Just the other day, I had an interaction with someone in the Fox News Politics community on Google+ that I would like to share with you. I can't remember the subject of the post, but I remember how the comments went. One person criticized another for poor spelling and grammar, even when the first suffered the same malady. So I pointed out that the first person had made grammar and spelling errors, too. He said that I had made an error by putting a comma before the word "too". So I replied with a link to the Chicago Manual of Style with a link to the precise page on the use of a comma followed by "too".
I came back to the post after receiving notification of a new comment only to find that I was blocked from reading or posting comments. I had an exchange with someone who moderated comments on his post and he blocked me. I don't usually get blocked, but I was struck by why I got blocked. I don't use profanity online as a rule and I really did use neutral language to keep it sane. I like to use neutral language to stick to the facts. I was blocked because I presented facts to show that I was right.
Some of you might be wondering what I'm doing there on Fox News Politics. I'm there for exploration. I'm there to check my assumptions. I'm there because I can preach to the choir anytime. I have posted a few of my blog articles there to see what kind of response I get. I can tell you that it's mostly positive, but it's interesting.
What I see exhibited in that community is the impulse to punish more than rational debate, and that impulse is not exclusive to conservatives, but it's blatantly obvious there. It's almost as if to say, "If you just don't understand, if you don't agree with me, you should be punished." I've seen numerous interactions where one person is wrong and the other is right, and everyone piles on the person believed to be wrong. They all pile onto the one with the wrong opinion, the wrong facts, whatever. The problem is this: punishment doesn't teach any skills.
I was blocked as punishment, not as a lesson in civil discourse. Did that teach me a new skill? Perhaps. But for the person who blocked me, he lost the opportunity to persuade me that his position was sound, even just. He, and all the other participants, also lost the ability to see all of my inputs on that post.
Years ago, I saw this great Sherlock Holmes play featuring Frank Langella cast as the great detective himself. I recall this interaction between Holmes and Dr. Watson, where Dr. Watson hazards what he thought might be a trivial question. Holmes calmly stated in reply, "There is no such thing as a trivial question." That is a sign of true curiosity, the sense that all information is good information, that we can learn from it. I read posts I disagree with because I know that there is something I can learn from it, even if I disagree with it. This is the point of departure in civil discourse. I come to the debate with my mind open.
As a general rule, I don't block people, even when I disagree with them. I will block on evidence of harassment, sure. But civilized debate? Censuring my opponent closes the debate. Then it's not really a debate, is it? The entire point of civil discourse is so that all opinions are heard, even if the facts prove them to be wrong. I'm not afraid to be wrong, that's why I write this blog. I've been wrong before and have admitted being wrong openly and freely on this blog.
I don't even mute posts, comments or users much. I think I might have muted a user just once for clear and obvious harassment. Sometimes, I just leave the group or stop following that person if I find their posts obviously offensive. But even that is rare. I'm here for the discussion, not the victory.
A society cannot function if the dominant faction is allowed to censure everyone else. The entire point of the First Amendment is to allow people to express themselves with words, diagrams, audio, videos, or whatever. The men who framed the Constitution understood that allowing freedom of expression provided pressure relief for people passionate about their views. Let them speak, let them write, let them say what they need to say. An adult audience can evaluate the content against the facts they know and determine if they agree or disagree.
The Framers did not imagine the internet, but I believe that the First Amendment is just as relevant now as it was then. And now we can fact check against what we read. We can find common ground and corroborating facts, from diametrically opposed sources. I know because I've done it to research my articles. I have found agreement on a fact in economics between a liberal and conservative source. To me, one of the best ways to check facts is to find two diametrically and passionately opposed sources discussing the same event or topic and see what lines up. You'd be surprised at what you find.
Readers familiar with my work will know that I'm a liberal. I used to be libertarian, even a Republican. But I see now that we're going to have to work together if we, as a species are going to survive. Note that I'm not a Democrat. I'm just an independent liberal with a point of view.
I don't block because I know what it is like to be silenced. I don't mute for the same reason. I may change sources of information or just add new sources. Online interactions change day by day, and they are often fleeting. There is so much more to life than this screen. Life is too short to be at war with people online that I don't even really know. Sure, there may be some kinship with a few people I have interacted with online, but I really don't know them. Or for that matter, any adversary online and I have no real adversaries.
I don't think of social media in terms of good and bad people. I either agree or disagree. If I disagree with a comment on one of my posts, I let it stand, but I reply if I believe I can show an honest disagreement based on the facts. I will often provide a link to supporting evidence to buttress my argument. And most of the time, it's not for me or even my opponent in the debate, it's for the peanut gallery, the other people who are watching. I don't expect to change any minds here. Not even my own. But I allow for it to happen.
So much of what we do is a matter of faith. I distinguish faith from belief for the simple reason that belief holds something to be true, no matter the evidence. Faith is a reservation of judgment, waiting to see what will happen next. It is not, as some may say, the same thing as belief. I just have faith in human beings. I do what I do to see what will happen next, not to make some thing happen. I roll the ball to see where it goes, not to make it go where I want it to go.
To know the truth we must be willing to surrender what we already know in exchange for something better.