, including Graham, Cruz, McConnell, and others. What Biden will usher in is not a revolution, but a calming normalcy to American politics; back to the cozy, pro-corporate paternalism it’s been for many decades. While politicians take their handouts from the lobbyists, citizens will be able to forget politics for a while and get back to the things that matter to them: Instagram, TikTok, TV, the glitterati, fast food, porn, Snapchat, guns, and pro sports. What Americans want most is for politics to go away and leave them alone.
American is broken in many ways, not least of all its election process and the deeply flawed, racist-based electoral college. Trump’s polarizing presidency highlighted how badly broken the nation is, how divided it is, and how close it has edged to rightwing totalitarianism. His election loss didn’t turn that around, merely slowed the clock. Don’t expect to see any changes in the way American policies are dictated by gun, corporate, and industry lobbyists under Biden.
Of course, it isn’t over yet: the Trump regime can continue its reign of terror, incompetence, illiterate ravings, rage, and racism well into January, 2021, but it’s heartwarming to know the ongoing damage to the USA and its allies will be limited to a few months. Unfortunately, it’s likely another 100,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 in that period because the administration won’t do anything about the pandemic any more than it has done since it began.
I created what proved an interesting discussion on Facebook recently when I threatened to ‘unfriend’ anyone who continued to out those obnoxious ‘type amen and share’ posts on their timelines.
Now if you’re a FB user, you have seen these things endless times. They’re as common as the “50% will get this math question wrong” and “you won’t believe what happened next!” or the “Nine out of ten can’t answer these questions” posts. Most of these are simply trolling posts that lead to pages replete with clickbait, scams and data collection bots.
Then there are those dreary click-farming posts. Press K and hit like to see the magic image. Type your age and click like to see your reward. I’ll bet she can’t get 1,000 likes. or 10,000. Or 100,000. It’s all about gathering the clicks (and figuring out which FB accounts are active so you can be targetted for advertising more easily). While they are initially posted by hackers or marketers, it’s the gullible who spread them around.
And don’t get me started on the hoaxes. Mark Zuckerberg giving away millions. Facebook is making all your posts public so share this legal disclaimer. All codswallop and easily debunked with a couple of quick searches.
As if anyone would take the time. It’s simpler to turn the brain off, click like and share. Spread the stupidity.
And of course we have the usual dreck of cute kitten and puppy posts, but they’re merely trite compared to the often dangerous stuff that leads to a phishing site.
It’s the same with the Jesus-amen-blessing-prayer posts. They’re created by hackers preying on your gullibility, not some religious message from your god. Do you really think Jesus has a Facebook account and reads your timeline? Stop spreading this crap.
In January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.
I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:
People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.
Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.
Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.
As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:
Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.
“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.
Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.
Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*
Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.
Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.
Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.
In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:
Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.
In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:
…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.
Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt
…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.
A recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:
THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.
What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.
Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc. – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.
Fact ranking – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.
A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.
Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.
“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic?*)
Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.
It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.
Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.
Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.
An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:
The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”
What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.
Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by. Continue reading “Rights Without Responsibility”