Public debate is anything but social in the age of social media

People try to silence rather than persuade


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Let’s get one thing straight: If you don’t agree with this, you can just shut up.

That impulse – to belligerently shut down and demonize those we disagree with – seems to be metastasizing in the Internet Age. It is an aspect of social media that is distinctly anti-social.

Politics brings out the worst behavior. You don’t need to listen to a ton of talk radio or cable news to know that Washington politicians and pundits are especially bad role models.

The problem is their behavior is contagious.

Examples abound:

A lady threw a shoe at Hillary Clinton during a keynote speech at a convention in Las Vegas.

Brendan Eich was forced to resign his job as CEO of Mozilla because he supported a ban on gay marriage in California.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer reported that The Washington Post, his newspaper, was petitioned by 11,000 people demanding the paper ban any article that questioned global warming.

Speaker John Boehner Asked about the details of a major tax reform bill unveiled by a fellow Republican, Speaker John Boehner said “blah, blah blah.” The Republican retired soon after.

On MSNBC, Martin Bashir delivered a truly offensive commentary about Sarah Palin (the demonization). The Republican National Committee demanded Bashir be punished (the shut up part). Bashir soon resigned.

Last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew as Rutgers University’s commencement speaker after protests aimed at, well, shutting her up.

You get the picture. You’ve probably been told more the once that “you just don’t get it.” Or, “You’re just biased!” That’s it, conversation over.

This unattractive syndrome was described in an article in The Atlantic titled “The Culture of Shut Up.” Jon Lovett, who once wrote speeches for President Barack Obama, says too often we want to silence or condemn those with whom we disagree instead of trying to persuade or debate.

“It’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other,” Lovett says.

The culture of shut-up is wrapped up in Washington’s partisanship and gridlock. It is hard to find compromise – or even civil argument – when you deny the very legitimacy of the other side’s position. Partisan media such as Fox and MSNBC prey on this kind of rhetorical hyperbole and extremism, turning it into something I call “argu-tainment.”

OK, but is anything really new? Human beings have been burning heretics for many a millennium.

Obviously, some speech is so hateful or ugly that it deserves to be “shut up” and condemned. The instant reaction to the recorded racism of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is probably healthy. But that is an extreme case and Sterling wasn’t expressing any opinion or public point, just prejudice.

The Sterling episode illustrates one thing that has changed – and changed fast and massively – about public communication: the sheer quantity, volume and omnipresence of media. Once upon a time, only people with a printing press, a radio station or a television channel could reach thousands of people.

Now anyone with a thumb and a Twitter account can send a message to millions of people in seconds. That means you can join a mob without getting up from the couch; it also means you can be the victim of a mob for sending an ill-considered Tweet or doing some controversial in your job.

Outraged masses can swarm on someone like Mr. Eich of Mozilla in hours – or less – with Tweets or other e-expressions of wrath and fury. We shouldn’t be proud that he was scalped for a having a political opinion unpopular in some communities and place; we should be embarrassed.

Every day the same thing can happen to school principals, coaches or dogcatchers. The Internet makes saying shut up so easy; it’s anonymous, instantly gratifying and effective.

Shut up culture is a problem in Washington, but not just in Washington.

And if you disagree? Well, you know, you can just . . .