Angry discourse in the digital space

In the past few weeks there have been some glaring examples of hateful, angry diatribes that made the news.

Whether it was a comparison of the national debt to slavery and the subsequent firing of a reporter who objected to the analogy or choosing the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death to attack Obamacare, there have been some real head-scratchers lately.

angryBut it seems we live in age in which to be heard, one must be outrageous, angry and hateful. No matter what the subject is, the debate eventually turns ugly and personal. It’s a form of Godwin’s Law, which says that the longer an Internet discussion lasts, the likelier it is that someone will make a comparison to Adolf Hitler.

It seems that these days, we’re skipping the debate and heading right for the absurd, outrageous comparisons. I’m not the only one to notice this. On the “Spin Sucks” blog (one of Cision’s top 50 PR & marketing blogs), blogger Lindsay Bell notes in her entry “Truth, Lies and Facebook memes”:

In the past few months I’ve encountered some truly despicable behavior in the digital space. No sugar-coating it.

I’ve heard people bad-mouthing others.

Experienced constant negativity and criticism.

Watched as thoughts or comments were taken out of context, resulting in name calling and metaphorical door slamming.

And I’ve stumbled into public arguments and assassinations.

I’ve personally rolled my eyes at pokes and jibes directed at me, couched with the winky-faced “Just kidding!” disclaimer, and heard bold-faced lies being told about people I care about.

Part of the reason that things have become so ugly in the media, social or otherwise, is that there is a lot of time to fill on a slow Tuesday evening. And part of it is that no matter what your opinion or political persuasion is there is someone out there willing to fan your smoldering embers of annoyance and frustration into forests fires of uncivility and a lack of goodwill toward your fellow human who may not agree with you.

We live in age in which to be heard, one must be outrageous, angry and hateful.

Bell blames the angry-speak on anonymity. When you don’t know someone, it’s easy to tear into them. To insult them. To call them names and make assumptions about them.

On the contrary, when you know someone, you realize there is a human behind the avatar, and it tends to temper your responses. Things change when they get personal. As Josef Stalin said, One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” When you know the person, you care.

Never before in our evolution have we had the ability to get into each other’s business so quickly, with so little thought, and with so few consequences. We’re not wired for it, and we’re not handling it very well.

What is one to do? Should we engage in the angry arguments, and hope to change people’s minds? Or do we ignore them and hope they go away? I think our actions speak louder than words. If we don’t patronize those companies, organizations and individuals that drag down the level of discourse, then it will hit them where it hurts the most: the pocketbook.

Either the state of discourse will continue to decline, fed by the digital monster, or we’ll learn to tune out the nastiness as background noise, not worthy of our time. For the sake of our society and the future of media, I hope it’s the latter.

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