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Imus, Trolling, and Free Speech

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You can't swing a cat around the sports world this week without hitting somebody talking about Don Imus' comments on the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team.  I figure if Henry Abbott can tackle the subject I can add a couple cents of my own.  There's a loose connection to what we do here, which is why I'm pursuing it.

The problems with Imus' comments on racial, gender, and just plain propriety fronts are obvious and well-documented.  If somebody has to explain to you why that was an awful thing to say you probably need to check your birth certificate and make sure it says "human being" somewhere on there.  But setting all that aside, Imus committed another cardinal sin, far less than the others in face value but in some ways more telling for him and his medium.  Everybody knows this guy trades on insults and over-the-top comments.  But even if you divorce all of the horrible societal overtones from his statement, when you get to the end of it, it just...wasn't...funny.  It wasn't entertaining.  It wasn't provocative.  It wasn't even original.  People have been making those kind of stereotypes for centuries.  Even as strictly humor (which is the shield he's trying to hide behind now) it didn't do anything to or for anybody.  It just sat there...blah, phhhfft, yawn, shrug...stupid.

This is the problem with shock humor nowadays.  At one time it was semi-provocative.  "You can SAY that?  Wow!"  You'd tune in for the surprise value.  But honestly, is anybody surprised at anything anymore?  It's lost its flavor, its hook.  At best it's an exercise in seeing who can be the most grossly obtuse until you can't stand it anymore and turn the dial.  If this medium were pornography (and in some ways I think there are comparisons) it wouldn't be a fresh-faced, interesting centerfold every month.  Rather it would be the exact same model we saw two decades ago, 58 wrinkles, 92 stretch marks, and 6,000 packs of Marlboros later.  Plus we've exhausted all conceivable erotic poses and now we're doing internal shots with a medical camera.  Honestly, what is the point?  There is none, save for lazy consumption habits and/or addiction.

How does this relate?   Well one of the other huge topics of the week has been civility in online conversations.  We've been talking about this for ages here.  Who knew we were so avant garde?  And what I just said about radio shock humor is also exactly how I feel about trolling and uncivil discourse.  Once upon a time when message boards, forums, and blogs were new it was an exciting, uncharted world.  You'd sometimes tune in to certain forums just to see what kind of fights would develop and how far they'd go.  You seldom saw things like that in your daily life.  It had an aura of letting loose and "getting real".  Now several years and hundreds of thousands of online conversations later (not to mention reality T.V. shows, talk shows, radio shows, and all the people who try to emulate them) we've all been there, read that.  It's switched from "getting real" to "getting real stupid".    It takes almost no brainpower at all to flame someone, yell at them, call names, disagree without explanation or rationale, attack their knowledge or integrity, or any of the other trolling tactics.  It adds nothing to the world, not even entertainment anymore.  You can argue the conversational ethics and morals all day long.  That doesn't change the fact that they're overplayed, uncreative, and just plain dumb.  Who is fascinated by this sort of stuff after it's been repeated ad nauseum?  Only its authors.  And if you're going to practice public verbal masturbation at least have the decency to do it on your own site where people can come and watch if they wish instead of walking into everybody else's view uninvited.

In the end that's why we discourage trolling or even semi-trolling behavior so heavily on Blazersedge...not just because we're innocent lambs or even necessarily from a higher moral standard, but because it's pathetic and uninteresting.  Few people I know are really into pathetic and uninteresting conversations.  I know I'm not.

A lot of people claim things like this are a free speech issue, and indeed the courts are starting to flirt with the issue of real-world rights in online communities, particularly free speech.  I think this is somewhat understandable when it comes to gathering venues like MySpace, which are the downtown public squares of the online world.  But blogs and perhaps dedicated forums are fundamentally different in my opinion. Although gathering and talking occur, they are for a specific purpose, as would happen in a particular building instead of a public square.  Contrary to popular belief, the right to free speech has never conveyed the ability to say anything you want, anywhere, at any time without consequence.  You are free to be an atheist, for instance, and you are free to express that belief.  But you are not free to walk into a church in the middle of Sunday morning services, stand up, and shout your point of view without getting kicked out.  Similarly you are free to be a person of faith and to talk about that, but you are not free to walk in the middle of high school algebra class and start preaching a sermon.  Though both happen in public, neither one is considered "free speech".  Nor do they make you a better atheist or worshiper.  They just make you a disruptive jerk.  And almost anywhere, almost anytime, people are free to remove disruptive jerks from their midst and the law protects their right to do so.  I assume that will remain true of online venues as well.

Civility shouldn't necessarily require a "delete" button, but you have to admit sometimes it comes in handy.  If only our radio knobs had one as well.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)