Don’t blame the medium, blame the messenger

It’s often said that the anonymity conferred by the internet is responsible for the nastiness that takes place.  But is it really true that if everyone knew your name that the internet would be more civil?  No doubt, some of the sniping would disappear because some are emboldened to say things from a thousand miles off that they wouldn’t say face-to-face. But is no one ever rude in face-to-face encounters these days? Have you never been excoriated by someone enraged by the fact that you dared hold a contradictory opinion? If not, I suggest you probably don’t get out much.

Moreover, I find it hard to believe that civility would reign supreme when politicians and journalists, who are well-known public figures, regularly say the vilest things about those with whom they disagree.  Paul Krugman is a recent case in point.  He blamed the shooting in Tucson on Republican populists; now he says that he’s against civility with his opponents.  What is one to take from that? I guess we’re supposed to conclude that the incivility of those with whom he disagrees causes mass shootings, while his own incivility leads to enlightened reflection. Or does he mean it’s okay to inspire people to kill his opponents?

A not-unrelated canard says you can be rude if you attach your name to your comments, while those who choose anonymity are cowards.  But how much courage does it take to insult someone a thousand miles away, who knows neither your home phone number nor your address? Not much, I say. It’s a rare fellow, after all, who’ll travel a thousand miles to give you your comeuppance.

There is really only one cause of incivility and it’s cultural: we think it’s acceptable to engage in it and we tolerate those who do. The anonymity conferred by the internet, in other words, is merely incidental to our essential willingness to engage in invective.


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