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The Thaddeus Gazette

Gresham Is Coming

There's nothing like a Grateful Dead show. Or an Internet discussion. Anything you say cannot and will not be held against you in a court of anything. A hundred flowers, a hundred opinions, Chairman Mao Is Off The Air. It's paradise!

I sometimes find myself wishing for some kind of umpiring system for online debates, an overarching all-seeing all-knowing intrusive agency that would swoop down on some snippy troll-infected spat and pop up a big ugly JUST THE FACTS M'AM alert box—with the power to back it up with force if necessary. "What happened to you?" "Internet police." "Those pigs." "Yeah, they just can't seem to counter the steely jaws of my meticulous logic with anything but paint ball guns." "Actually, it's kinda fetching." "Shut. Up."

It's not just that I keep finding people I disagree with. That's inevitable. The Internet is a big place, much bigger than most people were used to pre 1990 or so. We're stuck with attitudes and world views from the last world, the one in which you met people, with very few exceptions, by actually entering their physical space and exchanging unaltered modulated sonic compression waves. In that world, opinions were indeed like buttholes and everyone had one, but their odiferousness was limited. You could bomb a room easy as easy, but a stiff breeze blew the reek away. Consequently, the hundred stinking flowers blooming in any given location were such fragile things that a certain forbearance, if only towards that which is doomed to die untimely, was customary.

Anymore, with the towering edifice of the Net as a backdrop, fleeting impulses crystalize into obdurate blocks of doctrine, defended like the pass at Thermopylae. Passing chats and chance remarks blow up as grotesque and full of hot air as Macy's Parade balloons. And without the physical presence, the glower or heightened pheromone level of an opponent to daunt you, you can be as big an opinion as you like.

The compelling problem with this is that there are two purposes for dialog in any ordinary situation, one strictly functional, the other sociopolitical. At the root, of course, there's the attempt to figure out what's going on, to match points of view to evidence to try to solve some problem or difficulty. This can be as simple as how to start a fire or as complex as how to live well, but it boils down to a bunch of models being applied to the data trying to find one that fits better. That's all well and good and sentient and all, but there's another version of it that might be termed the von Clausewitz angle, deliberation as aggression by other means. Agro in and of itself is poisonous to civil society and is rightly condemned, but the necessity of conversation to resolve difficulties leads to a lot of potential for back-door bullying and threat. Normally this is kept in check by social opprobrium (as opposed to violence in fact, which is generally shepherded by guys in uniforms with weapons), but with the advent of electronic communications that mechanism is severely attenuated.

Worse, a whole pimply insecure subsector of the field of discourse has been gamified to the point where triumphalism trumps (haha) all other considerations. To win, to gloat like a Victorian schoolboy about winning, to crush your enemies, to see them flee before you and hear the weeping of their women (or they themselves, we're hardly sexist about this), is all they live for, think about (if you call that thinking) or take notice of. And to every forum in every subject they bring the moral and ethical esprit of a swarm of cockroaches storming a ripe and steaming turd, with results as predictable as they are distasteful.

The inspiration for all this, and the near universal adoption of skunk-posting, is the same as the one Noam Chomsky noted promoted the use of terrorism: people do it because it works. If you're not the sharpest knife in the drawer, if your logical abilities are stunted and your premises are flawed, if you find yourself the one-legged warrior in the butt-kicking contest, at the end of the day shit-stirring will still leave you in possession of the field once you've driven all your opponents away in disgust. You'll never lose a chess game if you kick over the board. Yay you. Go you. Gresham's Law is as applicable to discourse as it is to currency: bad-faith assertions drive out good. These losers could care less what the real purpose of dialog is. They're playing from a deep and murky pool of resentment and insecurity. Worse, they're reifying it. In the process, they're canceling out a million years of neural evolution, bypassing the cerebrum and going straight to the reptile brain red in tooth and claw.

And with the internet increasingly (though how it could increase much more is hard to imagine) the main conduit of exchange and the previously-mentioned universal process of Figuring Stuff Out, we who at least maintain the premise of rational interchange find ourselves awash in a sea of partisan or merely venal That Which Is Not So, dodging dinosaurs and hiding under rocks like proto-mammals at the height of the Cretaceous, with similar uncertainties about our future and not an asteroid in sight.

The indomitable warlord Toranaga in James Clavell's Orientalism-for-the-rest-of-us doorstop (ripping good read tho) Shogun sternly reproaches, "Never lie to yourself. That's fatal." The cockroach princes of social media and comments sections apparently slept thru that part of the lecture. Whether or not reality-with-a-capital-bites will catch up with them in time to amend the error of their ways remains to be seen. In the meantime, the greshaming of civil give-and-take is leading us further and further astray from the principles that a whole lot of good earnest people fought and bled and killed and died for back in the sunny 18th century, a crazy little thing they liked to call the Enlightenment.

Bad idea. There. I said it.

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