Sep 25, 2010

Online Communication and the Morality of (counter-)Violence

Today, I finally started making good on yet another scholarly obligation I incurred some time ago.  A colleague with whom I share a common interest in Aristotle's Rhetoric and in the interconnections between politics, rhetoric, and ethics more generally, had asked me about a year ago to look over a paper he'd written some time ago on flaming in online chatroom discussions.

[A side note (or perhaps a diatribe!) on Aristotle's works and disciplinary boundaries:  Far too many "Aristotle specialists" -- but none of the good ones -- read Aristotle far too selectively.  I've been surprised and dismayed to find that for the most part, my fellow philosophers tend to carefully read either the Metaphysics, or some of the logical treatises, or the Nichomachean Ethics, and then ignore the other works.  Political scientists predictably enough focus on the Politics.  Communications people focus on the Rhetoric, Lit-Crit and Rhet-Comp on the Rhetoric and Poetics.  The better scholars in all of these fields cross the disciplinary boundaries, and read the rest of the Aristotelian corpus, discovering that interpretation of the individual works greatly benefits from that, each work informing the others. A plug for one recent example of this sort of Aristotle-interpretation: Marlene Sokolon's Political Emotions: Aristotle and the Symphony of Reason and Emotion.]

The basic thrust of the paper was sound.  Whereas some interpret flaming as simply a symptom and contributing cause of incivility in online communication -- here, chat rooms, but the paper has implications for most other online forums as well --flaming can also perform a rhetorical and even ethical function.  That stance ties in with some topics I've been mulling over since childhood and occasionally writing about since grad school.

Now, the theoretical apparatus for the paper, which is what my colleague wanted my take on, had some rather confused and strained interpretation of Plato, the general idea being that dialectic (or perhaps the good rhetoric outlined in the Phaedrus) was a form of torturing the truth out, putting other speakers under duress, pressure, coercion.  You see where this is going, right?  Flaming of the good kind, the kind that goes against flaming of the bad kind would be analogous to that kind of torture. It tied in with a "sexy" topic (meaning one people like to read and talk about), torture, as well as policing, governance, how these are connected with truth -- the same by now (after two generations of this) blah, blah, blah Foucauldian-Derridian lines about truth and power.  But, no Plato scholar would take this seriously, and if that's the case, why bring Plato in?  Why not jump straight to Foucault, or back to Nietzsche. . . .

So, the verdict I gave nearly a year ago was that the Plato stuff was more likely to sink the paper than help it.  The idea of ethos, as rhetoricians use the term, was also tossed in, but not clearly connected with the other topics, but in my view, it could be productively integrated within the rest of a revised paper.  The main ideas were otherwise sound.  It goes back to old topics which have to be raised over and over again, and will until human beings are entirely devils or angels, or in a more Aristotelian vein, either beasts or gods:  Is it morally acceptable to use violence against the aggressor? Why?  How  much?  And, how can we distinguish this violence or force from that of the aggression?  In this case, the violence occurs through words, in communication, and the goods that are preserved, protected, perhaps even produced through the violence against the violent are goods of communicative space, community.

So, that's an interesting topic in my view.  Having thought about these issues for some time, and having taught various classes in Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Religious Studies (where, yes, these issues come up, more often than you might suspect), and having taught many of those classes in a maximum security prison, I immediately see analogies to other venues in which a similar problematic of violence and the response to violence arises.  Just war theory and the morality of armed conflict is one.  Policing, enforcement of laws, and correction of criminals is another. 

I'll give you the short and dirty version of my position on these matters - which I stress is not the same as the more well-worked-out articulation I'd give when needed.  Yes, there is a qualitative difference between simple violence or aggression against the innocent (undermining or destroying either common goods of a community, goods shared by individuals, or goods belonging to or part of individuals) and violence directed against aggressors in order to curb, curtail, or even punish their violence.  I see that sort of violence as more than just a necessary evil.  There can even be in some circumstances something noble about it, as Aristotle (who did not serve as a soldier or policeman, so far as we know).  I also understand the temptations inherent in any such use of violence against violence, the risks of it degenerating into just another form of violence.  (by the way, most of my prison students had and articulated a similar position in our discussions about these kinds of topics)

Now, if you want to take that sort of position, you need some sort of theoretical framework, and that is what I told my colleague.  So, he proposed that I team up with him in so drastically revising the paper as to render it a co-written piece.  It was a very attractive prospect.  I like co-writing and collaboration.  He and I work well together, and share some common basis in the broad neo-Aristotelian tradition.  And a philosopher and a rhetorician together can be a potent combination, tempering each other's disciplinary excesses and filling in each other's blind spots.

That was nearly a year ago, and he has every so often reminded me of my pledge.  So, now it is time for me to start delivering.  I cut deep into his paper today, inserting graft after graft of my own thought into his prose, clarifying, adding, subtracting, rewording, commenting.  More importantly, thinking out the theoretical framework in which we would place his excellent, almost phenomenological typology of responses to flaming, and his criticism of the theorists who wrongly and simplistically interpret all flaming as incivility -- it's going to be Aristotle, and it will center on that concept of his that runs through the Rhetoric, the Poetics, the Politics (yes even that work) and both of the Ethicsethos.  There'll be a bit of Aquinas (how to properly classify and rightly describe moral acts) and some MacIntyre (clarification about goods internal to practices), but mainly the old 4th century BC Greek, used to make sense of a 21st century phenomenon.

I'll leave off with a favorite passage that will wend its way into the paper: 
Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power, that is not easy.