News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When the town cafe rules the town

Blogs are to the literate world what the Mexican drug cartels are to the world of free enterprise. Many of my friends and associates never read blogs and the fact that I blog is regarded by some of them as a social disease that they pity and wish I would get over. 

Some people like to call blogs "citizen journalism."  And some bloggers try to maintain a level of information, thoughtfulness and civility on their blogs that rise above the mean, the petty, and the stupid.  But the people who choose to comment on the blogs soon reduce them to scurrilous exchanges of made-up, false information and puerile name-calling and accusations.  Some blogs, however, emanate from those same kinds of voices that drip with petty hatred and the intolerant resentments that possess America's educational failures.  

If blogs are journalism, their big story is the chronicling of the nation's intellectual and  moral failures.  They are part of the social media's role in the dissolution of civility, intelligence, and good will. They record the fact that education, true literacy, and decency are not values honored by many in current society. 

The social media have formed themselves on the lines of a much despised and ridiculed feature of small town life:  the town cafe.  I have not had much personal experience with small town cafes, but I have read thousands of student papers in which they were brought up as a detraction of small town life. 

One of the  most frustrating writing assignments for students was for them to analyze their home towns, putting their own perceptions in the context of scientific and more objective sources of information.  It was also one of the more productive assignments because it required students to gather and use the materials of critical reasoning and confront the way their affections and disaffections related to cold, hard facts.  For the professors who read the assignments, the information and thinking presented by the students made the assignment much more informative than most and often even pleasurable to read.  The experience was like visiting the towns they described.

For the students who came from the smaller towns, a central topic was the town cafe.  The students were asked in their planning and pre-writing to think about social detractions in their towns.  The town cafe was almost universally mentioned by the young writers from smaller towns, and very seldom in a positive way.  Some students described them with good-humored ridicule.  Many avoided and dismissed them as a feature they would not bother with, if at all possible.  Other students reviled them as a decadent and destructive force in town life.  Some of the bitterest accounts came from young women who worked in town cafes as waitresses during their high school years.  They could provide detailed recounting of the gossip sessions they witnessed in the town  cafes and how the people who gathered over coffee would turn speculations about some young people in town, particularly attractive young women whose parents were not prominent, into vicious and destructive slanders.  The  bitterness of such accounts remains in my memory with intense vividness.

My personal observations of the town cafe culture became focused when my wife and I were involved in placing foreign exchange students in homes.  The small town placements were where the real problems occurred, and we had to find different settings for the students.  The problem was that the small town culture is often divided into warring factions between a self-appointed elite and an underclass.  The would-be elite was generally the group that dominated the town cafe and issued its pronouncements on the town population.  The exchange students found themselves being vied for and forced to side with a town faction.  The experience was horrible and bewildering for them, and we spent a great deal of time  working with teachers and administrators on the problem, extracting the students from the situation, and finding different homes and communities for them.  We had to write detailed, documented reports which were reviewed by the sponsoring organization along with people from State Department, and the communities were put on a confidential list of schools and communities for which we were forbidden to make placements.  I've often wondered if these communities realized that they had earned that distinction.

However, the hundreds of accounts of small town life and the role of the town cafe presented in student papers comprise a formidable condemnation.  In talking about those papers with a school district superintendent, he commented that when small towns teeter toward the brink of collapse, a first measure they should take is to close the town cafe to the coffee-drinking gossips.  He said they drive people away from the community and destroy the good will needed to sustain main street.  

Discussion boards, blogs, and the social media have spread the verbal destruction of the town cafe.  Most newspapers have dropped their discussion boards, although some of them invite comments after individual stories in an attempt to keep the discussion news-inspired.  That doesn't stop the ignorant, stupid, and mean from asserting themselves.  What the media have found, and bloggers in the competition for hits are slow to understand, is that the comments of the trolls and impaired define the nature of the community.  The fact that they comprise a minority doesn't change the fact that they inject an element that diminishes the integrity of the medium, and therefore the community.  The comments on Internet media reflect the worst that humans can think and say and drive away people of loftier and constructive intent.   

The Northern Valley Beacon began to be a voice for a county political party, and four women signed on as contributors.  At first, the blog was an open forum where the contributors signed their names and tried to maintain a level of civility and intelligence, but very quickly they began to find themselves the targets of insult, harassment, and abuse.  One of them was the target of an insulting and abusive phone call that was answered by one of her children.  Others found that they were the targets of that peculiarly puerile form of insult and abuse that once characterized playground bullies but became the standard of wit and expression that characterizes many blogs.   Eventually, all my co-contributors quit blogging.

The experience with blogging motivated one of them to go into the study of communication and rhetoric.  She is working on a group project that analyzes the content and influence of blogs.  One of her concerns is the few women who produce politically-oriented blogs and how quickly and irrevocably women tend to abandon them.  One of my former blogging associates, Val, says she doesn't frequent blogs for the same reason she doesn't go to biker bars:  a repulsive and objectionable clientele.  Erin, who is working on the study, tells me that is the attitude she finds among women.  They see the customs and behavior on blogs of same kind encountered from grade school bullies.  And as they did in grade school, women simply dismiss them as inconsequential to their lives and avoid them.

My own persistence in blogging--although I am becoming convinced it is a waste--comes from my interest in the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web as communicative tools of infinite possibility.  But when even the most useful and constructive tools are put to destructive and degrading use, their value is diminished to the point that we must consider whether they have an ultimate value.  

The Internet is a tool through which anyone with access to a computer can exercise free speech in front of an audience.  But what many of those who exercise their right of free speech do not understand is that while they have an inherent right to express themselves, the right to be heard has to be earned.  And people have the concomitant right to evaluate and dismiss what they hear.  Much of what is transmitted on the Internet is the exchange of ignorance, the utterance of the product of incompetent reasoning, the expression that issues from a degraded, petty malice.  Its authors retreat into the justification that they are participating in political dialogue and are exercising the right to voice their opinions.  Opinions are not equal in terms of the facts on which they are formed and the reasoning process by which they are formed. 

At the behest of the non-literate portion who uses it, the Internet has become the town cafe of the world.  It has not become the medium of exchange of critical information and informed discussion that it has the potential to be.  It is still used for that, but in carefully secured and guarded forums that the general public does not and cannot have access to.

The question facing the literate world is if it wants the culture and its politics shaped by the worst and lowest that humankind can think and say.  in all the discussion about education and the future of the country, that question is the overriding one.   

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Interesting post. I have concluded that some of our SD communities are small enough that some gossips think they know everything, but large enough that the really don't.

Keep posting on your blog. Now and then you make us think a bit.

If newspapers and other "mainstream" media keep dumbing down content and increasing prices, adding "paywalls", etc. blogs may end up being the survivors.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States