Arguing that rude comments on web articles, such as blog postings, tend to polarize readers, and thus impede “the democratic ideal of deliberation”, Professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, suggested in a New York Times Op-Ed yesterday that it may be time to consider shutting down “online reader comments altogether.”
Alternatively, the professors, who co-wrote a study claiming that online incivility distorts reader perceptions of issues, said in lieu of outright censorship, we could hope that social norms will change, encouraging “shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms.”
Wikipedia informs us that shunning “is a sanction against association [e.g., with “rude people”], often associated with religious groups and other tightly knit organizations and communities.”
For example, you might have tightly knit organizations and communities like academic professionals, who want public discourse on issues they count as being in their own areas of expertise, to be shaped “top-down”, with the public obediently following the received version of the truth, and with the rude, ignorant masses excluded from any participation.
Some readers may find it a questionable assumption that “civility” or “incivility” could even be qualified or quantified for a scientific study allegedly measuring their powers to sway opinions, but the professors solved that problem by specifying incivility to mean “a manner of offensive discussion that impedes the democratic ideal of deliberation.”
Well, that's all clearer now, isn't it?
And who invented this definition?
Two other academics are cited by the researchers as aiding their understanding about this. So, no troublesome democratic process was applied to establish this ideal, but instead it is the product of a top-down declarations of what is true.
One of the studies the professors cite to establish this “democratic ideal” was done by Professor Zizi Papacharissi in 2004, which study concludes:
“[M]ost messages posted on political newsgroups were civil, and further suggested that because the absence of face-to-face communication fostered more heated discussion, cyberspace might actually promote Lyotard’s vision of democratic emancipation through disagreement and anarchy (Lyotard, 1984). Thus, this study supported the internet’s potential to revive the public sphere, provided that greater diversity and volume of discussion is present.”
So, one of the principles used by Professor Papacharissi to measure “democratic emancipation”, which presumably is some part of any “democratic ideal”, is “disagreement and anarchy.” Does the word “civility” really come to the fore when considering those concepts in action?
In fact, many readers count any disagreement of their opinion, of any sort, to be “rude” and worthy of being censored. And, last time I checked, anarchists do not generally check the establishment’s guidebook for civil behavior before pushing for more liberation.
What these anti-rudeness academics are really saying is summed up later, where they complain they have deep concern that discussions of scientific topics in particular, for example those concerning evolution or global warming, might be affected by rude comments:
“This study’s ﬁndings suggest perceptions towards science are shaped in the online blog setting not only by ‘top-down information,’ but by others’ civil or uncivil viewpoints, as well. While the Internet opens new doors for public deliberation of emerging technologies, it also gives new voice to nonexpert, and sometimes rude, individuals.”
But is that really a problem? Or is it a sign things are working—democratically—just as they should?
Many people working in established systems, such as academe, that use a medieval form of hierarchical authority to validate or negate the rights of people to be heard, are fundamentally antagonistic to democracy.
They will often seek to control a power they find disturbing, which is the free expression of online opinion. The people should respond to this top-down arrogance with rudeness, to say the least.