The availability of information, in both volume and speed, has been one of the key contributions made by technological innovation in fostering incivility. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, does breed contempt. But, the greater threat to civility and civil behaviors is most certainly the cloak and veil that technology now provides to each and every one of us in our dealings with each other.
It is a fascinating condition of the human race; that we embrace both the best and worst that a technology has to offer. While I will spend some time today writing about chat rooms, avatars and hate-speech camoflauged as political commentary – the tendency for humans to use and misuse an innovation applies to stone wheels just as much as it does to bits and bytes.
The lowly hammer; it is most commonly used to build things. Hammering nails and framing houses, or fixing the dog house are natural activities for this technological innovation that took us beyond pounding some form of a peg with a large rock. But, that same hammer on many occasions, has been wielded and brandished as a weapon. Pounding a nail or bashing a skull – humans seem to find the light and dark within every single implement. Guns, axes, dynamite, atom smashing, oxycontin; the list of innovations that we corrupt is as long as history itself.
Computer based technology is no different, but the consequences for civility are just as concerning. The darkest aspect of technology, even darker than our continuous exposure to on-line fraud and theft, is the lack of responsibility and accountability that the anonymity of a virtual personality provides. The disconnectedness of being constantly connected manifests in the tendency for human beings to say things in an internet chatroom or on a comment string associated with a news story that they would never, ever say in the presence of a real live human being.
I’ll use an example to highlight how frightening the veil of anonymity has become, and how easy it is to be uncivil in the virtual world. I could link this posting to hundreds, if not thousands, of comments to news stories. But, a recent story in my hometown is certainly as good as any to drive home the point. On September 23, 2009 the Columbus Dispatch reported on a local speech given by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood took issue with conservative talk show hosts, suggesting that their analysis and rhetoric (“trash talk”) had contributed to a decline in civility.
As I have written before, I don’t find that I learn much about civility by observing or researching politicians or political analysts. We live in an age where conservatives use inflammatory words and phrases but deny that they have any responsiblity for the potential consequences should things get out of control. And, in this same age, liberals are screaming for a more civil discourse and the complete elimination from memory of any of the bad behaviors and vitriolic rhetoric that they leveraged when they were in the minority.
I’m reminded of what Will Rogers had to say about the state of political behavior in the United States some 80 years ago – “I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him “father.”"
What I would ask of you is that you read the comments to this news article, as many of the 1265 as you can stomach. Rather than addressing whether Mr. LaHood’s argument is defensible (are conservative talk show hosts contributing to a decline in civility), the comments immediately focus on demanding that the reader subscribe to one political ideology or another. Since I am in the mood for quotes today, the seething anger and vicious statements made by commentators on this news story recalls a point by Oscar Wilde “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”
Hate, racism, rants, venom – all of these uncivil aspects of discourse, and more, manifest themselves in the comments to this news story. Many of the people on this comment thread could be your neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, your boss or your community leaders. Unfortunately, we can’t tell, because no one knows for sure who they are really are. In fact, one of them might be you. With names like “theTruth”, “Troll”, “Legal American” and “Master Yoda” not only are we denied the opportunity to know who is writing, the writer is given carte blanche to be as uncivil as they want to be. Read some of the most antagonistic postings in this thread, and then wonder on whether the person who wrote it would be inclined to say the same thing – verbatim – in church or at a PTA meeting. Would they be so bold to stand up in a meeting of Rotarians, a Chamber of Commerce or a school board meeting and share the same sentiments? Not only is the answer a resounding “no”, most of these writers would be personally embarassed to make such offensive comments in any public setting.
But, the internet changes everything. The upstanding citizen within our community that deems the anonymous “tagging” of a train box car with graffiti that points out any number of social ills in our inner city as a blight on society, sees no parallel to their own anonymous “tagging” of news stories and blog posts in the same light. The graffiti artist is a social misfit (as opposed to an artist), but an anonymous commentator spouting a hate filled response is not? The anonymity of the internet has created an environment where the absolute worst aspects of our human nature manifest themselves; stalking, pedophilia, bullying to the point of driving someone to suicide, revenge postings of nude photographs of former girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses.
If you were invisible, and could not be held responsible for what you say or do – what would you do with such power? Maybe you don’t need to think about an answer to this thought experiment. Maybe all you need to do is re-read some of the postings you have made in the vast anonymity of the internet. Maybe being invisible has made us much less civil.