I was at an interfaith shouting match, and a dialogue broke out. In the process, it yielded a glimpse of how the web is changing civil discourse.
The setting: a moderator in Interfaith Forums, a wide-ranging discussion board on all things spiritual, started a thread on proselytization. As with most threads, it generated a lively discussion among an eye-opening cross-section of posters: an atheist, a born-again Christian, a Baha’i, a pagan, a Hindu, and others.
Put all these perspectives, voiced by all these intelligent, strong-willed people, into a room—actual or virtual—and sharp words usually follow. This was no exception. Before long, the discussion had evolved (devolved?) into an exchange of verbal volleys, with a helping of attacks and sarcasm thrown in.
Now if this had happened at a dinner party, or a mixer, or any other live event, the discussion could have fallen apart quickly. You know the pattern: two or three people with passionate opinions and loud voices go at one another vociferously, sending the content of the discussion to the extremes. If you have a more nuanced opinion, you can’t get a word in edgewise.
But this was different. The beauty of online, of course, is that you can read—and respond to—anyone’s comments at any time. That’s what happened here: someone posted a “quieter” comment, someone else responded in kind, and before you knew it, there was a dialogue within the thread.
Many thinkers worry about the web as a medium that gives everyone with a strong opinion her say at full throttle, with no filtering mechanism (such as the editor in traditional media) to help ferret out the truth. I worry about that too. And yet this downside of the web is also its upside: it gives moderate perspectives more of a voice than ever.
Now take this observation to a macro level. Our culture at large acts very much like our dinner party example: the people with passionate opinions and loud voices grab the media attention, promoting the extremes and eliminating the middle. (Think of the abortion debate.) The very nature of traditional media is primarily one-way, so when the extremes capture media share, there are few ways for nuanced voices to make themselves heard, let alone start a dialogue.
The web, by contrast, gives everyone a voice and is by nature two-way (or, more precisely, all-way). In addition, it draws together people of similar concerns and different opinions from all over the world. As a result, we have more opportunities for dialogue than ever before. Our job is to take advantage of them.
Does the web facilitate dialogue? Oh my, yes. Is the web good for dialogue? Only as good as we make it.