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Most readers are aware that the title phenomenon is commonplace in human affairs, but, especially in the blogosphere, it is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that the direct and constant encounter with it is overwhelming. On various blogs and comment boards, I have found that merely by relentlessly questioning people’s assumptions and conclusions, arguing on-topic and without ad hominems, I have consistently become a lightening rod for the most persistent, obsessive, and abusive vitriol imaginable. I regularly attract virtual stalkers and harassers, some of whom react with an almost Tourette-like reflexiveness to any scent of my existence.

On a prominent (and, in many ways, exceptionally good) Colorado political blog on which I participated for years, after such experiences repeated at an accelerating rate over that entire period of time, in an email exchange with the nominally anonymous owner of the blog, I felt as though I had stepped through the looking glass, for this individual (who, along with his real or imaginary partners, strives mightily to assume an aura of disembodied authority, using the first person plural in all self-references, habitually assuming a dismissive and disdainful tone), for he ascribed the vitriol to me, while blithely exonerating the stalkers, harassers, and frothers-at-the-mouth, implicitly agreeing with them that the publication of relentless intellectual arguments that cause discomfort in others is what is the true affront to human decency.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim, and have never claimed, that my personal defects and faults are not a part of this dynamic. Clearly, I could be more diplomatic, more solicitous of other people’s sensibilities, less “pompous” and “condescending” (some of the kinder descriptors of me favored by my detractors). I won’t try to determine to what extent these perceptions of my personality are an artifact of the broader dynamic I am describing, and to what extent they are truly my own, but I will admit that I believe that both components are implicated.

But our humanity is always a part of the equation, our imperfections and personality flaws always affecting our interactions. Why would extreme, explosive, obsessive expressions of rage or hatred be considered less vitriolic than the perceived pomposity and condescension of compelling and focused arguments? Both the “more legitimate” reason that such perceived pomposity and condescension communicates a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own reality, and the “less legitimate” reason that the perception of such pomposity and condescension is an artifact of one’s own investment of ego in the false certainties that are being challenged, point to the same thing: Such discussions are perceived in terms of competing egos unless great pains are taken to ensure that they are perceived otherwise.

In a sense, I’ve just brought into question my own premise described in the title of this post: Is such “belligerence” really irrational? Isn’t it, on some level, true that what those others perceive as my pomposity and condescension is, in fact, an expression of my ego gorging on my ability to “win” an argument? And isn’t that an aggressive act, a kind of assault on others that invokes legitimate feelings of rage?

Yes, on some level I think that this is true. But it is also like resenting your opponent in an athletic match for out-performing you, because those same people are engaging in the same “competition,” striving to assert their own egos through their arguments on the topics of discussion. One woman, for instance, insisted that to believe in god was to adhere to a neolithic absurdity, and became very upset with me when I presented what I think was a pretty sophisticated argument why this is not necessarily so (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, though the ad hominems are omitted). Another became very hostile when I challenged her passionate insistence that the best thing progressives could do now would be to withdraw all support from the Democratic Party. Another regular poster reacted with similar (though more clenched) hostility when I effectively challenged his assumptions on education reform. In all these, and other, cases, their egos were no less invested than mine; they, no less than me, in a contest that they wished to win.

Yet, it all depends on what set of rules you have implicit in your mind while playing this “game.” For instance, few if any regulars on the blog in question appear offended by, or even cognizant of, the disdainful and dismissive aura of disembodied, superior authority cultivated so assiduously by the blog owner(s), though I find it far more “pompous” and “condescending” than my own form of argumentation, which never fails to admit to my own defects and humanity, but focuses intensely on mobilizing compelling arguments both untempered by social niceties and unreliant on ad hominem attacks.

I believe that this is because the rules of their game are: 1) Do not ever challenge the premise that, while people have strongly held conflicting opinions, the goal is not to reduce mutual false certainty and arrive together at improved understandings, but rather only to win political victories that advance one’s own dogmatic beliefs at the expense of the dogmatic beliefs of others; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to be vitriolic, disdainful, and dismissive of others, if you do so without violating rule number 1.

In other words, it’s acceptable to argue a position, but only if it is done without any intention of actually challenging the assumptions and conclusions of others; rather, it must be done in service to superficial political victories rather than any attempt to affect human consciousness. This is why it’s just as acceptable among these particular actors to focus in on completely irrelevant issues with which they might score political points as to make a compelling argument, and, in fact, more acceptable to do the former than to do the latter if the latter is done in a way which too profoundly challenges people’s assumptions and conclusions.

This was in fact summed up by one poster on the same blog, less inclined to vitriol and less antagonistic toward me than others, who counseled that I shouldn’t keep asking people to question all that they think is true. I replied that that’s not such a bad role to play, and there should be room on each forum for at least one person to play it.

And that gets to the crux of the matter: He or she who plays it becomes the center of a storm of vitriol for playing it, because what people least want is to have their comfortable false certainties challenged. One of the posters recently most antagonistic to me, assuming the job of posting constant, meaningless, snide attacks following every comment or post of mine, summed this up in an unintentionally flattering way: He wrote, “just drink the hemlock already, Socrates” (the point being that Socrates, who was famous for forcing people to question their own assumptions and conclusions, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by inducing them to question the certainties that the Athenian people considered sacrosanct).

A column printed in last Sunday’s Denver post, by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, “The Op-Ed Pages Are No Tea Party” (, addresses one aspect of this issue: People resent compelling arguments that challenge their beliefs. As she writes:

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commentators outside the group see what’s up and don’t bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It’s not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It’s a strong argument that hits the bull’s-eye.

I would amend what she says slightly: It’s not only orchestrated campaigns that drive out other voices, but spontaneous group think, especially the highly aggressive and vitriolic kind. This is one aspect of the dynamic I’ve experienced, particularly on that Colorado political blog on which I participated frequently for a long period of time: While I was quite popular at first (winning or being runner up in their periodic “poster of the months” elections several times in succession), the belligerent voices of resistance to the role I was playing grew in number and intensity, while the calmer and more friendly voices correspondingly fell silent.

It wasn’t, I think, initially that very many of the latter group defected to the former, but rather that they ceded the field to them, loathe to get mired in the muck of contesting those angry voices. Then, over time, the growing imbalance creates a self-reinforcing impression of general consensus, that more and more people feel compelled to either acquiesce or actively adhere to. In fact, the one poster who has been most relentless most recently, appears to have been so to gain entry into the “clubhouse” with the sign out front “no stinky Steve Harveys allowed.” The vitriol serves to help consolidate a group-identity defined by the unwritten rules I stated above, rules which I consistently violated.

This dynamic permeates political discourse and political action, pushing out the questioning of assumptions or the quest for anything transcendent of current realities, enshrining and entrenching a certain kind of shallow ritualism, a competition of relatively arbitrary (and underexamined) opinions, played out professionally by strategists and tacticians rather than by those whose aspirations look beyond those exigencies of politics. And all of this is in service to the definition of borders between in-groups and out-groups, ultimately the least progressive and most regressive of all human forces.

An example of the professional political dimension is apparent in a correspondance I had with Senator Mark Udall’s office. First, I want to emphasize that I like Senator Udall, and do not aim this criticism particularly at him or his staff; it is, rather, indicative of something endemic to politics as it is currently practiced, and understandably so.

I sent Senator Udall (and a slew of others) a synopsis of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” proposal (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). His office sent back a letter, signed by him, blandly thanking me and stating his belief that, yes, reason and goodwill are laudable goals. It was clear that whoever responded to my proposal either did not read it or did not understand it, because it really has very little to do with some bland reaffirmation that “reason and goodwill are good” (rather, it’s a detailed, systemically informed plan for how to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in public opinion and policy formation).

The generic response from his office, totally missing the point, to a novel idea reaching beyond the mud-pit of politics is illustrative of how foreign these concepts (i.e., reason and goodwill) really are to politics, so beaten out of the actual practice that the mention of them triggers a reflexive dismissal of the reference as naively oblivious to political reality. As I said, I don’t really blame Senator Udall and his staff: This is how they’ve been trained and socialized. This is what experience has taught them. And that, combined with the time pressures on them and the volume of correspondence they receive virtually guarantees such a knee-jerk response (if any response is given at all).

Neither among the rank-and-file, nor at the highest levels, can we easily break through our investment in our current level and form of consciousness. Among the chattering masses, pushing in that direction violates a jealously guarded norm of conduct. Among the seasoned professionals, it violates the perceived lessons of history and experience. But it is precisely the most profound and important of all challenges facing us.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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The “Signal-to-Noise Ratio” (SNR) is an engineering term that has come to be applied more broadly to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant information in communications ( As long as I have been aware of the phrase, it has been a favorite of mine. If we were to attempt to construct a comprehensive and maximally useful paradigm of public discourse, this phrase would have to be a cornerstone. SNR refers to the density of meaning in what is being said, the quantity and quality of relevant information that is being communicated, in proportion to the quantity and quality of everything else that obscures and displaces it.

Most political discourse is characterized by an extremely low SNR. Traditional unidirectional mass media (television, radio, newspapers) used to be tempered by trying to appeal to broad markets, which led to a reduction in SNR in order to offend no one. More recently, the balkanization of traditional mass media, appealing more to ideologically targeted markets (particularly on the right), has led to a different kind of reduction of the SNR, an ideologically intense but analytically poor set of insulated messages, reinforcing the creation of ideological islands of selective information reverberating among the faithful. Even the best mass media programming today tends to focus too much on politics as competition among existing ideologies, and not enough on politics as the on-going search for the best policies by which to govern ourselves. Programs that address head-on the questions underwriting the ideological differences are few and far between.

If you visit message boards and political blogs, you find mostly angry tantrums, flame wars, ridicule, arbitrary assertions and opinions, and even, often, an open hostility to analysis. Many of the most active participants in public discourse not only indulge in a low SNR, but privilege it as preferable and superior. In some places, such as on SquareState, the signal-to-noise ratio suffers from adamant ideological insularity, reinforcing a somewhat informed but assiduously narrow and stagnant ideology.

In other places, such as Colorado Pols, the SNR is particularly low, nuggets of information buried in avalanches of chatter. The combination of comradery among accepted insiders and antagonism toward rejected outsiders (placed within and shifted between these categories according to how well they reinforce the ritual of empty discourse that defines the blog) creates a strong group identity. Shared pride is taken in accommodating “everyone” while accomplishing nothing. Virtual friendships are forged among ideological opposites, and arguments resolved, on the basis of the shared ideology that all political orientations are arbitrary and equal. And a strong sense of community is maintained by means of an ethnocentricity of political ritualism, in which saying nothing knowledgeably is perceived to be the height of discourse.

Obviously, the highest SNRs are found in the most inaccessible forums: Professional journals, symposia, and other venues in which highly distilled information is presented and exchanged. Due to the fortress of jargon, and the assumption of a shared expert foundation on which to build, these “ivory tower” forums exist in a world apart, with too few bridges to the realm which most of us occupy.

The challenge to those who want to improve political discourse is to combine the virtues and avoid the vices of each of these various forums. The most important virtues to be combined are the comradery and accommodation of diverse views that characterizes Colorado Pols with the information intensity of academe. The most important vices to be avoided are the ideological insularity of SquareState, the reduction of political discourse to mere arbitrary opinion of Colorado Pols, and the inaccessibility of state of the art information and analysis characteristic of academe.

What we need to work on creating is an all-inclusive, information-intensive, friendly but robust national, state, and local discussion. What we don’t need is to keep reproducing and investing in the clubhouses that currently exist, the clubhouses of ideological insularity, of superficiality, and of esoteria. We need, as individual information consumers, to exercise the discipline to switch the channel from “Reality TV” (including the blogosphere versions) to “National Geographic,” and as individual information producers to be more informative and less offensive. But no one needs to be an expert to contribute to an improved SNR (and few if any are in all things): Asking cogent questions is as important as providing cogent answers, and learning is as essential as teaching.

Premature false certainties are the bane of high SNRs, because they stagnate individual understandings, and balkanize ideological camps. We all need to consider what aspects of opposing views might be valuable to consider. (For instance, our growing national debt, and our undisciplined spending as a nation, major Tea Party issues, are legitimate concerns, and merit our attention.) We need to avoid the meme that compromise is bad, and embrace the meme that pursuing the best and most informed policies is good. We need each to fight against our own pettiness, and discourage it in one another. We need to recognize that we have a civic responsibility not just to be engaged, but also to become ever better informed, and to develop ever deeper and broader understandings of the issues that confront us. And we have to, all of us, exercise that civic responsibility publicly, together, helping one another to develop those deeper and broader understandings, and seeking from one another our own on-going education, for responsible self-governance benefits first and foremost from an increasingly better and more richly informed electorate.

(This theme is continued in Un-Jamming the Signal.)

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