People like to argue on the internet. It’s a much better medium than arguing in real life. In real life, you have to weigh the other person as a person: online, they’re an avatar and a series of words that tend to err on the dramatic side. You get to yell back. It’s fun and therapeutic, except for when it’s neither of those things.
The problem, of course, is that arguing about politics online is often an exercise in the personal. The more removed you are, the easier it is to be honest: the problem is that removal creates an ironically dishonest culture. You wouldn’t call your Aunt an idiot; you wouldn’t even call her an idiot on Facebook. But make her an anonymous Aunt on the internet, some SallyPancakes304 on Yahoo!, and you’re no longer forced to play nice. You don’t have to step around the issue: you can be as direct as you want to be.
This cutting through social niceties can be a breath of fresh air: it lets you be honest, even anonymously, about passionately held beliefs. But it overlooks a crucial truth: that people need social niceties. If I think someone at a party is a mean idiot who’s politics are wrong, I have to maneuver that opinion in a way that is polite, and, importantly, a way that they may be able to actually grapple with. Online, I can call them a “fart-guzzling Nazi.” While the second is much more fun, it’s likely less productive, as it encourages a combative and non-participatory political culture.
Think of the Republican debate: did you hate-watch it? I did. But it’s unnerving that the one reasonable, intelligent candidate, John Kasich, was the one who was polling 10th out of 10. The rest of them, characters and clowns, were all outrageous and awful and polling above Kasich. That’s because, in the internet era, absurdity and outrage brings attention. In a combative environment, weaponry is more important than balance. And that’s why John Kasich, as the one candidate who seemed authentically smart and interesting, will fade behind outrage mongers.
When we focus on the combative, we reward it. As depressing as it is, we get the politicians we deserve.
So what should we do? It’s simple, if unsexy and annoying. We should reward the smart and punish ignorance certainly, but we shouldn’t take such a perverse, combative glee in the awfulness of those we disagree with. As a Democrat, I took no joy in seeing such a weak Republican field: I would much prefer America be buoyed by strong, capable leaders of all stripes and opinions. It keeps us honest and smart.
Instead, though, we look at politics as a pop-culture snarkfest. We reward those we hate most with disproportionate attention. Meanwhile, otherwise reasonable candidates like John Kasich are buried by the attention-grabbing schlock of others. And it’s our fault: it’s so much more fun to argue against the extremes. Think about how much fun it is to talk about Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or even Herman Cain. We reward absurdity as though politics was a reality show.
We’d be better off to keep politics woefully dull and our arguments nuanced and calm. When we keep politics boring and our critiques based in fact, facts become the leading force in politics. Not money, not attention-grabbing antics, but honest to goodness facts, thoughts, and qualifications.
It’s a tall order. But it would be nice. And if you want to participate, try not to get whipped up into the passionate “love to hate” aspect that rewards bad behavior with excessive attention. Focus on the facts and hope that the world follows that example.