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2007 08 07
The Meaning of Moderation 2

There’s no legitimate substitute for self-representation. Whether at family gatherings, village council, tribal raiding parties, neighbourhood meetings, international plebiscite or seedy electronic forums. Self-representation can no more legitimately be denied than self-expression.

Best not leave nor return home without it. Like self-expression, self-representation can and should be moderated. But should it be totally denied, social fabric gets terminally cheapened. Nothing cheaper than totalitarian social fabric. Absent freedoms of speaking liberating public discourse, there’s no consenting or consensus. Absent threads of personal consent and mutual consensus, social fabric frays and tatters to ragged shreds no matter how stitched by fear or patched by force.

Not that self-representation gets totally denied in Canada. Not totally – just mostly. And it’s great the way our leaders keep pretending to represent us. It’s terrific. Compared to past millennia, when all our leaders ever did was thrash, slaughter or intimidate bloody obedience, it’s just great. Makes Canadian society relatively free and democratic. Certainly does relative to past millennia. But, as a society, we’ve still got way far to go. Because politicians pretending they represent us makes our society only relatively democratic – not genuinely democratic. Neither close nor anywhere near genuine. However terrific the political representation charade, it merely mocks any consenting or consensus of ours.

Genuine democracy demands having real say in our lives. It requires getting up on our own hind podia and speaking for our very own selves. It requires self-representing. For no trust could be so blind to mistake those taking every say in our lives as honestly attempting representing us; so dumb as expecting those throwing our voices to just voluntarily cease misrepresenting. Yes, it’s great pretending the political is no false representation arena. Better by far than millennia past – when there was no pretending whatsoever we the people had any say in our lives. But it’s still just pretending. Not consenting. No genuine consensus possibly emerges. There’s almost nothing genuinely democratic in our representative democracy charade.

That’s what makes any buzz of self-representing public discourse so exciting. Not due only to spontaneous participating – stimulating as the spontaneous can be. Excitement stems from any however distant prospects of more genuine democracy. And the online reader commentary feature at the Globe & Mail didn’t produce just any buzzing. Got buzzing like saws grinding axes in vengeance.

Too bad optimism for Globe discussion boards enhancing public discourse must be so sorely tempered. Too bad – but it must. Not because Globe editors manage discussion boards somewhat capriciously. As when opening articles to a single comment before closing commentary down. Absurd as that might be, if only seldom then it isn’t fatal. Nor does optional anonymity appear to harm qualities of discourse at Globe discussion boards too badly. No doubt due in part to editorial semi-moderation, discourse at the Globe seems to suffer far less trolling, spamming or scamming than at most typical Usenet newsgroups – for instance.

The problem is extremism. Lack of (self) moderation. The more popular discussions get, the more spectacularly discourse degenerates. While commentary remains sparse, comments trend to moderation – reasonable in debating and decent in reasoning. Offering experience, insight, expertise – perhaps occasional wisdom. Participants express satisfaction, even delight with commentary – at times claiming greater benefit from reading comments than respective articles. Not so when, propelled by charging partisan subject matter, commentary swells to numerical hundreds. When, invariably, commentary surges to flooding discussions in spillages of gushing extremism. Comments become ideologically entrenched, turn to name-calling and start verging hatred. Participants have nothing remaining to express but their frustration.

That’s how (easily and predictably) prospects of consensus in public discourse (not only) at the Globe detonate chain reactions of dissent. How easily reasoning turns to contradicting and hating. How predictably reinforcing turns to rending social fabric. It becomes too late instantly the first few extremist comments get replied in kind. Get disputed by reactionary extremism. No stopping chain-reacting extremism unless those first few extremist comments get clearly identified and either properly ridiculed as such – or, better, utterly ignored.

But how to identify and distinguish extremism from moderation? What’s so degenerate about extremism? What is the meaning of moderation?

Standard definitions don’t much help. ‘Extremism’ has been defined as any political theory favouring immoderate uncompromising policies. ‘Moderation’ has been defined as being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme. Hence ‘extremism’ isn’t moderate and ‘moderation’ is not extreme. They are not the same. Maybe why they’re spelled so different.

Let’s try less circular working definitions. Like for ‘extremism’: maintaining theories so ideologically as to disregard any and all refuting evidence; and for ‘moderation’: not maintaining theories so ideologically as to disregard any and all refuting evidence. Basically, whether one maintains a theoretically open mind – or whether one’s mind gets ideologically totally shut in. And never mind reference to current authorities or norms. It’s not about what one believes. It’s about how and why one believes. More precisely yet, it’s about whether one is even prepared to admit refuting evidence. Admit being wrong – and thereby learn better.

Might be enough to identify and distinguish extremism from moderation, these working definitions. But what’s really needed are examples demonstrating how extremism degenerates discourse in practice. How absurdly ideological discourse, once turning impervious to evidence, starts abolishing every prospect of consensus – tearing at social fabric with perilous, irreconcilable dissent.

For example, then. Not much calls for responsible public discourse now more so than questions of Canadian troops’ involvement with the NATO mission in Afghanistan. And since Globe articles pertaining to Afghanistan tend to generate tremendous reader commentary, it follows that discussion boards at the Globe totally enhance needed public discourse. Right?

Not likely. Readers’ commenting pertaining to anything Afghanistan is tremendous only numerically. Discourse quality falls beneath abysmal. Falls to absurdly ideological extremism.

There were some recent articles – like this one – reporting significant Afghani civilian casualties resulting from NATO air-strikes. But there was no undue worrying from one large segment of the readers commenting. No cause for getting alarmed. Because it isn’t picnics NATO troops are having with the Taliban. Right? It’s war. And all sorts of terrible things happen in war. Including terrible things like innocent civilians getting killed. That’s what war means, isn’t it? That terrible things just keep on happening until either the good guys give up – or the bad guys give up being so bad? So come on, already. This is the Taliban we’re talking about, remember? All of them militant Islamic fundamentalists. They use civilians as human shields. They kill far more innocent Afghani civilians than do NATO troops. Probably they were just lying about all them civilian casualties.

But even if they were telling the truth – it still doesn’t matter. NATO troops – especially our troops – are fighting to bring freedom and democracy to Afghanistan. So yeah, it’s war our troops are fighting. We knew that already. What’s the point even reporting these civilian casualties? However terrible the things that happen in war, we’re not about to get confused about who the bad guys are. We’re not about to forget who the good guys are. Nobody must be allowed to forget our troops going in harm’s way to bring freedom and democracy to Afghanistan.

Absurdly ideological extremism. Comes down to nothing more than this: doesn’t matter whether or how many civilian casualties NATO troops bring about. It’s war – and NATO troops are the good guys in this war. Since NATO troops are fighting for freedom and democracy.

Granting how inevitably extremism flourishes in war. That it isn’t always so easy obtaining and weighing evidence even before war breaks out. Also granting the ideological appeal of definitively identifying all fighting for freedom and democracy as the good guys. Still ridiculous.

It is ideologically absurd that all fighting for freedom and democracy are the good guys. Because freedom and democracy mean not coercing – not imposing by force of arms. Thus, quite definitively, fighting for freedom and democracy means fighting to defend against those imposing their ways by force. And the logical instant we begin fighting to impose freedom and democracy by force – that’s the instant we no longer fight for freedom and democracy. At that instant we fight against freedom and democracy.

Entirely debatable whether the NATO mission in Afghanistan defends freedom and democracy – or incoherently seeks to impose freedom and democracy by force. But reasonable debating to figure that out has not been germinating at Globe forums. Instead, the ideological dispute has only become increasingly entrenched between extremist partisan camps. One camp just keeps maintaining the absurd ideology above.

The other camp just keeps maintaining an ideology that is, if anything, yet more absurd. Just as extreme yet more absurd. In commenting the same series of Globe articles reporting Afghani civilian casualties resulting from NATO air-strikes, some began insisting that our troops are out murdering innocent civilians. But doesn’t ‘murder’ mean killing intentionally? Were those condemning our troops as murderers alleging NATO air-strikes had intentionally targeted civilians? When challenged, one commentator readily admitted NATO air-strikes were rather unlikely to have been targeting civilians. But regardless. Nevermind whether intentional or not. The commentator blithely continued condemning our troops as murderers.

How absurd. What conceivable ideology could provoke such incoherence? This started coming clear shortly after. It started coming clear in comments to a parallel series of articles – like this one – reporting the ongoing crisis of South-Korean hostages.

When it was reported that a second hostage had been killed, one commentator asked why nobody was calling it murder. Why not? Where were the commentators who had been condemning our troops as murderers despite admitting NATO air-strikes hadn’t intentionally targeted civilians? Were the hostages not civilians? Were the Taliban abductors not killing them intentionally? Why, then, would anyone condemning unintended killing by our troops as murder not bother even commenting intentional killing by the Taliban? Was there any real outrage over murder – or was it just about cheering for the Taliban and seeking to undermine our troops?

One commentator replied that Islam does not need Marxism. And that’s when it started coming clear. What could provoke such incoherence. For while militant Islamic fundamentalism certainly does not need Marxism – necessarily rejects it – the reverse does not apply. Marxism seems to need militant Islamic fundamentalism.

Not state Marxism, of course. But generic Marxists seem desperately needy for a cause to champion. Any cause. Ever since state Marxism collapsed pretty much world-wide. Any cause to carry on class-struggling against Western democracy.

That's why generic Marxists make common cause with militant Islamic fundamentalism. Regardless how utterly Islamic fundamentalism repudiates anything Marxist – like class-struggling. Never mind. Since terrorism so troubles Western democracy, generic Marxists ideologize militant Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as if it were the international workers' revolution.

Yeah. Absurd. But quite plausibly true. Quite plausibly that’s why generic Marxists regard terrorists as the good guys. As if oppressed workers finally revolting our exploitation. Which would necessarily mean our troops are the bad guys. Gals and guys so bad, might as well indict them for murderers.

So much for examples of extremism. However prominent right now, these are only two. Extremism seems to vary as widely as the ideologies which give rise to it. But regardless the ill-logic of ideas giving rise to it, the consequence of extremism never varies. It stops us from resolving disputes - other than by force. It tears social fabric past the point of no repair. Not by any reasoning, anyhow.

It really is too bad optimism for Globe discussion boards enhancing public discourse must be so sorely tempered. But it isn’t the Globe to blame. Perhaps too few of us as Canadians are able or willing to distinguish extremism from (self) moderation. Maybe we just aren’t ready for self-representation yet.

[This is the second of a 2 part mini-series on the meaning of moderation. As a needed break from the longer Culture & Multiculture series.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent.]

[Squabbling seagulls image by Jason Hightower and used via Creative Commons.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 08/07 at 12:00 PM

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