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April 23, 2013

A better Internet connection

Honest discussion about crucial issues is stifled when policing, not educating, is our priority.

Our campus prides itself on the free expression of ideas, but you’d never know it from our online conversations last week.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a number of well-meaning students offered their “thoughts and prayers” for victims of the incident and were met with sardonic replies condemning their statements as performative and insincere. Then, amid the trolls and provocateurs on the controversial “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions” Facebook group, a select few submissions posed genuine questions hoping to gauge readers’ perspectives on complex issues of discrimination. The submissions were met with irate responses and were chastised not for their thoughts, but for asking the question in the first place.

All of this points to a fundamental problem with how we’re talking to one another online: We’ve made it a crime to be wrong. Distaste for particular ideas has morphed into distaste for honest expression—we’re choosing to fight ignorance with accusation rather than information. Policing social media—and shaming offenders—has replaced intelligent dialogue.

Crescat opprobrium, vita excolatur.

We have almost all been guilty of this at times. And frequently, our harsh responses are rooted in genuine concern. Maybe a certain honest statement has hurt us or hurt someone we care about. Maybe not. Either way, when we see something that offends us, we immediately want the person causing it (and everyone in their social network) to recognize the atrocity. This is our idea of justice, and, in a sense, it’s admirable.

But that justice goes sour when we personally attack others for simply expressing themselves. Shaming someone for thinking or acting in a certain way teaches her to regret the chosen thought or action; shaming someone for expressing a genuine thought teaches her to regret not the thought itself, but the decision to express it. The lesson is not “reconsider your perspective,” but simply “keep your mouth shut next time.”

This paralyzes frank discourse. As a result, many of us who want to engage with an issue become afraid to get involved at all. A partially formed thought that would be a catalyst for discussion in the classroom, specifically because of its open-endedness, suddenly becomes a dangerous liability on the Web. We watch a fiery commentary war on our newsfeeds, but rarely add to it; lest That One Friend—a self-appointed officer of the Discrimination Police, the Fascism Police, the Whatever Police—castigates us in the public view just for stating what we honestly believe.

Policing overlooks the vital fact that I may not see the ignorance you see in my beliefs. This does not make my beliefs right, but it does explain why I want to express them. You can hate what I think, but it is useless to hate me for thinking it or for telling you that I think it. That crosses the line from critical scrutiny to destructive criticism.

So how can we skip the shame?

Doing so requires a fresh approach to argument. To truly show me the error of my ways, don’t just tell me that I’m wrong. Don’t just tell me that I’m ignorant. Don’t just tell me that I’m foolish, that I’m sexist, that I’m evil, or that the wool has been pulled over my eyes. Instead, show me why my idea is misguided. Show me why you’re right. And if I don’t give in right away, when I hold my own and push back—as long as I do so with reason rather than pride, and in earnest rather than out of spite—respond in kind. Don’t tell me that I’m beyond redemption. Don’t tell me that my ignorance is immutable. Don’t make me the problem. Show me the problem. Educate me.

A common trope in all of the accusations flying around Hyde Park cyberspace last week was that we could do better. Regarding the sexism displayed on “Politically Incorrect Confessions,” and the self-serving nature of public grief displayed on Facebook, the critics concurred: A school that prides itself on reasoned thinking should be able to see the error of its ways.

And I agree. If we think this campus can be better, let’s help one another get there. Let’s treat one another like the critically thinking adults we are and hold ourselves to that same standard while we’re at it. We can’t show someone how to drive a car by screaming at her when she asks where the gearshift is. We can’t show someone how to see discrimination by rebuking her when she tries to understand sexism. We can’t show someone that digital condolences are ineffective by shaming her when she doesn’t see what we see.

To be clear, this is not a call to give the shamers a taste of their own medicine. Instituting the Shame Police to counter the Whatever Police is no solution. Rather, this is a call to reclaim our discourse by acknowledging that the freedom to express opinions is a prerequisite for meaningful debate. You have to know where I stand before you can move me.

The fact that we’re trying to convince others in the first place proves that we accept their capacities for reason. We may not believe that all ideas are equal, but we acknowledge that critical discussion can enlighten the misguided. We might even believe that the truth speaks for itself. But if that’s the case, then the honesty of others poses no threat.

Jake Smith is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.

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