Virtual exaggerations

In the newspaper, yesterday, the writer Michael Zeeman complained that virtual discussions are going so fast, that people don’t take the time to really think about what they are saying. At Orkut I had a similar experience. Moreover I feel that the absence of the face of the other, which otherwise would make a strong ethical appeal to me (Levinas), has got a very negative effect on how people are treating each other.

Zeeman refers to a discussion between Ian Buruma and Pacal Bruckner (see also "more articles" on the right). Buruma is being criticized for his precise, nuanced, neutral analysis of the murder of Theo van Gogh. Bruckner calls him a coward because Buruma tries his best to understand these “nasty Muslims”.
He calls Buruma a traitor who contributes to the destruction of the Netherlands.
But how is it possible that the whole process of enlightment or the Dutch society could be endangered by a nuanced and precise analysis of murder? Is the society so weak or is Buruma so strong?

What Bruckner said to Buruma reminded me of what was recently said about me at Orkut. An Orkuter from India said: “It’s of no use debating about esther. She and her fucked up commie-euro-leftist theory will lead western civilization to self destruction. We indians and you Americans should join hand to fight against this evil.”

I don’t know how I became a communist at once, apart from leftist, but never mind. Moreover, me and my theory will lead Western Civilization towards self-destruction. Wow, that is something. It seems then that I am such a big powerful enemy to them. How did that happen, that some people started to consider me as a big dangerous monster? Aren’t they exaggerating "a bit" (a lot)? Brent, who pops up more often at this weblog, had started a hate campaign towards me last week, for no reason at all, I didn’t do anything to him, or anyone. He spoke before about my “suicidal attitude” because I want to be tolerant in a multicultural society like the Netherlands, and to accept cultural diversity. And now he has the idea that I don’t want to have children because I would want the Dutch people to become extinct or something. He called me an infertile Euro-hedonist as well. He started shouting at me in about 5 discussion communities and in many scrapbooks of his friends, saying that I am unsuitable as a moderator of the International Relations community. All of this is too crazy for words. Why all this hate? Why this obsession, at a personal level, for the people he disagrees with, the people he hates (me in this case).
He said: "My words to Esther were calculated to cut very deeply. She has caused a lot of frustration, and I brought some of this distress back to her."
He is sick, it's shocking to hear "cut very deeply"...

Zeeman says that the issue at stake in the debate between Bruckner and Buruma is Buruma’s being moderate, his disgust of weird exaggerations and of blind rage. Buruma was wondering if the provocations by Ayaan Hirshi Ali will really contribute to a solution for the Netherlands. He didn’t get any answers to that question, only personal attacks. There was no real discussion, no exchange of arguments.

Zeeman thinks that this is a characteristic of virtual debates, “you get the impression that the debaters don’t take each other really seriously, or at least that they don’t try their best so much as for articles for Le Monde Diplomatique or the New York Review of Books. Virtual debaters / bloggers are never taken very seriously, not only because almost nobody knows how to spell, but also because they might have changed their mind within one hour. It is all so unreal, in the same way as that Wikipedia will never become a real encyclopedia and a website will not really become a newspaper because nobody can be held accountable for the correctness of the information.”

I don't know if I agree with Zeeman at this point. Maybe he still has to get used to the online world, where reliable newspapers have their own websites as well. But for sure the debates are taking place in a totally different way than in real life or on paper.

And Zeeman says that Bruckner is usually not very nuanced, but that he thinks that the virtual character of the article made him exeggerate even more. Bruckner considers Buruma as an inquisitor who treats Ayaan Hirshi Ali as a witch who lost her soul to the devil.
Why this talking about devils and witches, destruction of Western civilization, etc?
Why these exaggerations, generalizations, simplifications?

In my opinion there is a big risk of “dehumanization of the other” in the virtual world. You can't be beaten down when you have hurt somebody, you don’t see the pain in his or her face. There are no eyes looking at you begging you to stop it. There is not a real person standing in front of you, of whom you realize that he or she is equally human, whom you have to take into account. In real life you can disagree with someone, but at the same time you can accept the other as he or she is, in the online world this is more difficult. And the weird pictures of monkeys, dogs and green dwarves don't help to realise that the profile I am talking to is a human being like me.

If I would drink a beer with Brent in a pub somewhere (or a coffee), we could maybe explain to each other what we mean, without having a fight. We could say afterwards: “we still disagree but anyway we had a good time”. It would be much easier there to explain to each other what we really mean, it would take less time. And the atmosphere of animosity could be avoided, which would stimulate that we really listen to what the other says, instead of having silly fights only.

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