About 11 years ago – half a decade before anyone had heard of blogs – I exorcised my inner pundit on a Minnesota Politics mailing list run by E-Democracy. The forum was dominated by orthodox and fundamentalist DFLers – indeed, I was invited to join the forum by the chairman of the Libertarian Party of Minnesota, who wanted to get some actual ideological diversity onto E-Democracy.
As you might figure, the “discussion” kicked off like most online debates; a few civil points, and then desending into heated ire; the online environment strips away a lot of social inhibitions, and it showed.
So about a year later, the list threw a party. We met at Crosby Park in Saint Paul, with a grill and a couple of cases of beer and pop…
…and talked. Some of the talk was about politics; most wasn’t.
And by the end of the evening, many of the people there had a revelation; the people they were writing to, and sometimes about, weren’t cartoons; they weren’t mere collections of partisan stereotypes. The discourse on the forum got a lot more civil; there’d be flares of ire, and newbies sometimes brought more traditional online behavior to the forum (which often subsided when they, too, attended a later party).
It was in the news – the LATimes via Ed Morrissey, specifically – after the death of Jerry Falwell, as people began talking about the seemingly bizarre friendship between Falwell and pr0n mogul Larry Flynt.
My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.
One of the key tenets of training, for example, a soldier, is to dehumanize the enemy; to learn (or teach someone) to regard the “enemy” as a little less human than you and the people you’re defending are. With some enemies, of course, it’s easy; those who saw off the heads of defenseless prisoners are not really very human in any moral sense. But the examples are everywhere of people noticing it; stories abound from World War II of GIs who’d spent months in training learning to detest the enemy (and months more in combat internalizing it) finally coming face to face with German, and finally Japanese, civilians, and realizing that while they come from very different places and in many cases had very different beliefs, they’re basically people anyway.
It’s something I’ve noticed among local blogs, as well. Now, I’ll allow up front that people tend to be much more forgiving of gaffes and ugliness that they’re closer to agreeing with than otherwise; if we accept that Mark Gisleson and Tom Swift are opposide sides of the same coin (and in many ways, they are; both pretty much say what they want, damn the consequences), I tend to give Swiftee the benefit of a doubt that I won’t extend to Gisleson – partly because Swiftee is vastly more often right than Gisleson (1), and partly because I’m a lot more able to see whatever merit may lurk even in Swiftee’s most outrageous statements, because I’m closer to him ideologically. And before any of you leftybloggers start sputtering and fuming and jumping up and down like I’d just declared myself the best feminist in town (though that happens to be true), remember – you all do it too. Every one of you.
But it’s a pretty ecumenical phenomenon. People discount those they disagree with. But because of the way online communication works – all images you have of someone are either hyper-ideal (which is why online dating is such a minefield) or hyper-base (which is why online flame wars are so easy), and almost never real.
I usually welcome chances to meet liberals, DFLers, whatever. Partly because occasionally discussions pop up and I always win, but largely because it’s interesting to meet people. Occasionally your preconceptions get popped. Rarely are they reinforced. Now, I’m modestly well-equipped to do that – I grew up a liberal (and yes, in case you were about to ask, it does make me a better conservative) so it’s not like I can’t maintain a conversation with most of ’em.
It’s one of the reasons we in the Northern Alliance work so hard to try to invite leftybloggers to our various MOB parties. Of course, some of them just don’t want to get along and would rather sit in their miserable hovels and sputter, but for the most part we’ve always had a great time getting together.
And it’s interesting; generally, I find it’s not only easier to have a decent conversation with people I’ve met, but that the interchange online becomes a lot more civilized afterwards. Not with everyone, of course; some of the leftybloggers I’ve met have been petulant, antisocial and just plain nasty. But as a general rule, meeting people pays dividends in civility.
Not necessarily in “agreement”, of course; may the “good old days” of Republicans acting like Democrats to go along and get along rest in “Bad Idea Hell” forever (take that, Lori Sturdevant).
But sometimes it can be interesting to get past ones’ own stereotypes.