Saturday, April 28, 2007

Be Decent

When I write a blog post that contains statements of fact, I try my best to include links to supporting references. As I search for references, I read many things out there in the wild expanse that is the Internets.

The other day, I was getting a post together about the degradation of American food and medication safety for people and pets under total Republican rule. It turns out that I'm not going to produce such a post. Some interesting stuff on the topic is out there though. For example, this LA Times article and the FDA postings by Chris at AmericaBlog are interesting reads. The topic is large and, to be frank, I don't have the time to write a concise, informative post.

But, something finally crystallized for me as I was searching for food safety information. It's something that's been crawling around my head without a clear form, as it applies to the Internet, for a while. I'm sure I'm late to the party on this (my new catch phrase), so it's likely old news for most people.

Years ago, I stopped participating at one of the large political websites when it converted to a diary format. The conversion was a good opportunity for me to make a clean break from a table I wasn't really comfortable eating at. To be clear, the break was for me and me alone. I doubt anyone noticed that I stopped visiting and occasionally leaving comments. At the time, I wasn't sure why I felt better about deciding to frequent other sites. Years later, I know.

As I was searching for information on food and drug safety, I came across many sites from both sides of the political spectrum. I'll say ahead of time that I am unabashedly progressive. This isn't some call for everyone to come to the middle. The right-leaning Internet is a scary, racist, homophobic, and intolerant place where authors seldom bother linking references. Its authors and views should be countered at every opportunity with facts and progressive ideas.

My left leanings stated, I want to put out my observation that there are commonalities among the authors of sites I've come to avoid over the years. They are: the inability to be wrong, a strong pride in that inability, a fevered need to dismiss dissenting views, and anger for those asking questions.

A big surprise for me was witnessing people I regard as intelligent exhibiting the traits above. When I was young I came to realize that being clever isn't causally related to being a decent human. The world is filled with clever fools. They're brilliant at playing chess with lives and making large sums of money at the expense of others. But, I was surprised as an adult when I discovered educated progressives behaving like clever fools over ideas.

A couple of bloggers from the sciences were among the first to get me thinking about this. After deciding to no longer frequent the big political site, I came across some of its spin-off blogs. Some of these included science type authors. Leaving aside the lack of brevity that some science types tend to exhibit (my pet peeve - and something I'm violating as I write this), I was genuinely surprised when these smart people acted as if, once their well-thought out arguments were stated, no room existed for disagreement, or sometimes, even for questions.

I was surprised to read attacks on people for an assumed lack of formal education - usually an assumption based on the grammar and spelling in comments. It was an ugly, but frequent, occurrence that left (and still leaves) a bad taste in my mouth. I really do like it when everyone is welcomed to the table and like it or not, if you have a website devoted to politics, a general topic, you might get visits, and egad, even comments from people of all walks of life. Snobbery is ugly and, more importantly, distracts from making a point.

It's one thing to try to explain something to someone. It's another thing to throw facts and say, "It's not my problem if you're too stupid to understand this." I'll add that I didn't personally have a disagreement in the surfing I'm writing of. My opinions were formed while reading others' interactions between.

Being decent to other people isn't a sign of weakness or stupidity. It's also not that difficult. It's OK if someone else thinks my opinion is wrong; I don't have to crumble over that. If I'm wrong, I can review and revise. There's nothing wrong with being ready for change. If, on the other hand, I'm right, I can restate ideas and facts more clearly, with more or less detail, or ask what's not clear. If I'm trying to make a convincing statement, I'm not free from the onus of understanding.

So, that's what came out of my trying to create a post about food and drug safety. Funny huh? What's the solution? I honestly don't know. Other than bringing it up for discussion and appealing to an innate instinct to care for each other (Which I understand may be inherited and expressed in varying degrees. But chimps express this feature, so why not us?), I'm not sure what to suggest. In the end, I understand that people aren't always going to play nicely; my glasses aren't so rose tinted. But, I don't see anything wrong with asking people to be decent.

I also get that this isn't the most important issue. Certainly Iraq, Darfur, marriage equality, and many other topics are higher priority. I wouldn't want to be a distracting concern troll. This is more a casual statement of something that's been on my mind. I guess it's a "who I am post." Being decent is something I really want to be, online and offline.