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Online anger undermines discourse

LEESBURG, Va. (BP)–I call them “meanies,” those men and women who spend their days spreading vitriol on the Internet. Nameless, faceless, they lurk in the shadows of many websites and blogs, waiting for any opportunity to tear those with whom they disagree to shreds.

With a toolbox full of putdowns and vulgarities, they work hard at trying to show that their opponents are not only wrong, not only stupid, but actually evil. Mean-spiritedness is not a new problem, but never before have “meanies” had such a public platform from which to spew their venom, and rarely has society been so willing to celebrate meanness and odium. The problem is so widespread that political parties and major policy organizations rely on meanness and anger in promoting their message.

Peter Wood, in his recent book “A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now,” says there is a difference between New Anger, which is everywhere today, and Old Anger. There has never been a time when men and women did not get angry. Yet, at one point, anger was seen as a passion to be restrained whenever possible. Self-control and self-mastery were considered virtues; a man who was quick to anger was seen as weak and unstable. For a political leader to burn with anger in public on a regular basis was certainly considered a red flag.

In his review of Wood’s book, Howard Kurtz says this about New Anger:

“New Anger is everything that Old Anger was not: flamboyant, self-righteous, and proud. As a way to ’empowerment’ for ethnic groups, women, political parties, and children, New Anger serves as a mark of identity and a badge of authenticity. The Civil War, and America’s past political campaigns, may have witnessed plenty of anger, yet not until recently, says Wood, have Americans actually congratulated themselves for getting angry. Anger has turned into a coping mechanism, something to get in touch with, a prize to exhibit in public, and a proof of righteous sincerity.”

New Anger has certainly found a home on cable news channels and on the blogosphere. This unhealthy anger is coupled with what legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls “ideological amplification.” According to Sunstein, ideological amplification is a process whereby one’s ideological opinions become more extreme as they encounter fewer opposing viewpoints. This is an especially big problem on the blogosphere, where men and women self-select the sites they visit. As Alan Jacobs points out in his Christianity Today web article, “Amplifying Charity,” a conservative is unlikely to defend President Bush on a liberal blog like the DailyKos when “her views — along with her personality, her character, her intelligence, and her friends, family members, and pets — [are] instantly subjected to a barrage of, shall we say, critical scrutiny.” A liberal is equally disinclined to dialogue with conservatives on extreme conservative blogs.

The end result is the creation of “echo chambers” or “information cocoons” in which New Anger boils over into utter hatred and malice. Jacobs has also noticed this trend: “Among the ideas that get amplified [on monolithic blogs], one of the most pernicious and (alas) common is the idea that people who are not among the Faithful deviate from the True Path not just because they make different political judgments, or have different beliefs about how best to form a just political order, but because they are, well, evil.”

The antidote to the rising heat in political debate today, according to Sunstein and Jacobs, is “political charity.” When men and women exhibit political charity they do not automatically assume that their opponents have evil motives, but they try to see their opponents’ motives in the best possible light. Those with political charity also try to identify the positive moral principle at the heart of their opponents’ views and endorse those principles whenever possible. In other words, political charity should drive those on either side of the aisle to see political counterparts as real people who mean well, not as the diabolical monsters that some people self-righteously create in their own minds. While it is true that there is real evil in the world, and that we should never be shy about identifying true evil, it is also becoming clear that in the blogosphere, on talk radio, and on some cable TV shows, we are allowing New Anger to destroy mature political discourse.

In the final analysis, self-government requires self-control. It requires from us the ability to patiently and rationally discuss our varying viewpoints as we work together for the common good. If passions like anger and hatred take over, we will completely lose the ability to reason together as a people, meaning we will have become incapable of governing ourselves. Democracy itself is on the line. As we move toward the 2008 presidential elections, there is little doubt that some blogs, liberal and conservative, will be cauldrons of animosity and acrimony. Rest assured that both of the major political parties will try to tap into these searing emotions to their own benefit.

One can also predict that some supposedly Christian groups will try to take advantage of these unholy passions to mobilize voters. Despite all of this, we will do well to remember that Christ himself called us to love our neighbors … and even our enemies. The survival of democracy itself may depend on our ability to show true political charity.
Ken Connor is chairman of the Center for a Just Society based in Washington D.C., online at www.centerforajustsociety.org.

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  • Ken Connor