Is there a difference between offline and online discussions? A response to Amy Olberding

“My trouble is usually… that I don’t entirely know what I think. And not knowing what to think is itself sometimes cast as shameful.”

Thanks to Daily Nous, I recently came across these sentences in a moving blog post by Amy Olberding. The message is clear and there is perhaps nothing substantial I have to add. As Justin Weinberg aptly notes, there is an “irony to philosophers in particular—whose job description has long included undermining certainty and complicating the obvious …” I agree that questioning one’s beliefs is one of the main points of doing philosophy. Having opinions and especially “defending” them is seriously overrated. But if Amy Olberding’s observations are correct, we are mainly trained to question others rather than our own beliefs.

However, I wonder why she restricts her observations to the “online discourse”. It seems to me that aggressive assertiveness is encouraged in many places, not least among philosophers. Of course, there is a particularly worrying trend in anonymous comments on social media, but the attitude seems to be a (perhaps somewhat inflated) reflection of our common modes of offline interaction.

This makes me wonder about the general distinction between online and offline discourse. It is now common to distinguish between social media of the internet and our real life. But although online interaction requires technological aids and enables, among other things, anonymity, I don’t see a principled difference between the two. If I insult you, this is an impertinent behaviour, no matter whether I do it online or offline. Yes, I have more options to hide or pretend when online, but that does not alter the moral dimension of interactions. Online interaction can be good or bad, because we behave well or badly. And despite all the hate there are good interactions online. They just don’t receive as much attention.

So the one thought I would like to add, after all, is that there might be good reasons to deflate the distinction between online and offline interactions. It’s not as if we were angels who happen to turn into moral monsters (only) when online. This is also why I have mixed feelings about the idea of “leaving” online discussions and “returning” to real life. Our lives and interactions are real wherever we are. Leaving an online discussion does not just mean switching off a machine. It means to stop interacting with certain people (that one can only reach online).*

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* That said, I don’t question Amy Olberding’s reasons for leaving the discussions from which she resigned. I just think such a resignation is not all that different from leaving a discussion in a room full of people.

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