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Spray painting de Tocqueville

The Internet has been described as a kind of “great equalizer” in that it holds the power to give otherwise voiceless masses a platform for public opinion.

I tend to regard this sentiment the same way I think about nuclear power plants: They’re a great way to make a lot of electricity, unless something goes wrong; and if it should go wrong, then it’s going to be very bad.

As someone who makes a few coins nattering on about this issue or that, I am a bit territorial about so-called “opinion journalism.” To this point, I’m glad everyone can now have their say on an issue, I just wish many of them would say it better.

Writing for the BBC, Anthony Zurcher, editor of Echo Chambers, posed the following question to Kate Riley, the editorial page editor of the Seattle Times: “Has the ease with which the average person can share their views with the public been an unmitigated good? Or have we paid a price in the quality of debate?”

Riley responded with: “I think the Internet age is good for the business of opinion, especially newspaper editorial pages. There are the trolls, of course, who throw mud in the comment sections of every published article — not so useful.”

One need not look very long to find examples of this mudding of democratic speech. Randomly click on any story about Congress and you’ll quickly find dull-witted grousing from both ends of the socio-political spectrum.

In his seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “I think that liberty is endangered when this power is checked by no obstacles which may retard its course, and force it to moderate its own vehemence. Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion.”

While it should not be inferred that I am advocating for a lessening of free speech, I am advocating for a higher quality of whatever public discourse may exist — also that it should actually be discourse, not mere publicized disgust.

Many of us will recall an admonishment from childhood, the point of which was to discourage graffiti: “Fools’ names like fools’ faces, often appear in public places.” Ill-composed online comments are the functional equivalent of spray-painted buildings.

Nor should this be taken as my advocating for a particular perspective, merely that whatever is said should be said well. Overeager social media users, I’m looking at you.

Flowing from all this is a half-facetious Internet maxim coined by journalist Mike Godwin in 1990. Termed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies, it goes something like this: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

In other words, if left to its own chaotic and unchecked devices, any Internet discussion — regardless of original topic — will eventually result in someone comparing the holder of an opposing viewpoint to Hitler or the Nazis.

As Godwin observes: “While the world of the Net is filled with diverse critical thinkers who are ready to challenge self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing memes, we can’t rely on net.culture’s diversity and inertia to answer every bad meme. The Nazi-comparison meme has a peculiar resilience, in part because of its sheer inflammatory power (‘You’re calling me a Nazi? You’re the Nazi in this discussion!’).”

As de Tocqueville wrote a century and a half before: “When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.”

You and me both.

Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com

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