Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Politics and civility

There is one rule in particular I try to keep: to read over everything I get fully and carefully. With three email addresses (comprising a half-dozen mailing lists) I regularly check, two daily newspapers, one weekly news magazine, eleven newsgroups of varying daily post rates, and too many RSS feeds to even count anymore, this is a rule I break more often than I would like, despite spending well over an hour each day doing so. The frequency of my blog posting is proof enough of this—I would like to post once every two days, a feat which I have already given up on doing.

To make a long story short, this cutting back of in-depth reading has impacted one of the blogs I read, the Fact Checker for the Washington Post. I mostly skim the article and focus more on the comments these days. And similar to how I transitioned my reading of this blog over its lifetime, the comments have transitioned. Crucially, they have gotten worse as time continues.

It used to be that the comments were thoughtful and pointed out some of the factual errors. Now, the comments have turned nasty, with obvious political slants coming out. In the most recent posting (discussing the Republican candidates' repositioning on major issues), the first comment was a strong anti-Republican that didn't really relate to the article. Fourth was another slamming comment, again irrelevant. Same with the 8th, 11th, 19th, 20th, 21st, and around a third of the comments in general. How many of the rest were the thoughtful, reasoned responses I saw at the beginning? A handful, although many were in response to the fringish comments earlier posted.

After shaking my head at this, I turn to one of my newsgroups, sci.math. Recently, a poster by the alias of JSH posted some stuff. This poster is not particularly well-liked in this newsgroup for an aura of doing shoddy mathematics, inflating claims, and ignoring objections. I am not sufficiently well-versed in the relevant fields to know the correctness of his mathematics (they look suspect to me, but that doesn't count for much), but I do know that his refusal to attempt to factor an RSA number with his factoring algorithm casts suspicion on its correctness, and that he also did not reply to some of my requests for clarification.

With respect to this poster, I once awaited his posts, not because I was fascinated in the mathematics, but because they usually had some measure of debate to go with them. I found the posts on his return disappointing for a similar reason that I was irritated at the comments on the earlier blog. These debates had grown uninteresting. JSH was pontificating without responding, and other people just vehemently skewered him without remorse, as if their entire lives revolved around insulting him as much as possible.

Which brings me, albeit in a roundabout manner (an endemic problem of mine), to my point. It seems that the world at large has grown unable to speak civilly. I have always tried to keep my postings as civil as possible, but it seems that in many replies I look at, the poster made no such attempt. The most egregious violation of civility is in the political arena. Take a group of Democrats with only moderately-held beliefs and a group of Republicans with similarly moderately-held beliefs, and the resulting confrontation will shortly become a physical one without outside intervention. It seems to me that something about politics today has driven people to untenable extremes and is in part the cause of the lack of compromise in today's political world. I just can't see something like the Compromise of 1850 (which staved the American Civil War off for a decade) happening today...

1 comment:

zooplah said...

In all fairness, this has been going around for a while. I didn't get on the Internet until 1999, and even then there were big pushes to remember proper "netiquette." A lot of people don't. It's the classic case of "blog rage," not remembering the entity to whom you're replying is a real person with real feelings.