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Blog // Technology
December 6, 2004

The Nature of Online Debate

I have been wondering a lot about the tone of online debate, especially in forums, and particularly in faith-based forums.

Today I read this on the Ekklesia Forum.

“The left claims to be so tolerant and politically correct on the one hand, but they can’t seem to tolerate the views of millions of people in this country. They are ready to flee the country en masse to Canada or wherever. How tolerant is that? “

Here’s something I don’t understand about internet forums. Two people will be having an exchange, a conversation, then it turns into an online debate. One of the people will resort to a third-person kind of voice as if they were addressing a gathered crowd. Then, in this third-person voice they’ll launch into a speech that links the person they were addressing paranthetically with some undersirable group, like criminals, racists, or war-mongers.

I used to experience this often on places like the Christian Musician Forum. Most of my posts on any topic from religion to what brand of guitar strings I used would be met with comments like “what liberals always say is,” or “some people have been brainwashed by the media,” or “the problem with the left is.”

But, these comments weren’t addressed to me. They were using me as a placeholder for some demon that lived in the head of my interlocutor.

Online Debate Isn’t Helpful

This was all very confusing. Whatever liberal tendencies I have a marginal at best. Sure, I agree with John Locke that we should not burn people whose theology is different to our own. Does that make me a liberal? And, as for being some sort of leftist. Well, you could no more confuse my politics with leftism than you could confuse a watermelon with a whale.

Very few people neatly fit into the stereotypes they are labelled with in online debates. This feels particularly odd for places that discuss artistry, creativity, or spirituality. These topics require us to be honest, specific, and willing to engage in meaningful self-reflection. If anything, that’s the opposite of what we so often see in online debate.

Toni 20 years ago

I’ve never been to the Ekklesia forum, and I thought you were quoting one of the posters at CMF instead.

There has been a little debate over the rule that suggests people must not post material that is deliberately confrontational. Unfortunately the wording of that rule is such that what it really means is somewhat different to what it says. However this has led to further interesting debate from one particular individual who seems determined to stir up more of the bad feelings from the US elections. I think they’re hurting because of recent history, but unfortunately the hurt is being expressed in a manner that will not build christian love and fellowship, or bring healing.

I do find the attitude currently prevailing, that either “you agree completely and wholeheartedly with me or else you are my utter enemy” very strange. One poster who had been attacked as a bush hater clearly stated they did not want someone else – only a better Bush. Any suggestion that the man was not adequate ‘as is’ was considered threatening.

I guess people hide behind rhetoric in some cultures in the same way the British used to hide behind their ‘stiff upper lip’ 100 years ago.

Toni 20 years ago

Thought I’d go look at Ekklesia. Found the following statement ” However, if you believe in a literal word-for-word interpretation of the Bible, a six day creation of the universe, or see Revelation as a book about how we are all heading for ‘one world government’ we repectfully suggest you find somewhere else to chat. (This is not what we mean by serious theology!)”

Errmm. Not sure that’s a forum that I should bother with then.

f 20 years ago

Ekklesia is a funny sort of PM forum. I’ve posted about 5 times there in the space of a year. The quote you’ve cited seems akward to me, as a statement of anti-fundamentalism. I’m sympathetic to it in so far as some fundamentalists are very hard to discourse with online. It all depends on the attitudes they have towards the views of those they disagree with.

I’ve seen my fair share of online debates derailed by those who will not accept anything that is not supported by chapter and verse Bible citations. Moreover, those who filter everything through an endtimes frame are also hard to take when they make grand statements about things like the European Union being the vehicle of Satan and so on.

I’m not suggesting people who hold those views are not Christian, or should not have a place online. All I am saying is that it can be rather hard to have a conversation with those folks when they want to distill every social and theological issue down to one or two fixed ideas.

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