Read the Comments

I keep coming back, obsessively and neurotically, to the question of what a liberal arts education is good for.

I do think it helps with the skills that pay the bills. I do think it can make you a better citizen. I do think it can help you lay the foundation for the examined life. It doesn’t always do that, and there are many other ways to get skills, learn to be a better participant in your social and political worlds, be a critical thinker.

A modest example of the possibilities occurred to me today. The concept of social epistemology is becoming more important in philosophy as it is applied both analytically and technically to various kinds of digitally-mediated crowdsourcing. One strain of thought about social epistemology might suggest that philosophy could be as much an ethnographic discipline as an interpretative one, that it could look for how social groups generate epistemological or philosophical frameworks out of experience. There are plenty of other ways to take an interest in how people think in their social practices and everyday lives about ethics, knowledge, and so on, in any event. The question in part is, “What could a liberal arts education–or formal scholarship–add to such everyday, lived thinking that it doesn’t already have?”

I’m going to do something a bit unusual. Rather than the usual “don’t read the comments!” I’m going to suggest that at least sometimes comments on Internet sites offer some insights into how people in general think.

Take a look at this Gawker thread about a tailgater and the “karmic justice” meted out to him for following the driver ahead of him too closely and aggressively. (He eventually passes to the right at high speed, gives the driver the finger multiple times, merges back left on a lightly wet road and loses control of his truck, crashing into the median.)

The main story accepts the “karmic justice” narrative. But in the comments, three different interpretations eventually emerge.

The first validates the main story: the tailgater was unambiguously in the wrong and it is right to feel some vindication at his misfortune.

The second holds that the tailgater was acting poorly but also the driver making the videotape was also acting poorly, for several reasons. First, that the driver being tailgated was videotaping (and was therefore indulging in dangerous behavior as well) and second, that the driver being tailgated (the tailgatee?) should just have pulled to the right and let the faster driver go ahead.

The third is unabashedly on the side of the tailgater. These commenters hold that tailgating is a practical, even necessary, response to drivers who insist on blocking the left lane of any roadway at a speed slower than the speed that the tailgater wishes to go. They support both the tailgating and the obscene gesture and regret that the tailgater had an accident.

There’s a minor fourth faction that is primarily irritated at yet another person videotaping with a smartphone held in portrait mode. Protip hint: they at least are completely right.

What’s interesting in the comments is that each group has strategies for replying to the other two. The anti-tailgaters point out that the roadway in question is not a major highway, that the driver being tailgated was going the maximum speed limit, that the driver says she did not look at the camera while holding it, that she says she was going to be turning left very soon and that traffic to the right was fairly heavy. The blame-on-all-sides find that the videotaping driver has a history of being aggrieved about a lot of things, that there seemed to be plenty of space to the right, and that it’s unwise (especially in Florida) to tangle with a person demonstrating road rage. The pro-tailgaters…well, they don’t seem to have much other than a view that tailgating is necessary and justified.

It’s easy to just say, “A pox on all their houses” or to simply join in the debate on one side or another. I guess what I’m struck by is that when you pull back a little, each of these approaches is informed, whether the people are consciously aware of it or not, by some potentially consistent or coherent views of what’s right and wrong, wise and unwise, fair and unfair.

What I wonder sometimes is whether we could construct a coherent underlying credo or statement about our views, if we were all asked to step back from the views we can express so hotly in comments threads in social media or other contexts. So much of our discourse, online and offline, is reactive or dialectical. That’s actually good in the sense that real cases or experiences are a better place to start, perhaps, than arid thought-experiment scenarios about pulling trolley levers to save or not save lives. But maybe where some sort of liberal-arts experience could help. It could help us to go from a reactive reading to a more contemplative description of why each of us thinks what we think.

Suppose I’m against the tailgater: why? Because I object morally to tailgating period–its aggression, its danger? Is it ok to be aggressive in return? (The driver in the video apparently has specified that she did not break-check the tailgater.) How confident am I that tailgating is the result of road rage? How much do I actually know about another driver, and why should I be confident about my strong moral readings of someone whom I only know in a single dimension of their behavior? If was going really slowly, would tailgating me be justified?

Suppose I’m against both of them: why? Can I trust that someone can in fact be a good driver while holding up a smartphone and not looking at it? Why do I trust or not trust in that proposition? Why not, as this approach suggests, just yield to someone determined to be antisocial and get out of their way? Is being righteous in opposing a tailgater just a kind of self-indulgent or egotistical response? Or an aggression of another kind? What does that imply about other cases?

Suppose I’m certain that if I want to go a particular speed, it’s right to allow me to do so until or unless I am charged with the crime of speeding or unless I have an accident as a result? What else does that imply? Do I mean it in all cases or is driving a special case? Am I right that I’m a better driver than most others? What does that entitle me to if so?

I suspect that in a lot of cases, driving (or other everyday practices) are held to be “special cases”–that to try and work back to some bigger or more comprehensive view of the world isn’t going to work for many people in the Gawker thread. But that too is interesting: if much of how we read the “manners” of everyday life is ad hoc, that’s not necessarily bad, just significant.

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