Online Communication, Morality of (counter-)Violence, Take 2

A week and a half ago, I was scheduled to give a talk with my colleague from Communication, Todd Frobish, on the topic of a paper we are co-writing, dealing with flaming the flamers as a viable rhetorical and ethical strategy.  For me, it's an interesting problem to apply an Aristotelian perspective to, not least since Aristotle had a lot to say in his own time about rhetoric, civic and social life, and ethics, and would have much to say about this contemporary problem.  Todd is more interested in the analysis of communicative interchanges and what they reveal.  We are both interested in developing typologies of aggressive online acts, persons, and motives, and in the moral evaluations and strategies such typologies afford.

At its basis our central contention is this:  In opposition to much of the literature discussing flaming which views it as uniformly negative and as a sign of decay of decent social life in online settings, we regard it in some circumstances as a legitimate response to other people's online aggression.  Todd frames it as a last resort measure, to be used only after all other resources have been attempted or ruled out.  I see it instead as a response which is admittedly fairly far along a continuum of forceful, coercive, or (verbally) violent acts, but which one might use ethically even before it becomes a last resort.

The advantages an Aristotelian perspective contributes to thinking through this issue stem in part from his systematic and realistic appraisals of human nature, actions, motives, emotional responses, and social dynamics.  Another is his attention to the conditions for human beings and their communities doing well, or flourishing, fulfilling their purposes, realizing their goods, and the need to take action to preserve these when some threaten or do in fact harm those goods, purposes, and communities.  Yet another strength, which I referenced during my portion of our lecture and discussion, was his realization that the very potentials for communicating and sharing values language affords human beings, the rational or communicative animal (both are good ways to translate logos and logike), also set up the fault lines for our most violent and emotional disagreements.  In my mind the greatest strength (which I don't talk about in the lecture) is one which is not as visible when reading Aristotle in translation as when reading him in Greek:  the interweaving of perspectives, concepts, and concepts, from the Rhetoric to the Politics, to the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics, and even the Poetics.

So, Aristotle provides an excellent theoretical matrix for interpreting the more empirical media data and analysis, as well as for articulating our claim that counter-flaming is on some cases not only a good rhetorical strategy but even an ethically good response (in fact, I'll argue, the one because of the other,and vice-versa)

We decided to give the presentation more or less following the order our cowritten paper has been taking.  Todd went first.  I brought a flipcam, so we have a recording of the lecture, but, as you watch, you'll note that I had several lessons to learn about using that medium (not least: get a tripod, don't rely on someone else to keep the speakers in frame!)

My main portion of the presentation came next: Straightforward discussion of the Aristotelian concepts our paper is developing and applying to flaming.

Todd then takes up the lecture, working out a typology of flames.  After him, I discuss implications for a few parallels between our Aristotelian stance towards online flaming as a type of aggressive discourse and other similar stances towards other modalities of counter-violence. 

We take some interesting questions and answers (and I come out as a hawkish interventionist, quite willing to commit forces if that intervention serves moral ends).