The Internet Is Serious Business. Seriously.

I’ve been browsing Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man blog in preparation for this year’s Rhetoric 306 First Year Forum program, and the comments on a recent post provide a wealth of problematic argumentation. Of course, finding poor rhetorical behaviors in the comments of a blog is like netting fish in a barrel, but the prevalence and effect of such behaviors are important issues to consider when studying and practicing civic rhetoric (as RHE 306 students do).

One response to disruptive comments (and to those who rise to the bait) is to dismiss them with the sarcastic refrain “the Internet is serious business.” This phrase often arises in the context of trolling; however, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish authentic trolls that are provocative for provocation’s sake from those who are sincerely yet cantankerously engaged in discussion.

Furthermore, while activities in the online space of the Internet may not have the same embodied impact as activities in physical space (as this Wikipedia guideline suggests), the arguments, ideologies, and attitudes encountered online occur alongside the arguments, ideologies, and attitudes we encounter in real world interchanges and the ideas generated both online and in person lead to policies that have real world effects.

So, in a sense, the Internet—as with any rhetorical space—truly is serious business. The commenters on Beavan’s blog certainly seem to take their conversation seriously (for the most part), even though they are often talking past each other.

Diane and Rebecca The Greeniac share an exchange the breaks down when Rebecca reacts strongly to Diane’s climate change skepticism.

Diane admits, “ I will be perfectly honest and say that I have a hard time believing that climate change actually exists in that humans are causing it.”

Rebecca The Greeniac responds, “Wow. How is it these days, that a matter of scientific fact has now become an article of faith? I suppose you’re just another victim of the fossil fuel industry’s campaign of misinformation. Control question: Do you believe the earth is round?”

Frustration with climate change deniers is understandable, and how to effectively deal with such skepticism in debate is a question worth pursuing, but Rebecca’s conflation of Diane’s position with flat earthism understandably doesn’t get any further response from Diane.

Interestingly enough, Diane does engage with another poster, Sophie, who is more aligned with Rebecca’s positions than Diane’s. Diane continues to resist anthropogenic climate change, but she notes that “we should, as individuals, strive to be as environmentally friendly as we can, though. [She] believe[s] Colin has shown us that cutting back can be done, and that we can benefit from it in more ways than one.”

The meaning of “environmentally friendly” is contested between Diane and Sophie and Rebecca, but Diane’s comment indicates a patch of common ground that could become a space for further discussion of climate change and answering her questions about its human causes.

How to best facilitate convergence on common ground, I’m not sure. Moderation might help, but the best moderator can only do so much once rhetorical Molotov cocktails are lobed into the conversation (even when those doing the lobbing don’t intend to disrupt the conversation).

About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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