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We've seen a plethora of meta diaries (GBCW, TTFN, "I ain't leavin'.") lately.  I thought it might be worth taking a step back from the specific bones of contention that have so many people feeling uneasy. These diaries raise a more basic question.

If you think about it, the person who says, "I'm so fed up with this I'm leaving," and the person who says "Good riddance to you, I'm staying and proud of it," agree on something fundamental: the issues that divide the community either aren't resolvable or aren't worth resolving.   That's not a question anybody can presume to answer for anyone else, but it's worth examining the cost of not resolving our differences.

To call a site like this a "community" is something of a stretch.   Certainly participating in an on-line "community" contributes to many of the benefits of living in a community.   But it lacks one key ingredient of a true community: having to deal with people who don't value things exactly as you do.

A few years ago there was a dispute in my town about replacing a school that was literally crumbling to pieces.  It had been built seventy years earlier in a wetland, and the walls and ceilings had cave like gypsum crystals blooming on them as water migrated into the deteriorating shell of the building.  Naturally we parents of young children thought replacing the school was a no-brainer, but we ran into a population of older residents who had already sent their children through school and complained of the impact of increased property taxes on people living on fixed incomes.

Who was right?   Both sides, at least according to what was most important to them.  In these fights one seldom sways people who have already taken sides; the battle is to win over those who can see reason in both points. In face of that challenge, the most potent argument we came up with was that the maintenance costs of the increasingly crumbling building would have raised taxes anyway. We'd just spent over a hundred thousand dollars the prior year in repairs and they all had to be done over.   Having to face opposition sharpened our thinking beyond the "no brainer" stage.  The pro-school side won, but it was a close call. Hopefully we learned our lesson too and won't be so cavalier about dismissing the concerns of people on fixed incomes.

So what does this mean for on-line "communities"?  Does it really matter if we sort ourselves into like-minded groups?  To answer that question, it's worth looking at a site where that has already happened.

[UPDATE: aravir objects to posting a link to Stormfront.  I believe people here should read Stormfront, but accordinly I have replaced the link to the main site with the Internet Archive.  However it is not possible to discussion threads so that link remains intact.]
Stormfront is a white supremacist website.  If you were a Nazi, you'd probably be hanging out on Stormfront instead of Daily Kos.   Recently I've been poking around on Stormfront to research the modern resurgence of the "racial science" theories of the 1930s.  One of the things that struck me was how different the atmosphere of the site was from what I expected.  The media stereotype of neo-Nazis is that of ranting, strident people with a love of hearing their own voices amplified through a megaphone.  If only that were true.  What I found was, compared to Daily Kos, a model of decorum and civility. "Civil" at least so far as the deportment of one Stormfront member toward another was concerned.

[Update: WARNING: the following link goes direct to Stormfront's discussion boards. If you don't want to go there, don't follow it.]
For example, take this anti-Obama post, entitled "White Rhythm and Black Brains".  I won't reproduce the post for you, but basically he starts with the assertion that blacks despite their (supposed) innate rhythm (supposedly) never invented any musical instrument other than a (supposedly) inferior drum. Then he takes us on an admirably succinct and pithy tour of his view of World Civilization.

Now this post is practically a guide to the myriad ways that White Supremacist thinking is broken.  It presents a hermetically sealed, more or less self-consistent view of the world unencumbered by any inconvenient questions that first hand knowledge of the matters in question might raise. Don't some blacks have poor rhythm? Is it really true Africa produced no musical instruments other than an inadequate drum? Why did all those supposedly inventive white brains spend the thousands of years prior to the the Renaissance making do with even worse instruments than these supposedly small-brained Africans had? Nobody raises these kinds of questions, but that doesn't mean that all Stormfront members do is pat each other on the back. This part of the post triggered an interesting response.

'Marxism is the bastard child of Middle Eastern Christianity, not of Western Christianity. Religious leaders always preferred the Old Testament version, where the priests ruled and the people obeyed, to the teachings of Jesus which gav them no power in this world.

Here is the response:

The thing you fail to point out is that Marx was a respected economist and journalist of his day, and still has his share of followers among intelligent circles. You cannot demonize him hoping that your thoughts will be supported by a kind of vague fear or foreign superstition among readers.

What follows is a surprisingly nuanced discussion of Marx's place in western thought that never quite devolves into the flame war you'd expect.  Issues this contentious are seldom discussed so civilly on Daily Kos.  It's instructive to ask "why?"   There are elements that are worth emulating, and others that are cautionary to us.

I think the most important reason is that the people on Stormfront don't really disagree with each other.  They go there to have their opinions validated, not challenged.  So nobody is challenging the assumption that black brains are different and inferior than white brains.  And certainly nobody is saying that Marxism may have a point.  What is being challenged is asserting Marx's wrongness in a rashly broad way.  To defend the notion that everything Marx might have thought was wrong, you'd have to be prepared to attack any common sense notion Marx might have agreed with.  Marx would no doubt have agreed that bread baked out of wheat is more nutritious than bread formed from plaster. To prove him wrong one would be obligated to eat a slice of ceiling.

What is going on here is more skillful proponents of white supremacy are teaching the less skillful ones how to argue their common position more persuasively.  That's certainly worth emulating, and if the idea of emulating some neo-Nazi is abhorrent to you, I have a plaster sandwich you might be interested in.  Posts advocating popular positions on Daily Kos solicit scores of "right on" responses, but does that truly rise to the standard of supportiveness displayed by our Nazi counterparts?

Now let's look at what's not going on this Stormfront thread. What is not going on is any real challenge to anyone's beliefs.   The kind of challenge that would make you a better thinker, not a  less obvious crackpot.

It is not possible, I think, to have unlimited quantities of civility and unlimited quantities of diversity in any on-line community.  If we merged Dailiy Kos and Stormfront, the results might be interesting, but they wouldn't be pretty.   Every on-line community is a trade-off between these values.  When a community starts to shed key members, that is a sign that the trade-off is shifting toward greater uniformity.  If allowed to continue unchecked, the remaining community members will find themselves in their ideal "community", one in which everyone is perfectly civil and wonderfully supportive of each other.  As wonderful as that might feel, it's not necessarily so wonderful for us as human beings.

[Now about the poll: It could certainly be made more nuanced.  For a given level of diversity, higher levels of civility can be achieved through greater skill and effort.  But the poll deliberately excludes the "have your cake and eat it too" option because that's too easy to choose.  I want you to say which you would choose if you were faced with a tough choice.  Then I want you to think about the consequences of that choice.]

Originally posted to grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 07:54 AM PST.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BachFan, Govinda

    I've lost my faith in nihilism

    by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 07:54:31 AM PST

    •  Please remove the Stormfront links (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      You have already characterized the dialogue there.  No need to drive traffic that way.

      Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

      by aravir on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:21:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Hmmm. (0+ / 0-)

        I see your point, but I'm not sure I agree.

        I think it's important that people study sites like Stormfront, understand how they work and how the people there think.   Taking my word for that isn't going to accomplish that.

        I think it is overall bad for Stormfront for people to look too closely at what they are up to.  The net good seems to me to be on the side of shining a light on them, but I'm open to persuasion on that.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:29:43 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Changed the main link, but not the thread link. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Also inserted a warning so people don't find themselves down the racist rabbit hole by accident.

        Personally, I think people should read Stormfront, and here is why.  My argument with Stormfront's world view is that it doesn't reflect reality. It's a common myth that is built and reinforced by the pseudo-"community", but which does not stand up to first hand knowledge.  For example the poster's opinion about African music is pulled out of his ass.   It's not the kind of first hand knowledge that an ethnomusicologist would have.

        In general, I think the cure for Stormfront style thinking is firsthand knowledge.  But almost nobody seeks out such knowledge, and that is why the world is prey to such narcissistic fantasies.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:48:44 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I appreciate your editing the diary (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Given that you are characterizing a particular thread, I understand your rationale for keeping that link.  I still don't agree with it, as I see the link as a driver of traffic to Stormfront.

          As to your more nuanced arguement, I don't need to go to Stormfront to understand how delusional the world view of its posters is.  Given that two violent attacks in the last several months, that of James von Brunn at the Holocaust Museum, and that of Richard Poplawski in Pittsburgh, were perpetrated by posters to Stormfront, I don't need to examine the fine print of those beliefs.

          Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

          by aravir on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 09:06:50 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Thank you. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            You raised an important point, one well worth considering.

            As to "fine points", I am obviously more interested in white supremacy as a phenomenon than as a serious philosophical position.  In my study of the fascism of the 1930s, I have come to conclusion that fascism isn't an ideology, because it's not about ideas.  Its "ideas" are simply too puerile to be taken seriously as ideas.  Fascism is more of a pragmatic program in which the sole touchstone of any notion is how self-serving it is.  Fascists make no attempt to be intellectually consistent, they simply make use of whatever is useful to them.

            So the fine points of fascist "thought" do not bear examination.  The fine points of fascist technique, the methods of indoctrination, nwo those are well worth studying carefully in my opinion.

            But I appreciate the heads-up.  I believe pointing out the dilemma to each reader and letting him choose for himself is a reasonable compromise.

            I've lost my faith in nihilism

            by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 09:19:08 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  There's a danger, too (0+ / 0-)

          of this becoming true in the left wing blogosphere:

          "It's a common myth that is built and reinforced by the pseudo-"community", but which does not stand up to first hand knowledge."

          Which is something I'm conscious every time I come here, and is also an explanation for why disagreements become uncivil: because we're not repeating the echo chamber.  

          •  Thinking and expressing thought are hard. (0+ / 0-)

            They are labor intensive.

            But it does continue to happen here.

            The problem is if you judge by relative volume.  The idea that in the halcyon days of before 2004 there was so much more effort put into posts and diaries has a grain of truth, but only just.  If you ignore the echo chamber, things don't look quite so bad.

            On the other hand, I seldom diary anymore, because it takes me a long time to meet the quality standards I set for myself.  I haven't done a "Word Sommelier" diary in months, because those were the worst.  They took as much as a day to research.  That's too much work for something that will disappear from view in under an hour.

            So for me, Daily Kos remains an on-line community, but in effect a very small one where information is ephemeral.  I'll post something every month or two, and hopefully some of the "usual suspects" will notice and have a few things to say.  It's still worth perusing and posting occasionally, but not worth putting much effort into.

            The trend of some of the more interesting contributors posting GBCW diaries is unfortunate, but for every GBCW there's probably at least somebody like me who's shifted their energy to other places, but comes back every so often. That's probably as serious a brain drain as the people who feel compelled to announce their departure.  

            The "echo chamber" problem is really more insidious than it appears at first; it's driven by a positive feedback loop.  It's easy to deny that its a problem by pointing out the very strong contributions that continue to be made.   But those contributors who, like myself, are of only middling talent and somewhat unorthodox opinions have less and less incentive to participate.

            I've lost my faith in nihilism

            by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 09:36:16 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  the dark side (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Having encountered various white supremacist groups in real life on several occasions, I'm glad that  folks like grumpynerd have the stomach to give them serious thought.

          •  The important lessons of Stormfront (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            (1) You can't debate these people. (2) It's easier than you might think to get ensnared in this kind of thing.

            It must be very rewarding to be part of "Stormfront", which can answer any real-world concern that threatens your opinion with a click of the "submit" button.  No matter how much fact is marshaled to challenge your belief, there is a large community ready and eager to generate and test patches to the myth.  

            By joining the Stormfront mindset, your world view becomes unassailable.

            Even better don't have to wear a swastika armband or attend rallies -- not at first.  Your neighbors and coworkers don't know you spend your free time in a virtual Jonestown until you're ready to drink the Kool-Aid in public.

            Short of universal training in epistemology, it's hard to see how one can steer people inclined towards that sort of thing from such sites.  Trying to coach people out of this kind of rabbit hole is like bringing the proverbial knife to a gun fight.  What these people have found is something that can generate an easy answer to any problem that arises in their life.

            And they think that means they've found the truth.

            I've lost my faith in nihilism

            by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 10:05:05 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Unless I'm mistaken, sites like Stormfront deal (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BachFan, grumpynerd

    upfront with posters who stray too far from the party line. Much like the Germany after the roundups, everything is nice and civil with room for all.

    You are certainly right regarding the meaning of community here and the implications for America at large. "Sorting", the phenomenon of moving into areas with like-valued people, is a recent phenomenon, ghettos being the older version. I've often said, I more concerned with group think and cliques on this site than diversity of opinion, even when it strays from community norms.

    He who distinguishes the true savor of food can never be a glutton, he who does not cannot be otherwise. - Thoreau

    by the fan man on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:11:02 AM PST

    •  And we can see that they benefit from that. (0+ / 0-)

      Of course, there are costs too, but they don't happen to care about those costs, so it's a sensible practice for them.

      Dealing with those costs is a difficult problem for a progressive, because our concern is the condition of people's lives in the real world, not pursuing some kind of romantic ideal of the past.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:19:11 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The rationales of civility vs. diversity (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BachFan, Dar Nirron

    Again these aren't strictly mutually exclusive, but it's difficult to promote both at the same time and very easy to promote one at the cost of another.

    The case for diversity is that it strengthens our ability to think, makes our opinions more nuanced and sophisticated.

    The case for civility is that it rewards and encourages people who agree with us.  It's also easier to learn things in an environment that is more friendly.

    So in a "community" which values civility over diversity, members can be trained to represent the common point of view more effectively.  But the common point of view isn't ever going to change.

    In a community which values diversity of civility to an extreme degree, it may be difficult to learn anything as emotions flare and people form up into "sides" and talk past each other.

    Naturally we want to have our cake and eat it too.  But life is harder and less satisfying than we might wish it to be.

    I've lost my faith in nihilism

    by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:16:46 AM PST

    •  Isn't civility a sign of respect for diversity? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dar Nirron, grumpynerd

      Incivility suppresses diversity of opinion, driving out opposing views with a blunt instrument rather than engaging them with reasoned argument.

      •  After a fashion. (0+ / 0-)

        Diversity is respect for a mutually accepted range of diversity.  It is acceptable in Stormfront to assert that Marx was a respected journalist and economics writer in his lifetime, but not (for example) to assert that race is a social construct.

        I'm talking about marginal differences.  How do you achieve the next level of greater civility?  One way is to be a tougher minded, more mature person open to self-examination and criticism.  Another way is to limit yourself to people who only disagree with you on things that don't matter very much.

        They both work, but finding a comfy rabbit hole to fall into is much easier and more reliable.  I can state a very unpopular opinion here on Kos, and be very big minded about it, but it doesn't help me unless there's a group of other people interested in being broad-minded with me.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:56:13 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Great, well-reasoned meta! Thanks! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BachFan, grumpynerd

    I keep wondering if I should start talking about DKos and religion/atheism, and how that starts flame wars.  And I keep thinking, it is too warm in my office today for asbestos underwear, and I have too much to do at work to come here frequently and talk about the issue.

    I have not yet voted in the poll, but it seems to me that we have lots of diversity already; civility seems like the more pressing need.  To me, anyway.

    To say that my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, "Your end of the boat is sinking."--Hugh Downs

    by Dar Nirron on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 08:17:19 AM PST

    •  Your last sentence says what I feel (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dar Nirron, grumpynerd, Govinda

      about Kos and the poll - we have diversity, we need civility.  Now if we lose enough people with differing ideas I could reverse that opinion which is why I haven't voted.  Basically you have to HAVE diversity to NEED civility and vice versa.

      •  Don't assume the diversity status quo is safe. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Rieux, Dar Nirron, bfitzinAR

        The relationship between civility and diversity isn't a simple one, and I don't mean to suggest anything so simplistic as we should choose one or the other.

        What I want people to do is to challenge themselves think about the relationship between the two.  It is possible to buy more civility at the cost of less diversity. It is also possible to buy more diversity at the cost of greater civility.

        Either way calls for some level of personal sacrifice.

        My real point is that it's easy to go down the road of sacrificing diversity to gain more civility, because it's so easy to ignore what you have to pay.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Wed Jan 27, 2010 at 10:12:37 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Human beans always seem to feel (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dar Nirron

          safer in a homogenous grouping - be it gender, race, faith, or other ideologies.  It takes seriously paying attention to not slide down that slippery slope.  No, there isn't an either/or here - I've known people who could disagree courteously and others who agreed violently - but it's awfully easy for it to become an either/or proposition.

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