First, the plug:
It’s the first Minnesota Democrats Exposed/MNPublius Happy Hour, at Billy’s on Grand. Hope to see you there.
Of course, it’s not all beer and pretzels.
A very smart man – a teacher of mine who’d served in Vietnam – explained the “why” of basic training. “The goal” he said “is to teach you to dehumanize your enemy”; to see the enemy not as a human being, but as a “Jap” or a “Kraut” or a “Gook” or whomever the enemy of the day is, a not-quite-human thing who doesn’t rate the consideration a human does. Someone you can kill not only with impunity, but with your country’s approval.
In Citizen Soldiers, Steven Ambrose described the moments when GIs in World War II started seeing the enemy as human – as people who really weren’t all that different from them (notwithstanding the whole “supported a regime that started a war that brought them to Europe” bit).
It was a huge moment for everyone involved.
Years and years ago – when I first got a computer, actually, back before “the web” was the common synonym for the Internet – I got involved in an “E-Democracy” email discussion group on Minnesota Politics.
Traditionally, online discussion groups tend to fall into one of two categories, each with its own set of pathologies:
- Unmoderated Free For Alls: These tended to start with a bang, and rapidly descend into anarchy. “Inhibition” is one of the first casualties of online communication, and for some people that reads “license to act like you’d never act in person”. These people are drawn to unmoderated free for alls as a place to vent…whatever – anger, ire or immature, juvenile urge to call people names. The signal to noise ratio on these sorts of forums usually drops to 0 quickly, as the people who were interested in the actual subject at hand wandered away to more interesting pastures.
- Overmoderated Gulags: These forums kill the discussion to protect it; moderators enforce rules at some level or another. These rules can be elaborate and legalistic (some forums have posted rules, human moderators and formal, pseudolegal appeals processes) or arbitrary and capricious (the forum’s “owner” bans anyone who displeases him/her).
In the early days, the E-Democracy forums trended toward “1”, above. And it was fairly predictable stuff. They were (then as today) dominated by DFLers and Greens. I was, in fact, invited to join the forum by the chairman of the state Libertarian party (to which I then belonged) to help even things up a little bit; at the time, there were maybe two Republicans, two Libertarians, and dozens and dozens of DFL/Green/”Reform”-future IndyVentura party members (and a couple of typically-irritating Young Socialists).
And it was wild and wooly.
Both sides All three or four or five sides tore into each other like hungry sharks. I ripped into “liberals” with gleeful abandon, and they ripped back. Because there’s nothing in Minnesota Politics that we detested more than each other.
And then the forum’s management threw a party.
We met at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. We brought brats and beer (and tofu, natch) and chips, and sat down at picnic tables…
…and talked baseball and street cleaning and movies and just a tiny little dab of politics.
I wrote in my wrapup on the forum the next day that it was just a tiny bit harder to flame on people that I’d met in person. That I’d actually met as humans, rather than as mere brain-damaged big-government-coddling tax-and-spend liberal drones. And a few of them wrote as well, saying they could maybe be a little more tolerant of uncaring, selfish conservatives now that they’d actually met some of us – something they didn’t do much of in real life.
It made an impression.
Oh, it only lasted so long, of course. Soon a few of us (myself, you’ll be shocked to know, included) indulged in a few petty flames for old time’s sake. Other just never “got” the whole “the other guy is human too” bit. But things got, and stayed, just a tad more civil, because people got to see each other as just a tad less a collection of labels and more as people who believed what they did for their own reasons, but didn’t exist in vacuums.
Today, the email discussion group is pretty much an anachronism (and “E-Democracy” has decayed into a sad joke); blogs pretty much gutted their reason for existence. Everyone can write anything they want; blogs that are nothing but mindless flames tend to get ignored over time (or turn into Democratic Underground).
But the same pattern holds just as true; people see those across the aisles as labels to attack, pathologies to identify, threats to be counterattacked.
And just like E-Democracy 13 years ago, some of us thought – “Maybe the answer is a party”.