Democracy In the Age of Mean-Spiritedness.


Democracy of objects? – Please!

Democracy of “mean-spirited ignoramuses” and “semi-literate know-it-alls who have no idea what they’re talking about”? – No, thanks.

This is, of course, an old dilemma: do we allow people to express their views and rule directly and pray they are as sane and considerate as we, the noble thinkers and true leaders, are? Or do we create an elaborate system of government that prevents “the people” from making any significant contributions, but creates an illusion of direct involvement?

Vis-a-vis mean comments on the internet, I think all the impolite and mean-spirited trolls should be immediately arrested and, depending on their physical condition, either sent to labor camps or killed in some quick and effective manner. Then we will have a great society in which only polite and considerate people will make smart suggestions and will be genuinely respectful and supportive of each others, kind and loving, inspiring and prone to spontaneous hugs. I know genocidal ideas are not as popular these days as they used to be (you either love them or hate them, as the saying goes), but I simply see no other way out, I simply don’t.

If you’re contemplating leaving a “mean-spirited” stupid comment to this post, consider yourself warned – all people within 10 miles of your IP address will be rounded up and exterminated – long live the future republic of politeness and tact!

51 thoughts on “Democracy In the Age of Mean-Spiritedness.

  1. Interesting. Bowling balls and safety pins are free in this world to lugubriously feel and express their sensuous gooey centers in a full democracy of ordinations, but certain objects called “commenters” need to be fully constrained from interacting with other objects called “readers of the NY Times”.

    • I have always felt that such “democracies” – whether they be the free-flowing sensuous indulgences of the inner-affects of an Egyptian East, bumping into each other like sweet bodies in the darkness, or the ontological scaffoldings of existence – harbor in their ideal abstractions, serious fascistic tendencies. This is what happens when you project the ideological of what is human onto the entire universe. You lose both what is human, AND the universe.

      But yes, on with the cuddly.

    • I think Harman just can’t wrap his mind around the idea that others might not be as intolerant to dissent as he is, that some people are able to ignore idiotic comments and read on…

      • This is probably the core of the commentless approach. Some people cannot simply skip over something, or afford to have the iota of an impression left that they are not completely and utterly in control….in control of their argument, in control of their audience, in control of themselves. And no comment can be ignored. It would be like walking down a busy city street and answering every glance you get with “Hey, you lookin’ at me?!”

  2. Harman must be reading your blog religiously – he immediately put up a defense of his remarks, only getting himself deeper into shit with wise observations such as this:

    In olden times, the reading public gained a voice through letters to the editor, some of which were then published. Obviously, not all of the published letters were thoughtful, intelligent, or useful. But at least they weren’t open breaches of basic human decorum. I hardly think that a bit more gatekeeping on the web would amount to “censorship.” It would simply fulfill the needed function of basic editorial control.

    Of course it’s not censorship, it’s editorial control! This is what I call an “idiotic remark” on the websites. How is editing out what one perceives to be offensive comments not censorship? Who is to decide what is and is not offensive? Is and is not decent and acceptable? Surely, the wise one and others like him should be put in charge of the internet, then this will get better.

    • Ahh the “olden times” – if I recall correctly, Harman was also very excited about these very same olden times because people got killed for philosophical ideas/heresies – that was one awesome time, I tells ya!

    • Of course it’s not censorship, it’s editorial control!

      All reasonable bloggers do it.

      1) they eliminate spam
      2) they delete personal insults against other participants of a discussion
      3) they herd a conversation for not running too far off topic

      I know, Harman loves to make bullet point lists of the kind “10 rules for prolific writers”. Not sure why he doesn’t come up with such a list for internet conversations and starts religious wars about them instead. This is even more bizarre because he enjoys to participate as “Dr. Zamalek” occasionally, something no one ever found problematic.

      • Ahh, but this is the same as Bryant blogging as “Dr. Synthome” for years before coming out as himself and then declaring every anonymous/pseudonymous blogger to be a dog and an unworthy piece of shit. It’s different because people knew who he really was (that’s his latest explanation), even if he was very careful not to connect his real name with his assumed identity of “Dr. Synthome” – I’m sure “Dr. Zamalek” has his reasons and they are easy to grasp for any reasonable non-trollish person.

  3. My favorite part is the preceding paragraph:

    This is the sort of thing I mean by “idiotic.” The world will always be filled with stupid remarks, but I don’t see what gives these people the right to make such remarks in the same place as professionally reported and edited news.

    Translation: the world will always be filled with idiots, but they shouldn’t have the same rights to their opinions as the professionals – professionals write news/are journalists, idiots are the unwashed idiotic masses with their moronic views should be edited out of the public sphere. (FLAT ONTOLOGY indeed) I don’t see why instead of me leaving the public space of idiotic opinion we can’t just forbid people from saying things and then make my online experience so much more pleasant!

    Jurgen Habermas would be so proud!

    • Just because we are all ontologically equal, Mark, does not mean we all get to say whatever we feel like saying. I mean “all people are created equal” did not prevent governments from defending slavery, forbidding women from voting, discriminating based on color or sexual orientation. Saying that we have a “flat ontology” and that every object is ontologically as awesome as every other object does not mean that practially we are to change our way of life – are you suggesting one should be a consistent defender of the philosophical implications of one’s position?

    • This is the thing. All these “professionals” have come to the unwashed web because no one would buy their hard copy, old-fashiony newpaper thingy-s. All the experts, in an odd form of democracy and leveling, allow comments because they have to give the impression that they are part of a “conversation” the buzz word of 2010, social media marketing.

    • Or, as Harman puts it, “lash out at them with as much power as you have so that they think twice before talking back to you ever again” – that’s very close to the Special Forces attitude.

      Are you suggesting that in the big army of object-oriented soldiers Harman is an equivalent of Special Forces? I always thought he was more of a High Command Generalissimo who gives directions right and left while brooding over a large map (on a large table, of course): “Too much idealism in Nevada – Bryant, post one on Nevada and cover one of the Dakotas, your choice, they both suck”

      • maybe its a bit more like commandos descending from helicopters, protecting an embargo on the open seas.

  4. But by reading all sorts of online media I am forced into this conversation! It’s not fair that I have to a) go online, b) read a story and c) be forced to read nasty comments, because they are there and I cannot not read them.

    As for “professionals” and their “olden times” – see any episode of The Daily Show.

    • I mean WHO has not developed the skill of skimming through and hardly reading the comments on something? I mean sometimes its jarring to move from articulate prose to a dim-headed response chain, but my lord, why does this mean that its a sign of the apocalypse, the fall of Western Civilization.

  5. Can’t say I agree with anyone here– not ya’ll, not Harman. Kvond’s recommendation to “learn how to skim comments” risks, I think, just being another way of tuning each other out. Thus what was once a possible way of connecting to each other becomes one more way of ignoring each other.

    On the other hand, “gatekeeping” as a term just gives me the chills. I’m trying to think this reaction through before I assume it means that Harman is wrong. But on the old Zen first-thought-best-thought theory, my notion is: the comment boxes for ignoramuses are diversions and substitutes for any meaningful action on their part. It’s a way of giving them the illusion of impact. So, in fact, ‘gatekeeping’ would actually be counterproductive.

    He’s absolutely right, by the way, that the vast majority of such comments are pointless at best. But my suspicion is that having them there was never meant to be “productive.”

    On this, I am more or less with Jaron Lanier on this. The web is a beautiful thing, but when it brings out the troll in anyone (who, moi?), there’s a problem. Is this problem in me, or in the medium?

    But then, you guys didn’t really want to discuss this, didja? (If I didn’t hate emoticons so much I’d stick some little just-ribbing-you winky-smiley in, but I do, so I won’t. But I am. Ribbing you, I mean.)

      • No, certainly I skim them. I skim them precisely in response to what Harman points out, as well as many other factors (weariness, exasperation, short attention-span, etc.) It just occurs to me that this being the default response is problematic. As I re-read your comment, I see that perhaps you did not intend it that way. Perhaps I should not have skimmed it!

        Of course, I also interact with my friends in face-to-face encounters in less-than-present ways (effectively “skimming” them), so the issue is hardly one that is web-specific. There are all kinds of ways to tune each other out.

    • What does it mean to really discuss things anyway? I definitely don’t think having comment sections on major websites is such a great idea, it shows not that there are idiots out there willing to write all sorts of stuff in those comment sections, but that our media is degenerating into some kind of grotesque vox populi, vox dei fetish (aka “conversation”), but to suggest that somehow only the special professionals should be allowed to comment or that censoring comments is not censorship is equally ridiculous.

      And now to the tired (and only supported by “it seems to me”) argument that internet brings out the worst in people. I disagree. Anonymity certainly allows people to be jerks, but it also allows for many other things – wonderful projects like WikiLeaks would not be possible without anonymity, for example – the idea that I was a nice human being and then I went online and become some abusive troll is not very persuasive, as far as I am concerned. The world is full of all sorts of people, if internet does anything, it allows us to see them all in their wonderfully diverse mass – yes, some are idiots, but who am I to decide who is or is not? All I can do is say “I think you’re an idiot” not “You are definitely a mean-spirited ignoramus, therefore you must be banned from media” – no one gave me this power and no one (let’s hope) will ever give this power to Harman. Tolerance – does this word mean nothing to us anymore?

      • I agree with everything you say, some of it with great force, but I disagree with your semi-conclusion:

        “but that our media is degenerating into some kind of grotesque vox populi, vox dei fetish (aka “conversation”)”

        It almost makes me want to say, “Do you think you can claim nonsense and make it sound convincing and theoretical by using Latin?” Who are you trying to impress, Harman (who I believe is reading this, and WAS impressed)?

        The “conversation” media trend is something much more than a mere “fetish” and far from a “degeneration”.

      • Well, vox populi vox dei is a rather well-known phrase and one can hardly be accused of using it to impress – it’s like using ad naseum or et cetera – these uses of Latin are part of English language, or so I thought. My point stands – using Twitter messages in “The Situation Room” is not just silly, but is also indicative of a general tendency of the media to go from the “olden days” of “professional journalism” to today’s “you can make news happen! text us your story at 888-WE-ARE-TOO-LAZY…

  6. well, I would hardly say that the internet “brings out the worst,” in some inevitable sense. Anonymity has its uses. The web is a very weird real-time experiment. Since Harman hasn’t proposed any actual interventions, I’d hold back from calling him a reactionary here, but in any case while I might understand the exasperation that gives rise to reaction, I think this is to be eschewed.

    Anyway, I certainly hope that no one ever has to offer, say, proof of “expertise”, say, a PhD, in order to make a comment on a new story. That would rule me out right there.

    I think I agree with you, Mikhail, about the vox populi. Thing is, if the media turns out to be the place where the people go to vent, then they’ll be distracted from doing other things. Like, vote. Or seeking office.

    • Just as a clarification: my post was a sarcastic remark (i.e. I did not propose a genocidal solution to the problem of rudeness), so it shouldn’t (in itself) be taken as some sort of accusation. Harman’s proposed intervention is to ban comments forever (because there’s inevitably a troll or two appearing everywhere) – it’s hardly a solution. Most people are fine with moderating comments (we do it), that is to say, the options are not “allow it all” and “ban it all” – places like CNN or NYT websites don’t have the money to pay a moderator, so it’s all just free expression of people’s opinions.

      As for venting, I was just thinking about it – the question is not, for me, why people vent in such horrible ways but why do people have the need to vent at all? are they so horribly repressed in their “normal” life that they have to go online and post anonymous comments on some CNN story? Are they lonely and bored that they would read other people’s comments and respond to them? Is this our contemporary equivalent of “conversation” – who is conversing with whom?

  7. ME: “My point stands – using Twitter messages in “The Situation Room” is not just silly”

    Kvond: You act as if CNN’s use of Twitter is the full social impact of the media form. Deeply ignorant. Sure CNN’s use of twitter is fetishistic, but the full social consequences of Twitter are not CNN related.

    • To add,

      The CNN Twitter i-fication is only a corporate and mass media response to a REAL sociological change in power and communication, an attempt to capitalize – too late – on a sea change in personal connectivity and technological integration.

      Its like saying automobile ads in the 40’s showed how much a fetish the car was. Sure, but the impact of the automobile on society, economy, community is not REDUCED to the silliness of car ads. It was about what the automobile could DO, and what horses could not do.

      • Fetishes are powerful things, saying that something is a fetish does not necessarily imply that it is dismissed, although, of course, I did do it in a dismissive way. So taking what you’re saying, we can still say that there is a conversation fetish, but without ignoring its impact. That is to say, sure, Twitter and other forms are clearly powerful in the way you describe, but that doesn’t excuse them from being fetishes – cars can do many wonderful things, but they are still, for example, powerful American fetishes, don’t you think?

      • To add,

        Twitter and the rest are not produced by sociological chance, but produce that sociological change themselves – it’s not as though people had a real sociological need to communicate in short and often obscure messages of 140 characters and Twitter came and filled that gap, right? And all these “social media” like Facebook or what have you do it the same way – they present a new way of communication and then people live as though there was never a time before Facebook. Certainly, one can say that these media might be put to a different use by the people and be taken to some new awesome level, but I’m yet to see that new level.

  8. Sure. But the second half of your diagnosis was that the “conversation” was degeneration. If social media cannot be reduced to its fetish, so not its social standing.

    You reduced, at least as far as I understood you, Twitter and other social media, to a fetish degeneration.

    Or, to return to cars, if you only paid attention to the images of cars, and not the reality of their capabilities, you would have missed out almost entirely on their non-degenerative effects on society.

    Now, if you want us to return to horse and buggy, that is a different question.

    ME, there is more traffic on Facebook than Google. Is this all “degeneration”?

    • My point was simply that traffic (popularity) and capabilities (power) are not necessarily indication of progress (the opposite of degeneration). Drugs are very popular and atomic bombs can certainly do all sorts of things, but surely we can’t say that they are good and useful? I was trying to say that new media are not necessarily good just because they are new and awesome. Certainly I am not going to go around and tell everyone to stop using the media, ban them from Facebook or demand that websites ban comments. But this whole obsession with conversation/communication is just not my cup of tea (and, of course, I see the irony of bitching about it online on a blog).

      • Well, you qualified the degeneration by its fetish status, and then you admitted that this was an oversimplification, it is not MERELY fetish. What is one to make of the charge of degeneration in the absence of this link?

        It seems that this is a perfect topic for this thread because you are working yourself back into Harman’s corner which seem to assume that popularity of use and expression is somehow LOW.

        I’m not sure how to respond to the degeneration charge because I don’t know what you consider “progress”

        Is it “progress” if the Iranians can organize flash mob protests of election results so fast that military cannot stop them?

        Is it progress if business connections are made in new and different ways, if a blog article catches fire through Twitter responses, if BP has even more troubles than it would have had a decade ago, due to the spontaneous organization of a boycott through Facebook and Twitter…

        The thing is, I don’t share the assumption that “popular” use of new technology is LOW.

      • I believe that I used “degeneration” to refer to traditional media or something, I can’t remember now and too lazy to look up. I didn’t say new media were “low” I just think you put too much emphasis on their newness and connect it to some great impact on society which is only visible to those already converted to the new media. I’m not dismissing it, I’m evaluating it, one does not have to either reject or embrace completely and without looking back. I’m really losing the thread of this “conversation” – what are we talking about again?

  9. ME: “it’s not as though people had a real sociological need to communicate in short and often obscure messages of 140 characters and Twitter came and filled that gap, right?”

    Kvond: I completely disagree. I media form would never take off like this without an implicit “need” to communicate in a certain way. There are likely very strong sociological reasons and forces that make communicating in short bursts at a high rate quite satisfying and expressive.

    It would be like saying: Come on, did people like Mikhail really have a “need” to publish all their random thoughts on things in a blog. Well, as success suggests, yes they did.

  10. ME: “Certainly, one can say that these media might be put to a different use by the people and be taken to some new awesome level, but I’m yet to see that new level.”

    Kvond: Nah, the level is already happening, you just don’t see it. These are nodes and nexuses of communication and personal identification. Cutting across and redefining boundaries of communication. Twitter is a perfect example. It seems filled with communications which approach a value of nil, but its composite expression presents rich sources of information and personal investment, across class.

  11. ME: “But this whole obsession with conversation/communication is just not my cup of tea (and, of course, I see the irony of bitching about it online on a blog).”

    Kvond: But what is one to make of this performative contradiction? You have expressed yourself in a new media “conversation” format (in fact you have extolled the use of “comments”), but then you curmudgeon the technology and trend in general?

    Is this anymore than “I got mine”.

  12. ME: “Drugs are very popular and atomic bombs can certainly do all sorts of things, but surely we can’t say that they are good and useful?”

    Kvond: But I’m not going to say that they are degenerations either.

      • My point is, what “isn’t your cup of tea” apparently becomes “my goodness, this tea is degenerate”.

      • I think you’ve flipped the two: “my goodness, this tea is degenerate” becomes “this isn’t my cup of tea” – I’ve lost my train of thought because you constantly bombard me with small questions and demand some sort of elaborate explanations and consistency in answer like I’m on some kind of KGB interview, if this is the sort of new and awesome conversation that you’ve discovered online, then I’m not sure I need any other examples of its degenerating forms. You’re certainly more than welcome to express yourself in any way you choose, but you might not find as many conversation partners if you do it like an interrogator of sorts – whatever happened to just chatting and shooting shit? This exchange gave me a headache and a short flashback to my former “conversations” with Bryant – c’mmon, man, take it easy on me.

  13. It is not designed to promote a conversation. You are stuck with it.

    But then again, conversations are not the aim here, comments are. Thank goodness.

  14. Pingback: Democracy In the Age of Mean-Spiritedness. (via Perverse Egalitarianism) « Betrachtungen

  15. This was almost as good:

    “I was just looking at some news stories on CNN and the NY Times, and was struck once again by how idiotic the vast majority of reader comments are. And I’m not saying that in a haughty or condescending tone: the comments are really quite obviously stupid and counterproductive, and almost all of you would agree with me.”

    I mean ‘not saying that in a haughty or condescending tone’…’condescending’ he can do, ‘haughty’ doesn’t play. Where has Harman been all these years, with endless online forums under Frank Rich’s column, etc., and religious blogs at WaPo. It doesn’t MATTER! Doesn’t add to the discussion, my ass. There never is a discussion in those mainstream blogs. It’s hardly ever that one comment is responded to by anyone else writing them. I wrote a comment on an Opinionator yesterday, because I thought the piece remarkably good (and there’s usually are not.) But otherwise, there really is just ‘anything goes’, little different from aol chatrooms of yore (or they may still exist, I don’t have aol anymore).

  16. Seriously, I know that saying “Not to be rude but” always saves me from being rude, but I didn’t think it works for everyone…

    It would be like saying “Not to be racist, but black people are excellent athletes” or “Not to be anti-Semitic, but that Shahar character is stealing my thunder like all Jews like to do” – unacceptable!

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