Friday, November 28, 2008

A few words

Many years ago I was riding a bus in Chicago, scanning the advertising signs to both pass the time and to avoid looking at my fellow passengers, as CTA etiquette demanded. One sign sticks in my mind to this very day: “Words hit hard as a first,” it declared, pushing a campaign to get people to think about how their words affect children.

Political words have similar power—and consequences. In the US election, every time Sarah Palin attacked Barack Obama, threats against him skyrocketed. Whenever politicians attack “illegal immigration”, attacks on people of Hispanic descent increase. There are also plenty of cases in which GLBT people have been attacked after speech from some politician or preacher.

Why are people now so willing to “vent their spleens” (such an evocative phrase…) in extreme or, at least, absolutist language? While we expect to see that on fringe websites, we also see it in the comments to news stories on mainstream news media websites.

On the Internet no one is necessarily what or who they seem to be, so there’s no way to know if people are simply stirring up trouble and argument, or whether genuine people are expressing genuine beliefs. The two sides may even be impersonating each other to start fights.

In any case, we’ve become a coarser society as a result of all the loose, inflamed and unchecked language. I try and use terms precisely; for example, I use “christianist” to describe people who are Christian political activists (and for good measure, I add modifiers to make clear which end of the spectrum I’m talking about). Similarly, I try and use other terms—like “neoconservative” or “fascist” as basically technical terms, not as loose slander. I’m always re-thinking those usages and have modified them over the years.

I don’t want to attack simply for the sake of attacking, even when I’m provoked, but sometimes I can’t not say something. So, when I visit a site where the comments are a slanging match between the extremes, I don’t engage—I move on. I know that “words hit as hard as a fist” and, with rare exceptions, I won’t use words in that way. I wish we could find a way to make lunatics restrained themselves, too—and from what I’ve seen, that word is appropriate. I guess what I’m really saying is that I wish it wasn’t.


d said...

Yeah, it's come to the point that when I read a news story now, I don't read the comments. I just can't stand it! So many angry negative people out there arguing with each other.

Arthur Schenck said...

That's it exactly. I don't understand why they're so angry and negative, and make such snarky comments about people who don't agree with them. It's one thing on a blog, but it just doesn't belong in comments to a mainstream news story.