Opinion: We Can't Seem To Stop Sharing Our Opinions

By Philip Bump , written on March 28, 2012

From The News Desk

Right now, inside the Supreme Court, justices have been hearing arguments about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. And outside, supporters and opponents are yelling, arguing for or against the legislation.

In general, if you’re going to peaceably assemble, that’s about as good a place as there is to do it. The institution of the Supreme Court exists to protect a citizen's ability to protest. Free speech is a marvelous thing, perhaps the most important designation made by our founding fathers. It’s simple to forget that for many throughout the world, and for nearly everyone throughout history, it’s been an unattainable luxury. Within a few hours from now, you could be in a country where certain things you say could land you in jail. In short: I’m a fan.

But outside the Supreme Court? Today? Why bother?

I suppose we can't help it. I used to work on political campaigns. Local races, state races. If you ask people who’ve done the same what the most useless, expensive, time-consuming component of such a race is, I suspect they’ll say the same thing: lawn signs. Lawn signs are wasteful, expensive, and completely inconsequential – and they are beloved. Candidates love them because they seem like a visible indicator of a vote (which they often aren’t). It’s assuaging. And voters love them because it is a way of demonstrating support for a candidate, without requiring any expenditure of cost or, often, energy.

In short, lawn signs are what we would online call “slacktivism,” an action that makes the doer feel good without getting anything done. In a great post at Talking Points Memo, Kyle Leighton and David Taintor draw an explicit comparison between lawn signs and online activism:

Twitter is a great organizing tool. But its function is better served rallying actual people to speak directly with other people, rather than persuasion across media platforms. And attempts to make sense of the crosstalk between camps is no different than, say, reporting on the number of lawn signs candidate X has up, and how that will ensure candidate Y’s defeat on election day.
We’re inundated with similarly futile attempts at persuasion. Ever read the comments on a blog post? On any Facebook post that’s even moderately controversial? At some point, America tipped over from being a nation that holds in reserve the ability to make comment to one that defaults to opinion-sharing in the hopes that someone else will agree.

For online properties, that’s meant a renewed look at how comments are policed. The New Republic, in announcing today that it was removing its paywall, left one restriction in place: Only subscribers can comment, an attempt by the magazine to erect some minimum barrier for participation, hoping to maintain quality responses. Others have advocated eliminating comments on a blog entirely; some already do. The problem isn’t that commentary isn’t welcome; it’s that it’s often unmanageable. Between spammers, those who intentionally try and elicit an angry response (trolls), and those who do so unintentionally, there’s too frequently little room for tempered discussion. There are too many yellers.

Oh, also? Even if the discussion were calm and driven by rational argument, it probably wouldn't make any difference anyway. Studies repeatedly indicate that the introduction of new facts into a debate often serves only to reinforce existing beliefs. If you don't believe in climate change, in other words, my presenting evidence that it exists is unlikely to persuade you that it does – and may in fact make you more convinced than ever that it doesn't. The human brain is a tricky thing.

But we keep trying. Each of us at some point has thought that if only we were heard, if only those who disagree heard our rationale for our beliefs, that surely we could convince others. Even if we're articulating sound points on the usefulness of the Affordable Care Act to someone standing outside the Supreme Court wearing an "Obamacare is Socialism" t-shirt. Or even if the person we hope to convince is sitting inside the Supreme Court, wearing a black robe.

Free, persuasive speech is a great tool, as effective when diluted by overuse as it is when used sparingly. Which is to say: often not very effective at all. So perhaps we might just turn down the volume a little.

The kicker: This essay has most likely not convinced you in the least. I look forward to your comments.

[Image Credit: Elvert Barnes]

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