It says something about our society that even after all of this time the internet can still give so many folks the screaming heebie jeebies. You cannot swing a nice four-letter expletive around without hitting a main stream media lament about the state of American discourse. The culprits, we are told, are various bloggers of the left and right, anonymous commentors with dubious language skills, and assorted other evil doers who add to the near certain ruination of our fine republic. For the most part, bloggers react to such criticism by stomping their feet and shouting, “You don’t understand me! You’ve never loved me and you never will! I hate you!” If there was an internet equivalent of running up to their room and slamming the door, I’m sure they would add that as well.
This little drama seemingly repeats itself every month or two; so often in fact that I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, except without the ability to actually change anything. The reason nothing ever changes in this scenario has to do with the intersection of human nature with the nature of the internet. Believe it or not, it is a question with philosophical import and it has quite a pedigree.
In his dialogue The Laws, Plato discusses what has to be the best analogous practice to the internet in all of the history of philosophy: the drinking party. The problem with drinking parties, obviously, is their ability to get out of hand. They become riotous affairs.
Athenian Stranger- What I’m asking is this: doesn’t the drinking of wine make pleasures, pain, the spirited emotions, and the erotic emotions, more intense?
Kleinias- Very much so.
Athenian Stranger- What about sensations, memories, opinions, and prudent thoughts? Do they become more intense in the same way? Or don’t they abandon anyone who becomes thoroughly soused?
Kleinias- Yes, they completely abandon him.
Replace the pleasurable activity of drinking wine with the pleasurable activity of online discourse and I’m not sure what is different, other than the lack of a hangover. Many media types blame the anonymity of the web for much of this, but I’m sure that misses the mark. People will gladly sign their name to examples of their bad behavior, forgoing any semblance of anonymity in the bargain. There seems to be something in the way the internet allows us to be connected and disconnected simultaneously. We can forcefully present our ideas to any number of people without ever sharing proximity with them. Some might say the internet allows people to be belligerent without fear of actually being, well, beaten to a bloody pulp. But… it never really reads that way. It reads more like people affected by, if Michael will forgive the term, Dutch courage.
Of course, not everyone gets “soused” in that special internet way. Many folks employ the internet the same way Plato advocates the use of wine. For those who take a moderate approach free discourse is encouraged and much can be learned for our mutual edification. Those who “overindulge” and thus act immoderately stick out like a sore thumb. In any society it is important to know who you can look to for their steady outlook on life, and who you want to avoid as being prone to flights of unhinged invective. Incivility is thus a positive benefit to our political order. You may be discouraged by the sheer numbers of these buffoons, but at least you aware of the actual state of the polity and are not deceived by polite appearances.
In fact, for all the complaining about the coarseness of political discourse today, it might be worse in an unfailingly “proper” society. As Rousseau stated in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts:
One no longer dares to appear as he is; and in this perpetual constraint, the men who form the herd called society, placed in the same circumstances, will all do the same things unless stronger motives deter them. Therefore one will never know well those with whom he deals, for to know one’s friends thoroughly, it would be necessary to wait for emergencies-that is, to wait until it is too late…
Lucky thing for us we live in a time with no such difficulties. Thanks to the wonderfully intoxicating properties of the internet we can all have a clear idea of just who we are dealing with in this cyber world. We may at times be distressed at the depths people will descend to in the name of their political ideology, but we will always know the true score thanks to those moments of incivility.
So, with pure philosophical purpose in our voices we can heartily say, “Thanks, jerks.”