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It’s been almost 20 years now since I popped up for the first time on the Web. I have almost grown up with it. Actually, I made my debuts in the online world at a somewhat particular moment: in 1996, when I was starting college and when the Internet, thanks to the recently created Web, was reaching out to the larger public, outside the universities, military institutions and very large enterprise who could afford these costly infrastructures. At that age, I was able to learn pretty fast and my education had made me very curious of many things. I therefore learned fairly quickly not only the basis of HTML, but also how to socialize on the Web.
Sure enough, at the very beginning, I did meet one or two perverts, on the early sites of online discussions aka « chats », who tried in vain to convince me to give them my address and phone number. And yes, I discovered that the Web was a heaven for fruitless controversies, but also, potentially, for debate. Unfortunately, the former in its most brutal and toxic form, that is, verbal brawls often accompanied by different types of moral harassment, has often become the norm. But that hasn’t deterred me at all.
Call it stamina or stubbornness, but it does happen that I keep trying to debate with other people on the Web! I have actually loved debating since my early childhood, that is way before the Web came to be! This means that I have some training, for both debate and controversies, because I believe that there is nothing more human than yielding to the temptation of controversy. And of course, there are many occasions to stumble, especially on online forums, social networks, etc.
However, it seems to me that the domination of verbal boxing is becoming a problem, even though I do think that it can be useful. But not in such excess.
Politically incorrect or simply over-sensitive?
What is raising my concerns here is how clear-cut, peremptory and uncompromising so many people can be when they are involved in an online argument over pretty much any topic. Potential or real opponent are too often automatically treated as enemies or, at least, as illegitimate adversaries. Such attitudes make it sounds like those who adopt it can’t stand the slightest objection, which they seem to resent as attempts to silence them, as if freedom of speech was any guaranty that one was entitled to systematic approbation or, at least, a friendly reception. This kind of confrontations has become so widespread that public debate look more like collective brawls than respectful duels with kid gloves.
Those who have studied the evolution of public opinions and controversies will tell me that at the beginning of modern democracies, things were a lot worse. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual for politicians and intellectuals to insult each others through the press during verbal fights that nowadays would end up in the courts for defamation or calumny. It even happened frequently that people would come to blows when they found themselves physically in the same place.
Today, this kind of behaviors is looked upon very critically as a serious gaffes, reflecting an authoritarian mindset. However, the development of more civilized and smoother public manners seem to have generated a paradoxical phenomenon: an exaggerated sensitivity with respect to any sign of dissent or disagreement. It seems then that many people are so unable to manage the annoyance and discomfort that can result from lively exchanges of contradictory ideas that they end up loosing their cool almost completely.
Surrounded by politically correct orthodox conformists!
I’m not targeting anyone in particular here. The self-proclaimed sworn opponents to « conformism » and its avatar, « political correctness » and « orthodoxy » can be found sitting as much on the extreme-right side of the spectrum as on the extreme-left side and even in its extreme-center! It is therefore useless for me to list them all here and start pointing fingers at specific people! All the more since they are also spread over another axis extending between two ideological and discursive ends. On the one hand, we have rhetoric that one could consider « elitist », which offer a cataclysmic scenario of a democracy giving under the weight of freedom of expression which makes it possible for anyone to speak up publicly and yield a negative influence on whole sections of the masses, which can’t be trusted entirely. On the other hand, we have a world view that one could call « populist », which describes a process by which democracy is corrupted from the top by an « elite » made of a complex web of scholars, journalists, intellectuals and big economic actors like multinationals, that have betrayed the people and dissociated from it to steal its power….Oh, so mean!
More refined and accurate approaches do exist, but they are unfortunately too often locked up in what many people call the academic ivory tower or restricted to small circles of intellectuals that are not sufficiently active on the Web and in the media. One must recognize that it isn’t easy to insure a proper reception for these people in a public space that has been increasingly fragmented for the last 40 years. Some citizen are interested in it, but they are a minority that also has a lot of troubles to make itself heard, because of the level of polarization of pretty much any controversy. Nowadays, you’re either 190% for something , or you are against it! Those who choose a third path, that of the hummus, as joked a journalist who was recently demanding the right to be neither « pro-Israel », nor « pro-Palestinian », find it hard not to get trampled by the hordes of activists fighting each others both online and off-line.
What I hope to do with this blog?
Attempt at understanding what is « political (in)correctness and why so many people put it forwards so frequently
First of all, there is this habit of introducing oneself as strictly opposed to « political correctness » (and its avatar: conformism and orthodoxy) on the onset of any contradictory discussion which seems so widespread that it really bothers me. I believe that it can serves as an angle of study to understand a bit better how people approach a verbal confrontation in the public space, whether it be in long- and well-established media, such as the written press, or in new online media. As it seems that these kinds of behaviors occur mostly when the topic debated concerns national identity, feminism, human rights and justice, multiculturalism, democracy and the East-West relationships or freedom of expression, I’ll focus on these cases, but this is a non-exhaustive list.
It will be the occasion to talk about ideas and researches concerning the evolution of media and communication in the public sphere as it is now being extended to the online world. This will also allow me to demonstrate that scholars don’t leave in the twilight zone, completely separated from our daily reality! I particularly think about all the studies about such phenomena as online controversies, the rules of debate on the Web, the role played by « trolls », etc.
Defining the limit between scientism and skepticism
Secondly, I’d like to address another set of issues, which aren’t unrelated to the ones mentioned here above. I’m talking about the way science is called upon and used in many social debates involving scientific components, such as those about the opposition between nature and culture, especially in the controversies about genders, about abortion, the tension between ecology and modernity or about the theory of evolution. In pretty much all discussions about these topics, science is mobilized by all those taking part in the argument, but when one scratches the surface, one realizes that they don’t have the same definition of science. On the other hand, they all seem to agree that science has a special status among all forms of knowledges…at least, as long as it confirms their opinions. Otherwise, they are as fast to condemn it. This will allow me to talk about such things as the representation of science in the larger public as well as among journalists and activists, the various levels of meanings that can be found in the word « science », etc. And of course, it will be an occasion to encourage the use of the scientific method like the « sceptics » do.
Against propaganda and counter-propaganda
I’d like to devote a part of this blog to another activity that I have started on my WordPress.com hosted blog: verifying rumors and statements and debunking them if they are unfounded. One of the issues, which I’m by far not the only one to have noticed, is the prevalence of propaganda and counter-propaganda on various topics. As the French sociologist Gérald Bronner has shown in one of his recent book The gullible democracy (La démocracie des crédules – not translated in English), it is becoming increasingly more difficult for someone who hasn’t made up his or her mind about something to find reliable information that isn’t biased by a political or ideological agenda. And this is how false ideas, prejudices and misinformation are spreading and deepening, as people keep repeating them on the Web. He also showed that, unfortunately, those who believe in these propaganda are a lot more active disseminating it than people without any agenda to advance and those who are working to counter it. I therefore would like to add my two-cents in this collective effort. And yes, I know that this task will never be over nor completed!
Until now, I must acknowledge that my debunking of erroneous rumors and informations hasn’t always been systematic and consistent. I have had to contend with doing it when I come across particularly badly biased or false information on the Web (usually designated by their authors as « politically incorrect », by the way….) and as I have the time to do so. This is because I didn’t organize this task according to specific topics or periodicity. So it has been somewhat erratic. I also did make some mistakes in my debunking because it occurred in one case that I hadn’t been deep enough in my investigations, mostly because I lacked the time to do so.
Moreover, a great part of my efforts has been concentrated on articles published by a neoconservative Swiss collective blog, lesobservateurs.ch (only in French), whose founder wanted to turn into a new type of information platform, that was supposed to contribute to the media diversity of the national French-speaking media. If I devoted a higher number of posts to him than to other sources of information, it is because it ambitioned to shake up the Swiss-French media landscape and to teach professional journalists their job, while refusing to follow the basic rules it wanted everyone else to abide by. Honestly, such inconsistency for such a long time (more than 2 years now) could only attract attention! However, it is also because it is one of the only Swiss-French online media launched by a former university professor that indulge in particularly toxic rhetoric, not only in term of ideas, but also of reasoning overall. However, I believe I have pretty much covered most of it and I don’t intend on spending much more time on this one. That doesn’t mean that I won’t publish any more debunking posts about it, but that will be only if it can illustrate a particular type of disinformation or propaganda.
To share some of my experience of the academia
Even though it seems unlikely that I’ll continue doing research at university, I’d like to use this blog to keep in touch with that world and the topics I have studied (which aren’t necessarily related to those listed so far), especially that of the present evolution of the audiovisual entertainment industry, which I analyzed as part of my dissertation, completed in October 2013. During this research, I’ve had the pleasure to meet a number of other young scholars who happen to be continuing along that path, so I’m thinking of communicating about their publications, when they are available on open access platforms. I’ll also re-publish conference or workshop announcements as well as the call for papers. I’ll also blog about the articles I have been invited to publish after I finished my dissertation. I must say that these invitations surprised me, because I thought that once I got my Ph.D., I wouldn’t have had much else to do with the academic world.
A digital pied-à-terre
Finally, after 20 years of all-around online activities, I thought it was high time to have my own domain name and « home sweet home », where I could conveniently gather up all my various digital selves spread on the Web. I have already started doing this on my WordPress.com blog, but it is really the moment for me to make my own space. As any home, this website will of course undergo occasional upheavals, so as to change the decorations and the furnitures.
Who is this blog trying to reach out to?
Well, to everyone and therefore to noone specifically. In this view, I’m trampling over some of the basic rules of communication which say that one must know one’s audience. However, when one starts one’s own little media (yep, a personal blog is a media, usually at first, and sometime forever, on a small scale), it is usally difficult to get a clear idea of whom one is targeting, especially when one intends to address a large variety of topics, as is the case here. However, I do have a vague notion of my ideal audience:
- People who like somewhat long texts and are willing to read them on screen.
- People who are active in the public space and enjoy debating.
- People who’ll feel like contradicting me.
The first item doesn’t mean I’ll just indulge in writing absurdly long articles, simply because I’m unable to state briefly my ideas. I always try to synthesize as much as possible, but in certain cases, I want to be able to elaborate more and therefore, to express myself in texts that are (sometimes much) longer than 2000 characters. However, whenever possible, I’ll try to use the journalistic formats in order to allow those who don’t like long reading on screens to be able to get the gist of my thoughts without having to go from top to bottom. I’ll also post texts of variable length. My aim isn’t to bore the pants off of people with never-ending analyses.
The two other traits reflect my desire to join ongoing debates and to meet people who don’t have the same world views or point of views as I. The main challenge in keeping this blog alive lies there, as this will force me to adapt as much as possible to various ways of debating on the Web and to accept that people will sometimes try to hit me hard (metaphorically of course)!
By the way, it is because of these constraints that I don’t think to be able to publish more than one or two posts per week on this blog. Indeed, I’ll have to read, analyze, polish my writing, etc. I don’t see how I could have a faster publishing pace at this rate. After all, this blog is also just a hobby and I’ve got many other obligations.
….this blog will be a place where I can share my thought about my encounters with those who are also active in both offline and online public spaces. I’ll try to articulate these thoughts with factual and fine-tuned analyzes produced by scholars or experts (that is, people who have studied thoroughly a topic, even if they don’t have institutional titles). I’ll work as hard as possible to wrap all this in solid but light and pleasant writing style. My main objective here is to exchange with visitors (whom I’ll also look for on social networks….) so as to see what comes out of the confrontations between our differing points of views on the aforementioned topics.
But I also have another personal and professional aim, which is to develop a writing style at the crossroad between online conversation, academic and journalistic format. This blog will therefore be a sort of field of experiments, in which I’ll advance by trials and errors. I therefore give myself the right to get it sometimes completely wrong many times until I get it right. I hope to attract an audience of people interested in politics and society, who aren’t afraid of potentially long text and who’d be willing to debate with me. For this, I’ll do my best to work on my writing so as to get as light, lively and incisive, but not uselessly aggressive, in order to last.
This means that even this text will probably get modified over time! Here, nothing will ever be permanent!