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Public Discourse in an Online Age
 

Our nation’s public discourse is in a sorry state, which is something you probably don’t need to be told. You’ve already seen the attack ads dripping with invective and bile. You’ve heard the sanctimonious rants by so-called “commentators” on one program or another. Maybe you even attended one of the public forums last summer where the distinction between protest and persuasion seemed lost on most participants. As far as I can tell, private discourse isn’t much better these days. For every friend I have who tells me that all liberals must be communists and traitors, I have another who won’t stop referring to all conservatives as racists and fascists.

To be sure, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Political discussions have significant consequences and are worth taking seriously. It’s good to be passionate about politics. And, yes, there were times when public debate was even nastier than it is today. I don’t recall anyone of late being beaten with a cane on the floor of the House of Representatives. But the level of simple decorum in public discussion is clearly declining, and the line between honest debate and personal attack is more frequently crossed. Some Americans fear that we are on a course that will lead to political violence. After the recent shootings in Tucson, there was speculation that the young man who attacked Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was influenced by right-wing groups and their angry denunciations of “liberals.” The little we have learned about the shooter’s motivations does not support this speculation, and the inability to resist the temptation to cast blame for this tragedy on our political adversaries only made matters worse.

There is no one reason that explains why things have gotten so bad, but I suspect that developments in information technology at least share the blame. When Internet access first became available to the general public, many people (especially political scientists like me) thought it would do great things for democracy. Citizens suddenly had an affordable and fast method of accessing public information, as well as a new way to express their opinions to others. Better information would make citizens more informed, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, and thus less likely to fall back into oversimplification and stereotypes rooted in ignorance. The ability to express their opinions to others would make them feel like more effective participants in the political system and increase overall satisfaction with our democracy.

Things didn’t work out like we expected. One problem is that people just can’t process all the information the Internet brings us. In fact, we are so overwhelmed by information these days that we end up ignoring most of it. Instead of informing ourselves by learning more and paying attention to a broader spectrum of opinions and voices, all this technology has just made it easier to get exactly the information we want, the information that makes us feel good because it reinforces everything we already believe. Before the Internet existed, if we wanted to stay informed our only option was to read whatever was written in our daily newspaper or watch one of the evening news broadcasts. We couldn’t pick and choose our news. Today, we usually ignore the local paper and jump online where we can read whatever pleases us the most. If we don’t like the news as reported by one channel, we grab the remote and change it to the cable news network of our choice. On the one hand, this is incredibly empowering. We are no longer forced to swallow whatever the mainstream media serves up. But on the other hand, when we can always find news and opinions that tell us what we want to hear, the explosion of information paradoxically ends up limiting our perspective.

Another unexpected problem is that instead of connecting us more closely to others, these technologies often have left us even more isolated, especially from those with whom we might disagree. Public discourse has become disembodied. The students in my classrooms today have grown up accustomed to sniping at each other in chat rooms or on virtual walls, often with their identities safely hidden behind fake online names. In such settings, there is little accountability for what we say; little chance that we will meet the person we just insulted on the street tomorrow and have to apologize for our rudeness. Some people seem to be getting so used to this lack of courtesy that such behavior is spilling over into the real spaces where face-to-face debate still happens. The civic virtues that allow reasonable discourse about even the most consequential issues are being lost.

This is not to say that the information revolution has been an entirely bad thing. Today the general public has access to more sources of information than at any time in history. The Obama 2008 campaign’s use of social media helped engage young people in a presidential election at unprecedented levels. And while it is true that a surprisingly small number of corporations maintain control over the broadcast media and Internet websites where most of us get our news, the Internet still provides a means to disseminate viewpoints that compete with and correct the dominant narratives of our culture. But none of this will do any good if we don’t listen to and respect viewpoints with which we disagree.

There is great potential for a reinvigorated  democracy in the online age, but none of this potential will be realized if the civic virtues learned in real-world, embodied democracy are lost. Correcting the bad habits we are learning online will require concerted efforts to maintain and revitalize the kinds of public space where face-to-face encounters with genuine difference take place, where the humanity of your political opposites cannot be ignored, and where the consequences of harsh words are immediate and obvious. Somehow in this age of mass communication, we need to recapture Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideal of an American democracy where civic virtue is nurtured through the vibrancy and energy of local communities where citizens gather to make decisions affecting them all. In Democracy in America (published in 1835), Tocqueville observed that, “…the passions that commonly embroil society change their character when they find a vent so near the domestic hearth and the family circle.” When we learn how to disagree with others close to home, in real public places, we learn the civic virtues that ought to guide all our public discourse.

This year, during President Obama’s State of the Union address, members of Congress made one simple, symbolic gesture. Instead of dividing as they normally do, by political parties—Republicans to the right, Democrats to the left—most members listened to the President’s speech while seated with the Congressional delegations from their home state. Republican and Democratic senators paired off to listen to the speech together. The State of the Union address is rarely much more than political theater, and this rearrangement of seating for one night itself will have no long-term effect. But for just one night, members of both political parties acknowledged that they represent real places with diverse populations and sincere differences of opinion. It’s unlikely that they will be on such good behavior for the rest of the Congressional session, but I am choosing to interpret this simple gesture as a hopeful sign. In it, we find a reminder that when we surround ourselves with like-minded people and choose to live in an ideological echo chamber, we fail in our duty as citizens of a democracy.

 

—JPO

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