From its very beginning in time sharing days, and on into the earliest days of ARPAnet, as Internet once was called, we’ve noticed this real problem with the email medium. It’s too low bandwidth, and doesn’t carry enough emotional cues like tone of voice or body language, for even people who often work together face to face, always to ‘get’ what each other are trying to say in their email.
Language is very ambiguous: anything you say, there are at least two ways to take it. Emoticons barely scratch the surface …
And as a writer of course you can’t see the effect of what you’re writing on the other party as you write it, and so modify your presentation dynamically, like you could if the two of you were face to face (and say, one of you started making a fist or something ;-).
So email, just even private email, can never hope to be a real conversation, even though two people sling emails at each other furiously, all day long. The bandwidth is too low, and the feedback loop is too slow.
When long-distance networks came along, we discovered that when two people have really never met, they don’t have decent internal models of each other to appeal to when trying to guess how what they write will be received, not even after months of slinging email at each other. So the writer is always going into the thing essentially feedback free.
When the email communication becomes public and has an enduring transcript, as it does in these fora, things start to get real strange real fast. The situation becomes essentially that of two animals sniffing each other out in public and establishing a dominance hierarchy over some shared territory. At this point the poverty of the textual email medium becomes glaringly apparent: most cues for preventing an intra-species fight are non-verbal!
There is a second problem, that can happen in any kind of discussion, live or email, that has to do with the nature of argumentation. This is the problem of ad hominem argumentation, first enunciated by some Greek or other thousands of years ago, but still very much with us today.
NO, ‘ad hominem’ is not about attacking people. Well, that is one kind of ad hominem argument, but not necessarily the worst kind since it is, after all, pretty obviously specious.
Ad hominem fallacies are arguments that attack or support a line of thought on the basis of who is doing the thinking. For example, woe betide the abstract concept that happens to alight first in the brain of a liberal. Unless said liberal scribbles the thought down and passes it secretly to a conservative accomplice to espouse for his own, among many conservatives the idea can never have any sort of hearing on its own merits. Works the same way with liberals too.
But of course, truly new ideas are rare, especially in these fora. So almost any idea that gets bandied about has had time to pick up its share of bad companions, regardless of what point of view you’re coming from.
So now we’re ready for some fun. Whatever is posted, mention someone or something repulsive that happened to reinforce that very position (Vegetarianism! Hitler was a vegetarian, didn’t you know?)
Presto, the conversation is suddenly all about the beliefs and values of the poster and to whom he ascribes, and it is a small escalation indeed to move on to direct personal attacks. It’s very easy to derail a discussion in this fashion. Some of you may know.
Which brings us to a third point: the regrettable fact that some people here actually seem to like this kind of rancid interaction. They will all say “Oh no, not me, my girlfriend says I shit flowers,” but once you meet some pre-condition (e.g. their perception there is a .05% probability they have just been dissed) you will soon find them contentedly wrapped around the axle of some attack/defend spiral or another. These people love coming here, albeit they complain mightily about the quality of the company and the discourse after they get here. They come to play the “king of the hill” game. Or the “don’t get me started” game.
Folks who just wanted to have a discussion and who might try to moderate the interaction, of course, learn to stay away in droves. But then, who in their right mind would go to a BB forum to have a quiet political discussion?
All of which explains why any thread on the polit board worth its salt has at least two of these attack spirals going real good and strong by, at latest, the top of page 3. Should we want or expect anything less from a forum that takes its name from a male sex hormone?
To post and yet stay out of these things 1) avoid trying to have a conversation, relax to the inevitability of disagreement, post what you’ve got to say the first time, and don’t follow up unless there are significant questions; 2) avoid ad hominem argumentation, point it out where it is used and refuse to head down that track; 3) retain a sense of humor, the better to deal with the humorless.