Monday, July 25, 2011


One of the reports I was reading about the Norway shooting incident this weekend mentioned the difficulties police have in trying to prevent such violent incidents. In the past, it might have been easier to infiltrate and keep tabs on hate groups because they used more traditional means of organizing themselves. Now that such people congregate primarily on the internet, it may be more difficult to penetrate their activities and predict when they will become violent. This suspect in particular was sending out somewhat ambiguous signals, which might not have provided sufficient clues to allow law enforcement to act.

One problem with modern forms of communication is that they encourage people to interact mainly with like-minded individuals, and to filter out views that differ from their own. We see this tendency on cable news, and on websites that cater to particular political viewpoints. We see it on both the left and the right and in between. People prefer to listen to viewpoints they already agree with, and they often try to exclude those who disagree with them from the conversation. When there is dialogue, it tends to consist of confrontational rhetoric that does nothing to encourage people to listen to and try to understand opposing points of view.

What is needed is to create more safe spaces where people are obliged to consider opposing points of view in a respectful way. That is the only way people can learn to communicate with one another without feeling the urge to silence those whose viewpoints differ from their own.

In a previous post I offered some rules for conducting such a civil dialogue.  My suggestions include refraining from name-calling, from questioning other people's motives, from exaggerating, from misrepresenting, and from blaming.

On this website, even though my posts maintain a definite point of view, I have attempted, in my own modest way, to create a safe space for people of differing viewpoints to disagree and argue with one another, and I appreciate comments from people of all political stripes, especially the ones who disagree with me, so long as they are willing to engage in a civil conversation.

Obviously, there are some points of view that are difficult to include in a civil dialogue. If somebody thinks we need to round up and expel or kill all the Muslims, or all the Jews, or all the blacks, that viewpoint is impossible to accommodate. But we can still have a reasonable debate about immigration policy, or religious tolerance, or education, that includes concerns about national identity and culture, without allowing for extreme solutions that would deny the legitimate rights of others. The haters need to be included in that dialogue, so they feel they have an alternative to congregating only among themselves, and plotting violence. 


  1. You can't include somebody who doesn't want to share their toys. That is the problem.

  2. I agree with the sentiment of your post, Joe, but the problem is that most people are completely unwilling to change their minds under any circumstances. In order for dialogue to work, both parties have to enter it with the mindset that they might be proven wrong, and if proven wrong that they have to change their viewpoint.

    Pride is a powerful thing to overcome.

  3. Jack, I think you can have a dialogue without expecting that you are going to be able to change anybody else's mind. What you need to do is to get people to be open to figuring out how they are going to be able to accommodate somebody else's viewpoint, not necessarily to admit they are wrong. That is too much to expect.

    I don't expect I'm going to change Harrison's mind about anything fundamental, for example, but I might be able to get him to think about how the political system has to accommodate both his views and my views. And we both enjoy engaging in a civil argument even though we expect we are going to end up disagreeing most of the time.

    But I'm mindful that there are some people who seem to be beyond reason entirely. There was a scene in the movie Manhattan in which the Woody Allen character was trying to encourage a group of people to go with him to break up a Nazi rally with baseball bats. Somebody else responded that there was a devastating Op-Ed piece about the Nazis and the Woody Allen character responded that Op-Ed pieces were not likely to be effective against Nazis. What you need are baseball bats. I can't endorse that view entirely either, but I understand it.

  4. Joe, if you say something that makes sense to me I'll certainly change my mind. This article you wrote I happen to agree with but in doing so it won't change my mind because we're in agreement.

  5. Anil Dash has one of the oldest and most influential blogs on the internet. It is now 12 years and running. His latest article is about civil discussion on blog sites. His point: "If your website's full of assholes it's your fault". He lays out the responsibility of the host very clearly!

  6. Thanks for that link, Kevin, it was interesting. Maybe I'm just lucky, or it's because my site is still fairly small, but I have found that I hardly ever have to delete comments. What is working for me, at least so far, is that if I try to set a positive and respectful tone, then I get hardly any assholes. What you see on some other sites is that if the host engages in a lot of nastiness and name-calling, then he is probably going to have to put up with a lot of that in return.

  7. You are not lucky; you are purposeful. I agree, the tone set by the owner and/or moderators is critical. The hands off owner or an owner that incites bad behavior, invites bad behavior.