How Can We Move Beyond Flame Wars & Combative Political Discussions?

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flame_warThe United States today is in a strange place, and I assume the same goes for other countries to some extent or another. Public discussions, especially political discussions, have become increasingly combative.

I think part of this is due to the detached, anonymous nature of discussing things on the internet — we are so detached from the effects our words have on others that we tend more to write in derogatory and combative ways — more so than we’d typically do in an in-person or even telephone conversation with the same people about the same things.

In the US, I think these types of “flame wars” have also increased due to conscious (as well as unconscious) decisions by Republican leaders and media to attack Democrats and certain “outsiders” for political gain — not just debating ideas and policies, but actually demonizing individuals and groups of people. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen from the Democratic side of the aisle as well! But it seems to have been a carefully developed strategy back in the days of Nixon and Reagan, and heightened to a great extent since the turn of the century and, to a tremendous extent, since Obama was first running for president.

As just two examples (of so many):

1) Presidents make a large number of “executive nominations” that Congress typically just signs off on. In 2013, it was found that Congress (dominated by Republicans) had blocked more of these nominations under Obama than in the entire history of the United States combined. Seriously. Somehow, Congress decided to block 79 of Obama’s nominations up until late 2013 (I’m not sure what the count is now), while only 68 nominations had been blocked by Congress from 1949 till Obama took office, and very few had been blocked before 1949.

2) Mitch McConnell, GOP Senate minority leader at the beginning of Obama’s presidency and now Senate majority leader, infamously stated that the #1 political objective of the Republican party should be to make Obama a one-term president. No, the #1 aim was not to help the country come out of one of its worst economic downturns in history. No, it wasn’t to grow jobs and work with Obama and other Democrats to help improve quality of life in the United States. The goal was to make Obama a failure, which essentially meant hurting the country and blaming it on Obama. We have seen this aim put into action for nearly 8 years.

With these things in mind, let’s be honest with ourselves: The ongoing aim of GOP political elites for several years has been to demolish the character of individuals “on the other side” (never mind that we share a country and a world), especially Obama, and to divide the country. It’s not pure magic that led to Donald Trump becoming the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party. He has taken this style of politics to its logical conclusion — which is to attack the character and goodwill of everyone and anyone who opposes his ideas. It was quite effective against a party that has supported that kind of politics for years or decades, even as Trump turned it back onto the party and his Republican colleagues to a shocking degree. We’ll see how effective it is in the general election.

But the point isn’t to keep the criticisms going in a never-ending word war. The point is to try to figure out how we can proceed in order to move the nation in a more positive, collaborative direction.

CleanTechnica, relatively speaking, is a small site with rather moderate influence. But we do have some influence, and we are eager to use that for positive political progress. We try to keep discussions in the comments civil, and we encourage people to approach debates in a university-style way — as intellectual discussions that don’t get unnecessarily emotional and combative, and don’t resort to counterproductive name-calling and ad hominem attacks.

But let’s be frank: most media outlets don’t attempt to shape the conversation like this at all. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, reddit, and other networks are basically agnostic to the topic as well. Head to trending discussions in many of these places and you are practically guaranteed to land in an intense war of name-calling and ad hominem attacks. So, how can we reign in the flame wars and try to move political discourse into a more collaborative, positive direction?

Unfortunately, this is not a solutions article. This is a question I am posing to the smart and considerate readers we have here.

Of course, we can each try to do our part, but that can only be part of the solution. I think we also need to create and promote some systemic solutions. I just don’t know what those would be.

(Why is this on CleanTechnica? Because we believe sharing of important information and subsequent, useful discussions about that information are important to the advancement of society, including when it comes to electricity, transportation, and other technology discussions relevant to this site’s focus.)

Image via Berciuch

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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45 thoughts on “How Can We Move Beyond Flame Wars & Combative Political Discussions?

  • I read that Apple is now talking about ‘differential privacy’. There must be further developments on the internet with identity and ‘differential anonymity’. I suspect that most CT correspondents would not mind their identity being generally known, with the exception of e-mail addresses. The growth of cooperation and parasitism along with the internet has been an amazing experiment in ecology. This of course is only one corner of the problem; we already know who is the realMitchMcConnell. And thanks to you and Bob Wallace for maintaining this island of mostly reasoned discussion.

    • I basically profit close to $6.000-$8.000 a month with my online job. Everyone prepared to do simple freelance jobs for several hrs every day from your home and get solid paycheck while doing it… This is a gig for you… UR1.CA/p7vx2


    • Interesting. Didn’t see anything about that. Have any great links?

      • ‘differential privacy’; I saw the words in an article about the latest apple event, and misinterpreted the meaning. Here is a link:

        It is nonetheless interesting and has to do with anonymization of user data via noise injection and other means to permit data use and analysis while
        keeping user identity untraceable.

    • “mostly reasoned discussion”
      … yes, mostly 😛 why i said “try” 😀

      thanks for chiming in on a regular basis in a nice way

      • I basically get paid approximately $6.000-$8.000 a month with an online job i found on internet. For those of you who are looking to do easy online work for 2h-5h a day at your home and earn good income while doing it… Try this job UR1.CA/p7vx2


    • Personally, I don’t want ANY of my personal information on the Internet (or in the hands of companies) without my explicit permission. That’s one of the reasons I’ve de-Google-fied my life. No Android phone knowing where I work (without me telling it! that’s just creepy!); no Nest thermostat knowing when I’m at home; no Google searches knowing what my interests are (I use DuckDuckGo instead), etc.

      Apple seems to be one of the few companies that is taking privacy seriously — because they have nothing to gain from it, unlike Google.

      • Agreed.
        Privacy is the new currency.
        It should not be too difficult for sites like Disqus to implement robotic moderation. There are certain patterns of speech (or writing) that are easy enough to identify as trolling. Combine that with a ranking system of real contributors, based on a system of “peer review”.
        They don’t need to know who I am or where I live in order to make an assessment on whether or not I am making a positive contribution.

  • Zach, thank you for the article. It is sickening that the GOP has tried over and over to get Obama to be seen as a failure. The Congress is the worst offender, blocking nearly everything the President proposes.

    Despite this, we’re seeing strong job gains, and positive economic trends (bucking nearly the rest of the entire world). To see other significant positive accomplishments of this President, I like to point people to whattheheckhasobamadonesofar (dot) com. Even the most Republican of readers might not know everything the President has accomplished in his term.

    1. Put term limits on Congress. Get those incumbent congressmen out.
    2. Put limits or bans on lobbying.
    3. Get a viable third (or fourth or fifth) party. Having to choose between two evils is still evil.
    4. Get rid of oil subsidies (just because). 🙂

    • I disagree with #1 and #3.

      I think we benefit by having people in Congress who have long memories of how things have evolved and how things work. It takes a long time for a new congress member to figure out how things work and rapid turnover would mean that the system would be run by career bureaucrats.

      The job of US President is a tough one (if they take it seriously) and it wears people out. Plus a president tends to come in with a set of goals that they then spend the next four to eight years attempting to reach. I’d rather have someone with a fresh perspective come to office after eight years. Someone who has been outside, standing to one side, and watching things without being constantly in the middle of the fray.

      I like Hillary as a person. I think she’s intelligent, honest, capable and willing to work hard. But my ideal candidate would be someone younger. Someone who was less of a fixture of the last 30 years of American politics and had a larger foothold in the issues of the younger generations.

    • To achieve point three you need to change your voting system. Only when you change your stepped district voting system into a direct voting system (where a party will actually get x% of the seats if if it gets x% of the votes) will you get more than two parties in your parliament and senate.

      • What Hans said. The good systems are called “proportional representation”. The crummy system we have in the US today is called “single member first-past-the-post”.

    • Regarding #3, please look up “Duverger’s Law”, and then join me in advocating for Proportional Representation, which is the *only* way to have more than two parties.

  • Conveniently ignoring what the Democrats did under Presidents Bush. Part of the issue is the two sides have never been so polar opposite on the issues. For over a hundred years all sides agreed upon a set of standards and most of those have been tossed out over the last 50 years. There are the big things like the social issues but there are the smaller things like precedents in the Senate. Example anyone know who was the first to block an judgeship appointment under purely political reasons. Hit it was the Republicans under President Bush.

      • Exactly. I have no idea where RobertM got that idea. Obama has been heavily criticized by the left for compromising far too much, and for being too patient with Republicans as they demonstrated no intention at all of compromise.

        I can only guess that he was tuning into political echo chambers that tossed a ridiculous amount of nonsense at the listeners/readers.

    • ” Obama hasn’t shown any desire to work with them.”

      Robert, that is 100% pure bullshit.

      Obama was consistently criticised during his first term by offering too much to Republicans during negotiations in an attempt to get them to make a deal.

      From the time that Republicans took control of Congress they have attempted to block almost everything PBO wished to accomplish. They were very open about their intentions as soon as they took control.

      Nothing that Democrats or PBO has proposed has made it through the Republican controlled Congress. They won’t even consider Democratic bills and refused to even look at PBO’s proposed budget.

      I don’t know where you get crappy information like that but you need to step away from the bovine sewage chute.

    • Seems Obama just tried to fill a Supreme Court position. If I remember correctly the Republicans were stroking each other saying they needed a particular person. Obama then chose that person. All of a sudden they changed their mind and voted against that person.

      If you haven’t noticed Obama as Senator was a decent person. Obama as president has been worse than Bush. Yet it seems like anything he does is supported by the Democrats and opposed by the Republicans. Despite his policies being right of Dick Cheney.

      • ” Obama as president has been worse than Bush. Yet it seems like anything he does is supported by the Democrats and opposed by the Republicans. Despite his policies being right of Dick Cheney.”

        Oh, please. That’s totally from bizarro-land.

        • Maybe to a staunch Democrat.

          How do you justify his treatment of whistle-blowers?

          • I am not fully informed about all the whistleblower incidents.

            In the case of Snowden and Manning I think they both deserve punishment. They had no business dumping information out into public. There are legitimate routes to informing the public about governmental problems and they did not use those.

            This is a good introduction article then:

            As for the whistleblowers, their suffering serves as a warning to all potential apostates. Edward Snowden remains in Moscow. Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Chelsea Manning is in prison, serving a 35-year sentence. Jeremy Hammond, Jeffrey Sterling, and Barrett Brown all face years of jail time. Indeed, under Obama, whistleblowers face a total of 751 months behind bars — compared to 24 months for all other whistleblowers combined since the American Revolution.

            As Barack Obama tries to nail down his legacy in the next year, he’ll make many references to foreign policy victories like the deal with Iran and the opening with Cuba. He’ll hold up domestic successes like the Affordable Care Act.

            But in basement offices in Washington, DC, secure locations in northern Virginia, and listening posts in suburban Maryland, the high priests and priestesses of a secretive cult are quietly toasting the president for a very different legacy: his fierce defense of a lawless and destructive fraternity that has only grown more powerful on his watch.

          • I’ve read that piece and some other which speak out against prosecution of whistleblowers.

            I don’t know if any of these individuals made a serious attempt to bring their information forward in a responsible manner or just dumped into public access.

            There are ways to bring the public’s attention to a problem short of a simple data dump. I support the prosecution of anyone who inappropriately discloses information.

          • I think you are fully aware of what has happened. Cheney wished he could pull off the same things Obama has gotten away with. But I’ll leave it be for now.

          • Ivor, do you really believe that?

            Cheney wanted to invade Iraq and did it. Obama has done nothing even close to that.

            Cheney wanted to steer huge amounts of taxpayer money to Bechtel and did it. Obama has nothing of the sort.

            You really talk some junk, Ivor.

          • You just can’t leave things alone can you? So now you want to expand out past the trillion dollars a year Obama has put into the NSA to military actions Obama and Hillary have done?

          • No, I don’t want to get into a discussion with you about PBO’s use of the military. I don’t think you’ve got both oars in the water.

            Anyone who tries to equate Obama and Cheney isn’t worth my time and energy. Go shout at the clouds or whatever….

          • So ironic given the subject “How Can We Move Beyond Flame Wars & Combative Political Discussions?”

            No, I don’t want to get into a discussion with you about PBO’s use of the military. I don’t think you’ve got both oars in the water.

            Anyone who tries to equate Obama and Cheney isn’t worth my time and energy. Go shout at the clouds or whatever….

          • In interviews, Edward Snowden says that he looked very carefully at what happened to Thomas Drake, who tried to whistleblow through the legal channels, but suffered retaliation. Drake’s career was ruined and he was financially ruined because of the legal costs, but he ultimately avoided jail time. John Crane, who was in charge of the whistleblower program at the Pentagon says that the whistleblowers who followed the rules still suffered retaliation. See:
            Plus, congress members on the relevant committees were informed by whistleblowers that the NSA was engaging in widespread illegal surveillance, but they did not stop it, nor did they inform the public.
            Edward Snowden took the only viable route for a conscientious whistleblower who has a moral obligation to to try and stop the illegal behavior of the US government. Plus, he did not just dump the information on the public. He gave the information to newspapers who promised to carefully vet it and only release information in a responsible way, which is why it has taken years for all the documents to be analyzed and articles to be published.

          • Bob, read what Amos wrote. It’s all 100% accurate.

            Obama has supported criminal activities by the NSA, and his supported criminal retaliation against whistleblowers by the NSA. This actually makes Obama guilty of conspiracy to commit those same crimes.

            Obama belongs in federal prison right next to G W Bush for his numerous crimes, most of which are literally the same crimes as Bush’s. Illinois actually does that with its governors, but Illinois has an elected Attorney General, rather than the appointed lapdog Attorney General we have at the federal level.

          • Then you support the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, right Bob? We know she inappropriately disclosed information.

            Didn’t think so.

            Again, you need to do your research. Snowden has explained exactly why he did what he did due to *previous retaliation against whistleblowers such as Drake and Binney who went to the Inspector General’s office*.

            Snowden revealed a very long list of criminal activity at the
            NSA. The criminals, all of whom have committed millions of counts of multiple felonies, remain free and often in office because of the extreme corruption of the Bush and Obama administrations. These are the guys who need to be prosecuted — criminals like Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander and John Brennan. They’ve actually *confessed* to felonies and they haven’t been prosecuted.

          • Bob, you’re wrong. I advise you do your research. Look up the history of Drake, Binney, and the other NSA whistleblowers. Snowden knew exactly what happens to people who try to go through the official channels. He explained that he knew about a long record of retaliation against people who went to the *Inspector general’s office*, and therefore knew that it was completely unsafe to go through “official channels” — they were completely corrupt already.

            Snowden was 100% correct in everything he did and should have been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    • The way I remember it is that Bush jr. very much showed a winner-takes-all-mentality. Not much compromise from his (I mean Dick Cheney’s) site.

    • The first to block a judicial appointment for purely political reasons was the Republicans in Congress under President Clinton. Really. They were unilaterally blocking *ANY* appointment to a number of positions because they were waiting for the President to change, which is an illegitimate thing to do — they refused to even look at the nominees.

      I’ve followed this since the Reagan administration.

  • Disqus usually catches these spammers before they can hit a site. Lately the work at home jerk seems to have found a route around the Disqus spam trap.

    We get hit often, almost every day, by spam that never gets displayed.

    If you see something then flag it. It will be taken down.

  • Something that was shared by a news medium that tries to go beyond the daily hype got me thinking (they recently launched an english version, the movie hasn’t been translated to english, basically it is a short video you can share beneath a racist or inconsiderate comment to point it out to that person.

    It might help directing conversation in a useful direction again.
    The text pretty much translates to:
    Hey, Don’t fret.
    If you see this, you wrote or said something that one of your friends experienced as discriminatory or racist.
    That can happen, maybe it was a clumsily worded joke, or a comment that was misinformed. Something you didn’t know could be hurtful.
    Or maybe you were so angry at a politician that you were moved to comment on his or her apearance or descent.
    This happens to the best of us, even big bird (this last one is a reference to big bird talking to a person of colour about Black Pete and racism in The Netherlands)
    Nobody is angry at you. But maybe it would be good to put on a pot of tea and grab some biscuits and listen to the objections of the person posting this movie.
    Maybe afterwards you can explain what you meant to say or maybe admit that you were wrong in saying what you said.
    because it would be a waste if we would get into a fight about this.

    • Nice. I read a few of the articles.

  • As a Brit, who has great affection for America and Americans, it distresses me to see the polarisation in American politics/comments since the last Presidential election…
    In particular some issues seem to have been assigned as ‘red’ or ‘blue’ issues and thus any comment on them can be dismissed by those of the other hue…
    Climate Change is a blue issue, so obviously its all nonsense!
    I see occasionally in places like Slate people asking the advice column ‘I’m of blue opinion in a red state (or vice versa) and I can’t live with the (other) opinion any more’ Or ‘my partner/boyfriend/parents have different views and I just can’t stand to be around them’ – when you can’t live with different political views, things are bad ??
    (But hey – my fellow countrymen have gone mad and are voting for a brexit)
    The other thing which comes from the US and spreads like poison through the web is conspiracy theory… chemtrails, 911, Agenda 21.
    The sheer size of this ‘industry’ means the idle googler finds vast reams of conspiracist guff – “and that must mean there’s something in it, right?”
    We should shut down the internet!

  • So much for coming together on a solution, interesting comments though

  • A number of structural changes have polarized politics in the US. A number of Supreme Court decisions, starting with the Buckley case in 1977, have allowed money to be dumped into politics. Politicians who want to be reelected need to satisfy their donors and there are a large number of right-wing billionaires who don’t want to see compromise on their pet issues. Gerrymandering has created safe districts for both right and left wing congress people, so they have little incentive to compromise, because they can’t loose their seats. However, they do have to fear that a far-right Tea Party will destroy them in the primaries or a Bernie-style populist will primary them from the left. Another structural change has been the removal of balanced time for the public airwaves in the late 1980s, which gave rise to right-wing talk radio. The rise of cable further removed any obligation of balance in the media, and finally the rise of the internet has create media silos, where people are never exposed to arguments from the other side. If you live in the right-wing media silo, then you are convinced that global warming is a hoax and Obama is a Muslim who wants to take away your guns. On the other side, you are convinced that Trump is the next Hitler.

    What we should be discussing is how to:
    1. Get money out of politics (I favor public financing of elections)
    2. Eliminate gerrymandering of safe districts
    3. Reimpose equal time rules for media on the public air waves (although with cable and the internet, this is becoming less relevant)

    • No real disagreement here.

      Though, I don’t think Trump is the next Hitler, just completely unfit to be president. Same as much of the Republican Party to be honest.

      1. Definitely. It’s a hard task, but needs to be done.
      2. Agreed.
      3. Simply don’t see this happening, but it would be nice.

      • There are two problems:
        (1) Not enough people understand what the problems are and what the solutions are. I’ve been advocating proportional representation for three decades and approval voting for over two decades, but it’s only very recently that people will even *listen* to the possibilities.

        On another point, it’s clear that lifetime appointments for judges are no good, since they turn Supreme Court appointments into a high-stakes political asset, with an incentive to appoint young, doctrinaire idiots. The 14-year appointments in NY are much better. How to get anyone to think about this as an *issue*?

        (2) The vested interests don’t want to lose power; you can’t get a gerrymandered NY State Legislature to vote to end gerrymandering. It takes outside force to change it. We might change the states using federal power (as was done with Baker v Carr ./ Reynolds v. Sims) and the federal government using state power (which has never been successful). In states like California the initiative and referendum system can be used to reform the state election system.

        But it seems more likely that popular revolution (peaceful or otherwise) will be required to reform the federal election system, because that’s historically usually the only way to displace vested interests like that. The English Parliament was only reformed (1832) after mass protests, rioting, and threats of revolution. But a popular movement big enough to force the vested interests out of power can only happen with a large supermajority of people actually *understand the problem and the solutions*.

  • Get rid of the delusional fanatics. It’s a mistake to think of this as a problem with “flame wars” or a problem with “combative political discussions”. Political discussions have always gotten heated.

    It’s a problem with a group of delusional people who strongly believe a bunch of completely dishonest propaganda and cannot be reasoned with. Period.

    The most important piece of moderation any site can do is to ban the persistent deniers.

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