Friday, April 06, 2007

A Question

I wonder: Have reading comprehension, original thought, and commitment to change gone the way of the dinosaurs? I was just reading the comments threads over at and I noticed yet again some peculiarities about internet discourse. First, I noticed that readers tend to attack stances that the author never took. Two, I noticed that they often make points that are repeated ad nauseum EVERYWHERE and apply in only a very limited way to the subject matter at hand. Third, I've noticed that far too many are more interested in scoring (cheap) points than in making a difference or furthering debate.

The articles I was reading had to do with religion and were written by regular Newsweek columnist Rabbi Gellman. In one, he asks if negative experiences may have led to the anger many atheists feel. It seems that some readers interpreted this question as implying that people are atheists because of negative experiences and took offense. Others simply jumped in with knee-jerk recitations of the crimes of religion throughout the centuries or references to the "We're all atheists about Zeus." cliche that offers very little to the discussion but sounds profound to some. Gellman struggles mightily it seems to come to terms with what he doesn't know about atheism/atheists, applying a little human compassion and respect in the process. Yet, he is attacked not engaged.

I would think these behaviors were limited to discussions of sensitive topics like religion if I had not observed similar behaviors in discussions about more mundane and less important topics. Instead, I see this often. A writer or reader asks a genuine question, admitting ignorance of the subject matter at hand but trying to be open-minded. The bleating masses then attack them in snide, smug tones for their ignorance. (In my opinion, many so-called "freethinkers" and "radicals" are simply sheep in a different flock.) Hmmmmm.... A person admits ignorance and raises a question in an attempt to resolve that ignorance, so you attack them for being ignorant while bemoaning the fact that people just don't get it. I find this confusing.

I've spent 14 years as an openly gay woman in America. I've given public speeches, sat on panels, written dozens of articles and academic papers, and simply engaged my fellow humans perhaps thousands of times. I've gotten some IGNORANT questions, many I would be embarassed to repeat in my mother's presence. I've always thought it best to engage. What are the options, after all? Make some snarky little point that makes me feel superior or actually make a difference in the way at least one person feels about and treats gay people.

My question: Is this just internet debate or have reading comprehension, originality of thought, and commitment to change simply disappeared?

UPDATE: By some interpretations, including my own, I made an error in this post. I'd been working on how to word this update when I found myself the subject of yet another attack over at Democratic Underground (see the post of April 20, 2007). I'm tempted to just say screw it now rather than grant them the satisfaction. But that's not how I roll. I may have been incorrect in interpreting Gellman's piece as a question rather than a suggestion. One sentence from his piece can very well be interpreted to imply that all atheists are atheists b/c they're angry. I still think he meant only a portion and I still think he was expressing uncertainty, but nonetheless, I apologize for the error.

This piece was never just about Gellman's article and the comments on it. That's just what I was reading when I decided to finally post on a question that has plagued me for some time. Despite my error or perhaps b/c of it, I think my question is still valid. Thanks for your input.


Blogger Canardius said...

The bleating masses bleat because of one salient point: they tend to think they're smarter than they are. The plebs aren't wise enough as a general group to wade through the complex issues like, say, God. It's not a there-is-or-there-is-not issue: the early Church had a devil of a time [excuse the pun] trying to pin down the nature of Christ [whether He was of two natures, or one, and how that fit in with the Father, and how those all fit in with the Paraclete].

Everyone sitting at Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Ephesus would consider himself a theist. And yet there was bitter disagreement that took learned fathers of the Church many many years arguing over semantics. Semantics usually over the head of most of the lay populace, who would look to an easy-to-digest opinion they don't have to think about. Theism by most definitions isn't supposed to make sense anyway -- if God made rational sense there'd be nothing special about faith in finding Him.

So the plebs want their opinions given them by an expert who presumably knows his case before he bothers them with opening his mouth. Otherwise they take him as wasting their time. When I'd admit I don't know enough about, say, spinal cord injuries, in talking about bionic ideas to repair my cousin's broken spine so she may walk, and then I go into my ideas on repairing her atrophied muscles and bridging the nerve gap so her legs get the signals the brain is sending them, few would bother listening to me. For the reason that I don't know my own case and I might be wrong. My questions would lead to more understanding, and that's a good thing. But not if I'm theh one with they think has the right idea, only to find out I'm searching for a clue.

Socrates was called a gadfly for a reason. Questioning of his leads to understanding once we admit he wasn't the professor lecturing anybody.

And who said everyone was atheists for Zeus? May Artemis grant such heretics a quick death with her silver arrows, and Lord Hades receive them into his kingdom.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Well, with a writer writing an article, one would expect that he's done his homework. With a columnist too, to an extent. BUT, the kind of questions I'm talking about are admissions of limitations of his worldview. Gellman states that he's admittedly limited by his conception of morality as being derived from G-d either through obedience to G-d's law or through the spirit of G-d that dwells within mankind. He says that it's hard for him to conceptualize the origins of an atheistic morality but that he's sure atheists can be moral human beings. Obviously, if he asked "What's an atheist?", he'd be an idiot. But admitting to limitations and welcoming further knowledge is the right thing to do here in my opinion as a writer. No writer is perfect. No human's knowledge is perfect. I think Gellman (and others) have opened the door for honest, sincere, respectful dialogue but have only gotten kicked in the teeth as a response.

I've seen this elsewhere. Specifically, one young woman went on a religion/spirituality forum I read occasionally and straight-out admitted that her attempts to understand atheism by seeking out atheist materials had left her confused. She stated what she thought she'd gotten from that material and asked whether there was something that was shared by all atheists. She was quite virulently attacked for her trouble.

I discussed this with a friend who was visiting recently and she said she'd seen this same type of behavior on sites for TV shows of all things. It seems to have gotten so bad that that any "dissent" no matter how inconsequential results in overblown, melodramatic conflict rather than discussion and debate.

1:04 PM  
Blogger reasonably prudent poet said...

ok, i don't have a lot of research to back this, but my thought is that people tend to take things far too personally and then argue from their guts instead of their heads. i started to really understand this the last time i was visiting my family. i try to stay away from any controversial topics, but with my law degree, i'm now a sitting duck. an uncle engaged me in a "debate" on "the death tax" and it got rocky really fast. i was trying to talk about what i understood about the tax code, why we tax the "events" we tax, etc, and i noticed that his responses weren't linear or logical or even related to what i was saying. that's when i realized that he wasn't having an intellectual debate with me, he was fighting from his gut, from a feeling of being attacked. i started to observe him from a more emotional perspective and realized that, even though we seemed to be talking about the estate tax, he was in the middle of something much more complicated: a man who'd just been laid off, struggling to maintain his family's middle class status, swimming upstream towards the elusive american dream of upward mobility, etc, etc, and the estate tax wasn't even the issue. i think, if you dug a little deeper with any of these people spouting off bullshit in the comments sections of blogs and websites, you'd find they are trying to give a clumsy voice to something much deeper and more emotional, something they probably don't understand and haven't examined at all, something they probably wouldn't even recognize if you pointed it out. does that make any sense? and, furthermore, i'd like to add that most people aren't taught logic or critical thinking in school. they witness these phenomena, they approach the fora for debate, but they have no tools, only their guts. that's my thought about it all...

1:51 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

good point. It still bodes ill for public discourse, however, in the "Web2.0 is all" era. It's a shame that many of the positives that the net could offer may be subverted by the negatives.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Catana said...

No. Yes. Yes. Yes.

There has been much hoopla over the "fact" that IQs are rising, world-wide. See any evidence of that?

As an aside: I'm a lifelong atheist because that's the only thing that ever made sense to me. No anger, no rejection, no whatever. The arguments over the whole issue, from both sides, strikes me as mostly irrelevant and a waste of time.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

I can almost understand the knee-jerk reactions from some atheists, especially those who live in highly religious parts of our country where they are often discriminated against. As I'm a Jew, many Christians in my own home-state would consider me an atheist. Try explaining the difference between believing in G-d and believing in Jesus to someone who believes that Jesus is G-d. It can be frustrating.

But these behaviors seem to apply across a wide variety of topics, some so mundane and ridiculous that it's hard to understand why anyone could get up in arms about them.

Like TV shows. Hello? It's images on a box. It's all imaginary. Those characters aren't real people. Of course, that doesn't apply to Xena or Star Trek, as these aren't "just" TV shows. Xena's real, darnit! So is 7 of 9! haha

And no, I don't see any evidence of rising IQ's. It's probably just a rise in test-taking ability and literacy that makes it easier to guage some people's IQ's.

8:08 AM  

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