Yelling Past One Another The Online Frontier

by Glen Pearson

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

"The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency" - Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

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Glen Pearson
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