The Real Problem with Public Discourse


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I distinctly remember when I stopped reading online comments about my essays. For some time I had been reading them on a website of a magazine that published me and allowed unedited comments. To my disappointment, no knowledgeable critic had pointed out errors in my work that I could correct, or made informed arguments that forced me to rethink my position. The commenters seemed more interested in insulting one another.

Mrpoophispants, for example. The avatar that went with the name showed a wailing baby in diapers. (I have changed the name and image slightly, to protect the guilty). In the comments section under my essay, Mrpoophispants accused the Incredible Hulk (again, I have slightly changed the name) of being like Hitler. No, the green and musclebound Hulk told the baby in diapers, you are like Hitler. It went downhill from there.

I remember thinking: Really, who insults people online while hiding behind the screen name of Mrpoophispants? Around that time I had read about the case of a well-respected dentist who was outed as a notorious online troll. (And you wonder what your doctors are doing, while they keep you waiting — they are writing snarky comments about newspaper columnists and TV anchors). I had also read that online commenters are disproportionately middle-aged and elderly men. This information helped me to imagine my online commenter’s alter ego, his Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne:

Bob Anderson, 64, chuckled to himself, as he settled down in his Snuggies behind his computer, having returned from picking up his arthritis meds at the drugstore. A whole afternoon of anonymous online vituperation against famous authors and other online commentators awaited him. And the best thing about it was, nobody in his life — not his parents, his adult children, his grandchildren, not his neighbors nor the members of his church congregation—knew that Bob Anderson, retired accountant, family man, churchgoer and pillar of his suburban community, was really the infamous scourge of the Internet, that dreaded and admired titan among trolls, Mrpoophispants.

I thought of Mrpoophispants when I read Jonathan Chait’s widely-discussed essay for New York magazine, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” and Glenn Greenwald’s response, “The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists.” For what is worth, I think both get a lot right — but they also get some things wrong.

Unlike Chait, I think that public discourse is threatened less by a resurgence of 1990s-style political correctness than by Internet-enabled anonymity (yes, Mrpoophispants, I’m talking about you). Wearing a mask tends to liberate repressed impulses; that was the whole point of Venetian costume ball masks and the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Allowed to hide their identities, progressives, conservatives, and centrists alike are liable to abandon self-restraint and hoot and shriek from the safety of anonymity in an online mob. Anonymity turns the Internet into the Id Net.

For a while in my twenties I fell into the bad habit of writing letters to magazines and newspapers, objecting to articles or op-eds with which I disagreed. An older British journalist took me aside and said gently, “My boy, you do not want to be known as a ‘man of letters.’” Good advice. At least in that vanished Print Age, I was restrained in my folly by the fact that I had to sign my letters to various publications. I didn’t sign my critical missives Antichrist666 (just an example off the top of my head; if that is your actual screen name, dear reader, I offer my apologies and exhort you to get a life).

No doubt there are cases in which pseudonymity is necessary, to protect whistleblowers from retaliation — a dissident Saudi blogger who does not want to be caught and flogged, for example. Anxiety about punishment by British imperial authorities in 1763 gave John Adams good reason to write under the guise of Humphrey Ploughjogger. But brave whistleblower and dissidents hiding behind pseudonyms can find better venues to expose abuses than the comments sections of zines or Twitter.

For his part, Greenwald is right that the Internet has greatly widened the scope of permissible public discourse, beyond the narrow circle of orthodoxy policed by the establishment media. But I think that populism leads him astray:

“What made the indignity so much worse was that the attacks came from people these journalists regard as nobodies: just average people, non-journalists, sometimes even anonymous ones. What right did they have even to form an opinion, let alone express one? As NBC News star Brian Williams revealingly put it in 2007:

‘You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.'”

In my view, progress in opening up public discussion has not come from the Internet’s empowerment of Vinny in his bathrobe in his efficiency apartment. It has come from the Internet’s role in widening the audience for people who are themselves credentialed experts but have views at odds with those approved of by mainstream media.

For example, Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment has provided an alternative to the groupthink about the Middle East that is so often found in the prestige media. Juan Cole is not Vinny. He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of numerous books on the Middle East by prestigious publishers. Informed Comment is… informed.

To be an expert, you can be a practitioner. Michael Pettis, for example, parlayed his background in finance into a teaching job at Beijing’s Guanghua School of Management and a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His blog China Financial Markets should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the Chinese and global economies.

Should we be impressed by credentials or practical experience? According to the classical theory of rhetoric, we are justified in considering “ethos” — the character or reputation of the speaker — in judging the credibility of a statement. The claim that Mark Antony is a menace to the republic is more persuasive when it comes from Cicero than from Silius the Soothsayer.

Authoritative is not the same as authoritarian. After five minutes with WebMd, I may arrive at the same diagnosis as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, but he has earned more authority than I possess, and if you came to me for medical advice you would be out of your mind (I think Dr. Gupta would concur).

When I worked as a commissioning editor for the National Interest and Harper’s magazine, we were always on the look-out for undiscovered talent. We waited for unsolicited, brilliant essays from never-before-published authors to come in over the transom. And waited. And waited. We did our part to make some lesser-known writers better-known. But the fact is that there are so many venues available for publication — and were, even before the Internet — that anybody with something to say and the skill to say it well can get published, if only in the local newspaper or little magazine at first.

Most well-known columnists and journalists served long apprenticeships before obtaining high-profile positions. To name two New York Times columnists, David Brooks got his start as a police reporter in Chicago and Paul Krugman began as one of a number of economics professors at MIT. It is obvious to everyone in the media, as well as to attentive members of the public, who worked his or her way up various career ladders on the basis of talent and who got lucrative journalistic gigs because of kinship to Clintons, Cuomos or Sinatras.

If I am right, the real problem, solved in part by the Internet, is not that credentialed journalists are keeping out brilliant, undiscovered laypeople, but rather that the range of opinion in mainstream journalism is far narrower than the range of credentialed academic opinion or practical expert opinion. The blame for narrowing the range of public access to informed opinion should be laid where it belongs, with publishers and editors. Blaming journalists for the biases and censorship of publishers and producers is like blaming camera crews for dumbing down Hollywood blockbusters.

Even with the Internet, this is unlikely to change much. No matter what the technology is, commercial mass media are always going to be bland, dumbed-down and risk-averse, for fear of alienating diverse audiences or nervous advertisers. And as the saying goes, the problem with a magazine of opinion is the publisher’s opinion. Time is not going to lead its Christmas issue with a scholarly discussion of forgeries in the New Testament, and you are not going to find support for Post-Keynesian economics in the pages of the National Review. ‘Twas ever thus, and ‘twill ever be thus. Cope with it.

Where does all this leave Mrpoophispants? He has nothing to say of any value based on either research or experience, and he says things with a degree of viciousness that would be unthinkable without enabling anonymity. Teenage vandals who deface public buildings and statues contribute more to the life of the community than he and his troll kindred contribute to public debate and the life of the mind.

Oh, and before I forget, Mrpoophispants is like Hitler. • 29 January 2015