some thoughts about controversial topics and the internet

The Internet is like a newspaper…that tells you how much it hates you.
The Internet

I’ve had some form of web site since 1999 and a blog (or a few blogs) since 2004. One of my various blogs was on homosexuality, particularly as it relates to Mormonism. I started it in the first part of 2008. Yep, that 2008: the year of California’s Prop 8. That experience and publishing on the internet has forever colored how I view  controversy and conversation in general. In some ways it made me more cynical, as you may imagine, but in other ways I’m actually more hopeful than I’ve ever been.

Gutenberg, the original Zuckerberg

While I believe that the internet has completely changed how we interact and relate with each other, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Every time media technology takes a huge leap forward, conflict arises. Take, for example, the printing press. Before the printing press made books cheaper and more widely available, most people’s world was measured in tens of miles. Books allowed more people to express themselves and their ideas and this made the people who were the ones disseminating information before, particularly the Catholic church, react pretty harshly against this lessening of influence. It’s no coincidence that the rise of Protestantism occurred a short hundred years later.

Now, while books had become cheaper, they were still by no means cheap. People who were expressing their ideas were a relative few, but increased books meant increased literacy and the sum total mean that more people were speaking and more people were listening. And there was conflict. Latin no longer was the universal language as it was then cheap enough to print books in local languages, which increased European nationalism and, in some cases, a need to maintain national “purity” through usually horrific means.

Still, the net result was a gain in literacy and ideas that lead to a growing increase in technology and quality of life.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, we get to the internet. Built on the foundations of technologies past, usage of internet has spread much more quickly than printed media and that growing ubiquity has caused some conflict and uneasiness. Most people see the internet for what it is: a communications device. There are those political regimes that view communication as de-stabilizing (and de-stabilizing it can be) and try to control the internet’s usage and there are other who view communication as a basic tenant of humanity and endeavor (with varying degrees of success) to accelerate its proliferation.

“I can’t hear you la la la la!!!”

So, now instead of a few people with the means of spreading and learning new ideas, anyone with access to an internet connection can be a publisher. While there are still those whose geography or income limit their access, most of the people in the developed world and a growing number in the developing world now have a platform to share their experiences and ideas and everyone else with access has the ability to hear them.

I believe this has been more personally destabilizing for people than previous technological advances because of the nearing universal nature of access as well as the proliferation of those things shared. There is often criticism launched and younger generations for the depth of sharing that occurs because of the ease of the medium. With three taps, for example, I can let everyone on the internet know where I am, what the weather is like where I am, and what device I’m using. If I put a little effort into it, I could set it up where this information, and more, is published with no more consciousness than carrying my phone with me and ensuring it stays charged.

I don’t think this volume of information is, in itself, the part that people are having a hard time adjusting to. After all, before the internet the libraries were full of more information than any human could have consumed in a lifetime. I think what makes it different this time around is the personal contexts in while people are hearing new, sometimes upsetting ideas.

Before, most people either didn’t share their opinions as freely or shared them mostly within the confines of those around them. Even though television had greatly increased the availability of information, there was still only a few gatekeepers and most inter-personal conversation on topics happened with those with whom people had personal contact. This geographic closeness also increased the likelihood that those with whom you had conversations either  agreed with you or avoided conflict by simply not disagreeing with you. This is an oversimplification of course as communities and regions have always had internal conflicts as well as people having inter-personal conflict, but generally, people kept their conflict to themselves.

But now, people can potentially not only hears ideas from all over (a habit they started forming from television) but the ease of communication meant that people started expressing themselves freely as well. A lot of people started hearing the people around them talking about family, religion, sex, politics, Elf on the Shelf and all manner of controversial topics. And, for a lot of people, it’s been terrifying. On a personal level, I experienced this with my gay Mormon blog. I was in the first wave of adherent gay Mormons to come out of the closet publicly online. There were others who had come out in previous years, but much of it was in the form of books and niche news reporting. Someone had to go looking for them. For us, people who had no idea about gays, Mormons, or the intersection of the two were stumbling across my blog and the blogs of others. And for a lot of people, it was a transformative experience. I mean, my experience wasn’t transformative, but the experience of learning that I existed was transformative. Perhaps all they knew about gays were what they saw on TV or learned about in church and here I was, sounding very Mormon indeed and it caused an internal conflict for people. Cognitive dissonance, if you will.

For someone who had only been taught that homosexuality was a hedonistic state caused by selfish depravity. While my selfishness knows no bounds when it comes to Oreos, I don’t believe myself to be any more depraved than the next person. People in this situation were being forced to decide between thinking I was lying and thereby confirming what they “knew” to be true about gays, thinking that what they knew about gay people was wrong, or (more often) deciding the issue of gay people was more complicated than they had thought and either sought more information or left it at that. Now, throw that cognitive dissonance into a pot with someone that you know and love and a lot of emotional energy is expended in reviewing and revising your views. It’s not easy. Depending on the the nature and depth of your beliefs, it can be downright earth-shattering. Such was the case with me. The debate over Prop. 8 forever changed how I view Mormonism and Mormons. It doesn’t define how I view them, mind you, but it did cause some painful review and revising.

Gays and Mormons aren’t alone in this process. They are joined by fathers who are discovering that their sons are democrats, daughters who are discovering their mom is against abortion, couples who are discovering their partner supports euthanasia, and so on. Society is basically learning what everyone else really thinks and it has been painful as people are faced with the task of re-categorization. There has also been no small amount of paranoia at what we’ve yet to learn about each other.

Apocalypse Not Yet

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been a First Amendment groupie. For me, people widely expressing their opinions and stories doesn’t signify a breakdown in society, but rather is the ideal and is the basis for our concept of liberty. The Freedom of Speech is as relatively unfettered as it is in the United States simply because it must be to be meaningful. While our nation isn’t a democracy, Freedom of Speech for everyone and anyone…anyone is the spirit of our democracy. If you don’t have Freedom of Speech, I don’t truly have it either.

And that’s the thing, while attitudes are definitely changing as people encounter new ideas, it’s important to remember that a lot of those “new” ideas, opinions, and attitudes have been around for a long, long time. Someone surprised at the “recent” belief in the immutability of homosexuality may be surprised to discover the 1961 British film Victim which asserts that for gays, homosexuality is “in their nature” and isn’t something that they choose, even passively. That was 53 years ago. Even more surprising is that Victim is a remake of a German film Different From The Others (Anders als die Andern) from 1919, almost 100 years ago. At the risk of slipping into queer theory, I won’t even go to the empathetic portrayal of homosexuals in literature and art. (Hint: it goes back a lot further than 1919.)

I bring this point up to illustrate that, now more than ever, we are seeing each other as we truly are. It will take some time as we adjust what we mean to believe x and what it means to be y becomes reconciled with the what we see and read from those around us, but we’ll come out on the other side better for it. We can’t be truly accepting of one another until we are honest enough to know who we are accepting. It’s no coincidence that often those with whom we are the closest are often those with whom we share most honestly. We love them not only in spite of their flaws, but sometimes even because of them.

For me, this also extends to society at large. Save a few spikes here and there, there has been a steady decline in violence world-wide for centuries. No one knows for sure why this is the case and why it continues to decline today (our current violent crime rate in the US has fallen 70% since the early 90’s [PDF]). A popular theory is one that I share: increased communication. Quite simply, it’s more difficult to see someone as evil if you have heard them in their own voice. I believe that as people continue communicating with people of differing ideas, we’ll eventually learn to get along better and not because we convert everyone over to “our” side, the printing press didn’t make the Catholic church go away, after all. As we learn each other’s stories and they learn ours, we’ll be able to see the overlap in our views and better handle those fringes where we don’t, and probably never will, agree. It may be tempting to want everyone to just “shut up about it” (I felt that pretty strongly at times in 2008), but in order to get past this painful phase, we have to keep talking. And, more importantly, we have to keep listening.

The trick is how to use the internet to communicate effectively, which will be the topic of my next post.