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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The lost art of debate ...

Yesterday's post by VC, and the comments by Just Another Richard, highlight something other writers, and now an academmic study, have highlighted. There is another aspect to this, which can be traced back to the tactics embraced by politicians of the extremes to prevent dissent, discussion or questions. The old Soviet leaders used to give speeches lasting four or more hours. They never actually said much when you read the transcripts, about what they intended, but they focussed on all the 'evils' of dissent, of any other system, and repeated themselves over and over again. This is essentially what the internet 'trolls' and 'flamers' do and it is certainly what is happening in a wide range of political debates in the wider media.

It's about winning any argument by any means possible. Ideologically it is about denying any opponent the opportunity of putting across anything which might convince a listener that there might be an alternative point of view. The object of the exercise is to prevent that view from becoming known - so the first aim of the 'troll' is to derail the debate. If possible by pulling the discussion away from the point of discussion. The means to do this is to make the attack as personal as possible. It unbalances the opponent, annoys them and can lead to a response that allows them to distract the audience from the message. To the dedicated 'troll' the facts do not matter, truth does not matter, only their view counts, only their view is valid and they will go to any length to silence the opposition, or to destroy their message.

The internet is the ideal medium for many such individuals, since they can make their extremely unpleasant attacks from behind a cloak of anonymity. Often these ad hominen attacks would be actionable under libel laws and sometimes they even contain threats of violence and even murder. Why can they not be controlled, followed up by police or prosecuted? Put simply, all too often these attacks originate from some often sad individual operating from an internet cafe, or some other equally 'mobile' address making tracing them difficult. Those that do not, often use 'proxy' servers to hide their locations and multiple identities to cloak their real names.

Examples abound, the most prominent example is probably the 'debate' on 'climate change' where anyone who does not toe the Greenpeace/IPCC/Friends of the Earth Party line so ably fronted by the likes of Al Gore, must be 'flamed' and 'trolled' as soon as they dare to express any doubts about some of the claims bandied about. Anthony Watt's, the owner of the blog "Watts Up With That," has even had suggestions from a supporter of Anthropogenic Global Warming, that he engages in  questioable moral activities. More recently, he has found himself being deliberately misreported and misrepresented - with a wide range of insulting epithets thrown in for good measure. I have found myself on the receiving end of this sort of attack, though not quite to the same level of vituperation.

Then there is the question of whether or not governments should be able to control, restrict or lock down the internet. I for one would oppose that simply on the grounds that no government can be trusted to do that and certainly no bureaucrat should be trusted to do so even if one could be found who is competent to do it.

To some extent this is emerging on television as well. Watching some 'interviews' and 'discussion panels' has become an exercise in annoyance and - for me - anger management. Some interviewers are so transparently pushing a particular view or ideology that it is disgraceful that we actually have to pay a licence fee to watch it. The tactics are simple; never listen to the answer, interupt as soon as a point counter to yours is being made, accuse the interviewee of untruth or obfuscation, and drag them off into trivia and minutiae so that the message is lost in the noise. The hosility is so obvious in some debates that one wonders why the 'target' even bothers to try to debate. The list of these so-called 'debates' is endless, just look at any 'discussion' on politics, religion, morality. Everything is polarised and the name of the game is to be as rude as possible, as negative as possible about the opposing view, and to back your argument with as little truth or fact as possible.

To my way of thinking the real problem here lies in the loss of courtesy and respect for one another. The more we are told we have to 'respect' this or that minority, the less respect seems to result for anyone. Post modern thinking seems to run along the lines now of 'win at any price' and this means that in everything the biggest bully wins. That is not a healthy society.

We live in an age where access to information has never been easier or as wide. Yet, from the comments one regularly sees on news posts, on FaceBook and in various online forums, many of those who go down the 'troll' and 'flamer' approach are ill-informed and have no wish to be informed. Their philosophy is often best described as "don't confuse me with facts, my mind is made up." As VC said yesterday, the internet is, by and large, a very good thing, but it is also the vehicle for vast amounts of misinformation, propaganda and cyber bullying. Regulation is unlikely to change that, but teaching people to look more carefully at their sources, to be more discerning and to show some respect for others, may. We need to get away from the "deconstructionist" mindset and return to a realisation that 'debate' means giving equal weight to all sides of an argument. I won't hold my breath though, it will require a complete change in social attitudes to strip out the taught 'deconstructionism, moral relativism and win at all costs' form of debate.

In the meantime I will adopt the same approach as other bloggers with a higher profile than mine. I will continue to express my views here and permit those who post to do so as well. We will not 'feed the trolls' by responding to them and any troll or flamer who posts here can expect to not see his/her comment appear.


  1. Is the internet just a clearer mirror of society than we’ve ever had before? It occurred to me while I was reading your post and the comments from yesterday that there have probably always been people who have no interest in learning about logical reasoning, or showing respect to anyone else. In the Dark Ages, those people left very little behind in the way of written commentary and would have found it difficult to work their way into any room where a debate might take place, but now they can scrawl all over the virtual world. In short, I don’t think it’s hopeless. I think those of us who are foolish enough to think about life, the universe and everything just need to adapt and find ways of starving the trolls out of the internet – or create virtual monasteries of some sort, where knowledge and reason can be preserved until the darkness has passed ;)

  2. VC, I tend to think that we are entering a new Dark Age, for if we cannot constrain and reverse the forces of progressivism and deconstructionism, then the mind of Western civilized man will be extinguished, replaced by a dull, un-inquiring conformity to the vacuous idols of a Post Modern world.

    Where I am confused is to just how the elites who are driving this latent agenda cannot envisage just where this will end for them; for truth be told, as the rule of discourse degenerates, so the rise of barbarism shall swiftly emerge behind it, and just as the Roman world collapsed and civilization largely disappeared from Europe and large parts of the Mediterranean world, so to shall the same thing happen again. It is as if they are convinced that the order of things is fixed and unchangeable, and not, as it really is, supported and protected by the very forces which they are actively destroying.

    Given the vice like grip that academia, the media and the arts have upon the narrative of national life, not just in Britain, but across the Western world, I don't see any chance of a reversal of this suicidal ideology driving us to oblivion. That is, short of a catastrophe of enormous magnitude, which in the course of its passing, totally discredits the ruling order; but that event itself leads to confusion and uncertainty, with no saying just what would come out the other end.

    A pessimistic view...yes, but one which given the course of events of the past several decades, and the general direction, charted for us by our "betters", I can see no other outcome. Hope I'm wrong, but I don't think so.