Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Arguments I did and didn't make to my professor

I had an argument with a professor last night, and held my own I think. As Linguist Friend pointed out later, that's about the best one can expect to do. (If nothing else, law school teaches one appreciation for arguing to a draw with someone smarter than you, though admittedly Katy-the-Wise has given me practice in that for years.)

Basically, he argued the side presented in the first few chapters of Cass Sunstein's 2.0, that the internet is creating a world where, say, a rabid sports fan can read about nothing but sports and almost never be exposed to an idea not about sports. Or, more realistically, and I think more troublesome to Sunstein, a conservative can read all day and never be exposed to an idea that doesn't come from conservatives and that culturally we are losing our common spaces.

Sunstein is concerned about technology that lets us filter out ideas we don't agree with. I will admit that people's tendency to do this themselves bugs me. LinguistFriend's church has a sign up that says something like "Take what you like and leave the rest." I couldn't disagree more and think the ideas in church that bug you are the ones you need to wrestle with most. God knows the issue that bugs me the most, Politics in Church, has given me lots of time wondering about the church's place in political life and if I'm discouraging the next Martin Luther King. I still think I'm right, but I do think about that stuff.

But I think the internet does more good than bad in exposing us to new ideas and to those we disagree with. My professor mentioned that a white supremacist child could surf all day and read only the people they disagree with. Is that a theoretical possibility? Sure. But I would think that every time they googled for more, they would have to pick through the articles criticizing the very ideas they were reading about. If I wanted to raise my kid a white supremacist (I'm going to go ahead and emphasize that I do not, since there are a few people who read me who have real trouble with the subjunctive tense and toy situations) the last thing I would do is give them free access to the internet.

All that I said in class.

What I didn't do is quote Robertson Davies, who decades ago expressed what I'm getting at when he wrote:

“‘Children, don’t speak so coarsely,’ said Mr. Webster, who had a vague notion that some supervision should be exercised over his daughters’ speech, and that a line should be drawn, but never knew quite when to draw it. He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library.”

Sunstein believes than when everybody was reading the Washington Post and listening to Walter Cronkite, we had a sort of intellectual "common space" that we are losing because of the abundance of people's media choices and their ability to chose people who disagree with them*.

This argument bothers me on some level and part of this discomfort is that I suspect these "common spaces" were mostly common to white middle class people. For an illustration, I've lived in small towns twice, once as a reporter for the town's only newspaper and once as a regular person, and I've seen how in small towns, there are people who exist and people who don't. As a reporter, I never noticed how though I was thrown into the thick of small town gossip and society and invited to parties and talked to on the street, other people were not. Until I was living in a different small town as just a regular person, isolated from all of that and expected to live in town and make friends and go to one of the correct churches and work on civic projects and have a good job for years on end before I really counted.

I suspect that it was society's "people that counted" who listened to Walter Cronkite and felt great commonality with everybody who did the same, they just don't realize that the people who didn't count felt differently because they didn't notice the people who didn't count. It's a big hint to me that I've never seen one of those "Wasn't it great when you knew your grocer?" columns written by anything other than an older white man.

Or, to put it more succinctly, to describe these "common spaces" Sunstein keeps using an example of a park where you invariably encountered a variety of people, situations and ideas. I wonder if black people were allowed to use the park.

But that's a little theoretical for a law school argument and I didn't make it. Ok, I might have if I had formulated the question about black people being allowed to use the park, but I'm afraid that was a bit of esprit de l'escalier on my part.

Ok, one final comment on the weirdness of Sunstein's argument about filtering technology allowing us to read about things that we want and nothing else: it assumes that people have only one interest or one set of people whom they view as "like them."

That's just crazy. In class, I pointed out that an African-American, lesbian, country music fan probably thinks of herself as all of those things and if she watches BET, reads Gay magazines and listens to the country station, she's being exposed to a very wide array of conflicting ideas. After all, African American and Gay sources rarely shy away from political comment and Country stations play Toby Keith and some of them still won't play the Dixie Chicks.

But my professor thought that example was a little bit of a straw man. So fine, let's look at me, only two characteristics of me. It's ten a.m. and I've already quoted Roberston Davies, and my pit bull mix woke me up this morning. I'm a Robertson Davies fan who owns a pit bull mix. You think that if I go hang out with Robertson Davies fans and pitbull fans, on the internet and otherwise, I'm not going to be exposed to different ideas and disagreements?

But even that is giving Sunstein's idea too much credit because pit bull owners and Robertson Davies fans aren't the only groups I belong to. I also like to read libertarians, though I don't always agree, and I like law and I like mystery novels and I'm married to an engineer and exposed to lots of geek culture and I'm a Unitarian and I have dinner once a week with my very liberal best friend. I'm white of mostly British descent with a bit of European mutt mixed in. I'm rather east coast, married into a southern family.

All of these interests and identities expose me to ideas, political ones and not, ones I agree with and ones I don't, and some that grow on me or fade with time.

And I think the complexities of my nature and interests are far more true to the way actual people are than Sunstein's model of people with only one interest, even only one political interest, and a laser focus on that.


*I should mention that I have great intellectual disgust for anyone who sees reading and listening only to liberals (or conservatives) who agree with them as a goal that they are actively striving to achieve. I just think there are fewer of these people than Sunstein does and think they are certainly not a majority, and that they have always existed.

I really don't think white supremacists, to use a favorite example of my professors, have ever read the Washington Post much and I doubt that most of them trusted Walter Cronkite. I think extremists have always shunned the "common spaces" or at least only talked and never listened when they were there.


PG said...

But I would think that every time they googled for more, they would have to pick through the articles criticizing the very ideas they were reading about.

As I recall, the fact that people don't have to use the internet this way is one of the points Sunstein makes in (I haven't read any of the v2.0). That is, the existence of links makes it very easy to go for hours without having to run a search or even have your eyes pass over a contrary idea. The Washington Post feels an obligation to have columnists on both sides of the political aisle, so you have Charles Krauthammer haranguing us about how Obama will bring about the apocalpse and Michael Gerson piously whining about whatever, on the same day that you have Michael Kinsley's faux-centrist act of taking passive-aggressive potshots at the right and Eugene Robinson comfortably assured that white conservatives never, ever know what they're talking about. I can't look at the Washington Post website without seeing the headlines and one-sentence summaries of views with which I strongly disagree, and the physical version of the Post pushes those other viewpoints on me even more strongly.

I see your argument about how the public square was dominated by white middle class men in the Old Days, but I think you're being a bit unfair to that period in the 1980s and early '90s before widespread internet use, when women and people of color were claiming their own places at newspapers and other mainstream media sources, and were becoming political and social leaders. That is, the pre-Internet period is not just the 1950s -- it includes years of a widening public discourse in which women and PoC participated.

As for the reading habits of racists, you may be assuming that all such people are uneducated, when in fact many are highly articulate and consider it very important to know what the enemy is thinking, so they read the WaPost, NYT, etc. Consider the recent unfortunate example of Marcus Epstein, who writes quite well and clearly reads major newspapers so he can rebut what they are saying, but just got sentenced for committing a low-level hate crime.

L said...

PG makes a good point about the education level of racists.

As for me, I'm not sure I agree with the "common space" idea. You touched on this slightly in your post, but it is easy to view something as a common space when you belong to it. I don't frequently read major east coast newspapers anymore, but I'm wondering what the true representation of people outside the "norm" is. Our small town, crappy newspaper gets a lot of criticism from locals for being too liberal. They complain that the Anchorage Daily News does not allow conservatives to have a voice. However, as a more liberal person (I'm probably slightly left of center, but compared to many people here I'm a bleeding heart socialist whack-job), I find many articles that do have a conservative emphasis, and many voices (opinion columns, letters to the editor, etc) that express such. So I would view the newspaper as more of a common space, whereas the conservatives I mention would not.

To use your park analogy, if you are a white person in the park, and the park is 99% white, but a couple of black people show up, you might think it's a common space since you saw two black people. But to those black people, it's not really a common space, now is it?

I'm not really sure what the "Wasn't It Better When You Knew Your Grocer?" articles are that you're referring to. However (and this is totally off topic), I do believe in small businesses and knowing your grocer, whether it is advice given by old white men or not.

ogre said...

I'd be tempted to ask why -- given this concern -- nations like China have tried so hard to control the internet.

I think that the argument being made is that bereft of the Net, one could drag a horse to water and make it drink. That would argue that our racists and bigots and such in the 1960s and 70s were better informed and aware of the ideas and viewpoints of the rest of society, for example.

And that, I think, is clearly nonsensical.

One root defect of the concern is transferring from the theoretical could to the plausibly likely. COULD a sports fan read nothing but sports? Yes. It is plausible? Not really. A sports fan cruising from sports link to sports link would have to have an active filter identifying "contaminated" links and sites not to go to. Markos Moulitsas of DKos, and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight are both hard core sports fans--Markos has a "Sports Blogs" link on the DKos blogroll and runs one or more such sites (dunno--I have minimal interest in sports, myself). Nate's interest in applying statistical arcana to sports drew him into applying it to politics (with fearsome insight!). The basic notion that the world is neatly divided into disciplines is simply artificial.

The line between physics and chemistry and biology is... a line *we* draw, not a natural one.

The line between sports and politics is too. Oops, the president threw out out the first ball and was booed. Well... one could ignore that because it's politics, or accept that it's a connection that's going to draw human curiosity.

Could the sports fan *choose* to not look, BECAUSE it's politics? Sure.

Is it likely?

Ask the monkeys how often humans have bottled up their curiosity.

I've not been much of a country fan in the past. The controversy ofer the Dixie Chicks led me to follow it as a speech matter, and a social issue, and to actually listen to some of their music (oh, I like this), and from them to find that there are actually some country artists and genres that I like beyond them.

The Net's going to provide more carrots that lead us to to find water and drink it all on our own. Not the reverse.

Simply because something is hypothetically plausible doesn't mean that it's realistically plausible, or happens much.

And at this point you lob "bad cases make bad law" and step back.

PG said...


I think you're assuming Sunstein was mostly worried about purely factual sources, which I don't think was his focus. Rather, he considers it important to the health of our democracy for people to engage each other's opinions and discuss their values on matters where the collective's decision will determine how everyone will have to live, in matters that are quite vital to individual flourishing. Even if there is a collective agreement among baseball fans to get rid of the Designated Hitter, that's not quite on par with the issues of law, economics, etc. that Sunstein fears we're becoming too fragmented about. Certainly voting patterns bear out his concern, as particular counties that on a 1960 map would have been some shade of purple are now either deep red or deep blue. If we're congregating into communities of politically likeminded people offline, it's even more disturbing if we do it online as well.

Also, Sunstein isn't screaming "the internets are bad!!!"; he's providing an alternative to the internet triumphalists. China wants to control the internet because it has a state-run media and no First Amendment; the internet poses a threat to its control of information. That doesn't mean that everyone in China is gaga to read both sides of the debate over the country's future; there's a substantial chunk of the country that never runs up against the censors' walls, and another chunk that doesn't trust anything in the state-run media. What Sunstein would want is for each group to be talking to each other and reading some of the same things so they have something to talk about.

Finally, what "bad law" are you concerned about here?

ogre said...


In the context of a discussion with a law school professor, I think it's legit to assume that there's legislation/judicial precedent being envisioned.

Bad law...

I'm not assuming that it's just factual material--the reference to DKos should make clear that there's a whole universe of opinion that's nodded to.

I must be missing something. How is this *any* different from the people who subscribe (or used to) to a bunch of papers and magazines that were ideologically in something like lockstep, and never would touch the filth from the other side?

This isn't new. It's not even sort of new. People have been good at finding and living in their bubbles for a long time. If anything, the internet seems to me to be dangerous precisely because it menaces the bubbles.

It's why RedState bans so many non-conservative posters--they threaten to lead readers to look at other thoughts and to read other opinions. But that's an aggressively pursued policy on *one* site, and there's no umbrella mechanism like that for the Net as a whole.

I return to the idea that it's theoretically possible, but has to be undertaken as a conscious intention--and that means that the problem isn't the internet, it's a user fault. Which could have been approximated in the golden age of TV and newspaper and magazines. And was.

PG said...

In the context of a discussion with a law school professor, I think it's legit to assume that there's legislation/judicial precedent being envisioned.

But what "legislation/judicial precedent" do you think is "being envisioned"? It's rather weak to throw out a cliche like "bad cases make bad law" if you don't even know what bad law is being proposed. Are you under the impression that Sunstein wants to shut down the internet?

How is this *any* different from the people who subscribe (or used to) to a bunch of papers and magazines that were ideologically in something like lockstep, and never would touch the filth from the other side?

What is the major newspaper or newsmagazine that has all of its analysis and opinion writing done either by liberals or conservatives, without a single voice from the other side? The NYT has Brooks and Douthat (who recently replaced Kristol); the Washington Post has Gerson, Parker and Krauthammer; the LA Times has Goldberg (and probably others, but I don't read the LAT much); Newsweek has Samuelson and Will (who also publish at the WaPost)...

The largest circulation newspapers and magazines never have had only conservatives or only liberals writing for them. Compare that to the most popular political blogs, like InstaPundit or DKos. They are serving a particular market and have no interest in even pretending to give both sides a voice. They ought to be the semi-marginal, "special interest" publications, as The Nation or National Review historically were, but instead they're the biggest players.

kimc said...

Websites that have any kind of reader comments, tend to have both sides mentioned. People who rave against the other side, mention what the other side says so people know what they are raving against. (reminds me of the story of the medieval ladies' fashion called "Gates of Hell": the priests in England ranted against the French fashionable ladies wearing this revealing fashion, which the English ladies hadn't yet seen. The English ladies gathered round and insisted the priest make them a drawing of the new fashion so they knew what to avoid. He did, and they ran right to their dressmakers to order these scandalous fashions for themselves.)
I think it's real information that doesn't get to "the other side" rather than opinion -- opinions always travel.