05 September 2008

crank - noun
2. Informal. an ill-tempered, grouchy person.
3. an unbalanced person who is overzealous in the advocacy of a private cause.
-- dictionary.com

"Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they've got nothing to lose."
-- Robin Williams
This past week I came to the conclusion that cranks are the ugly people of the internet, and getting into a debate with them is more than an exercise in futility. Ideologically, they have nothing to lose. The rules of debate and civil conduct are out the window.

The internet was created for the exchange of ideas and the further evolution of knowledge. It was a tool researches used to compare notes. We have been told that the interconnectedness of people from all over the planet will help us become a more tolerant, understanding species.

The problem is "birds of a feather flock together." The unseemly downside of this much connectedness is that heretofore pockets of extremists remained more or less isolated from one another. A nutjob in Bangalore wasn't a mouse click away from a moonbat in Canada. A wingnut in Alabama would most likely not become best friends with a crank in Berlin. So for all the talk of bringing people together, the internet seems best at bringing together the fractured pieces of society, making us far more polarized and far less forgiving of opposing viewpoints.

I think this goes a long way in explaining why American politics are so divisive. Innuendo, gossip and downright lies have always traveled faster than the truth. Nowadays they travel at the speed of light, and there are online communities foaming at the mouth more more justification for their private causes, craving more fuel for their fires.
"Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one."
-- Sting
What we find is groupthink at its finest. No room for opposing viewpoints, no hope for an honest exchange of ideas and perhaps some sort of ideological compromise.

And this brings me to the Robin Williams quote at the top of this page. A moderate person attempting to debate a crank is like picking a fight with an ugly person. The moderate voice will cede certain points, form an argument, present facts. The crank responds with non sequitors, straw men, emotional lambasting and vitriol. In short, a crank fights dirty. And why not? The crank is stewing in his own juices, his ideological house of cards buttressed by likeminded individuals. There is no reason to challange his own thinking on a given topic, because all he hears is "you're right." And a fellow is naturally inclined to believe he's right to the bitter end.

I recognize that the only thing I can do is continue to challenge my own beliefs; to wander across the aisle and wade into the muck from time to time. Such is my confidence in my ability to discern that I'm not afraid to consider opposing viewpoints. In my youth I was a crank-in-training, shouting down friends in arguments over politics. I've mellowed a bit. Some may say I've just grown up.

I suppose my willingness to challenge myself damns me to encounter cranks. Maybe I'll do a better job not engaging them in conversation.
"'I can't believe that!' said Alice.

"'Can't you?' the queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

"Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

"'I dare say you haven't had much practice,' said the queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'
-- Lewis Carroll

"Never try to teach a pig to sing. You waste your time and you annoy the pig."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

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