I can’t help myself. Like a tongue compelled to explore a broken tooth, I cannot let a week pass without making some form of contribution to a lively debate on an internet forum.
For many people, the world is black and white. If you oppose the invasion of Iraq, you support Saddam Hussein. If you object to DNA databases, you are pro-rapist. If you accept the democratic legitimacy of your nation’s Government, then you are responsible for every decision they make.
Even the minority of people who are able to understand and articulate nuance exhibit a natural arrogance, as if they alone have a special insight into the complexity of the world and all the solutions to its problems. Perhaps it’s the medium, as I’m providing an example of it now.
The internet provides an opportunity for widespread discussion of important subjects without the influence of mass media and career politicians who share a broad agenda and frame debates accordingly.
In some senses, we’re making progress in this direction. For example, it’s a lot harder for politicians to tell porkies these days.
Everyone I know discusses things on internet forums, and everyone I know loathes themselves for doing it. When I follow a discussion thread, on, for example, Comment Is Free, it always seems to be at best a missed opportunity for the evolution of ideas, or at worst, a compelling reinforcement of my latent misanthropic tendencies – “Why are people so fucking stupid?”
I’ve long thought that democracy is pointless without rationality and intelligence on the part of the electorate, but I’m starting to think all serious discussion is pointless unless everyone who participates understands logic and reasoning.
Casting my mind back an alarmingly long time, I’m pretty sure my comprehensive school general education did not include any lessons on logic and reasoning. I remember hours of tedious quadratic equations and drilling holes into metal sheets, but no time at all on recognising straw man arguments, or deductive errors, or false dilemmas, or circular arguments, or fallacies of presumption and so on.
How valuable would it be if all children were formally taught logic and reasoning from a young age? A generation of empowered bullshit detectors? A scary prospect for some.