I think we can all agree, the World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. After all, if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be reading my ramblings right now. And I do appreciate all my readers.
More importantly, the sharing of ideas and information around the world helps promote both knowledge and democracy. It demolishes stereotypes, diminishes ignorance and reduces fear.
But I fear the rise of instantaneous, worldwide communication, coupled with the anonymity of the Web, is also contributing to the decline of civil discourse.
It’s easy to hide behind our online identities. That makes it easy to say things we might not say if we were identified by name. Normally, that’s a good thing (the Walrus said). It contributes to a free-spirited discussion. In nations with repressive governments, anonymity can be a matter of life or death for activists trying to change things.
But that very level of anonymous commenting also breeds a certain level of nastiness, one that I fear is becoming more prevalent.
Check out the comments on just about any news source website. It’s becoming exceptionally rare to find a story, any story, on any subject, that someone hasn’t seen fit to make partisan political comments about. And not just typical politics, but really angry screeds that disintegrate into name-calling and insults.
More and more commenters are getting personal with their slurs. They often reject the idea that people who disagree with them are even human, let alone entitled to a different opinion.
And that leads to a reaction, but probably not the one that the posters intend. Instead of agreement, such arguments tend to turn people off, leading to a cynical sense of “a pox on both your houses.”
There are darker corners as well. While searching for something entirely unrelated the other day, I stumbled across a vicious, angry, misogynist site whose posters clearly view women as something less than human. I felt like I needed a shower after reading such trash. Other sites promote racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against those defined as “others.” It’s enough to discourage even the most ardent free speech absolutist.
But here’s the thing — I pretty much AM that First Amendment absolutist. As much as I’d like to see the slime disappear, I am compelled to fight to protect it. I firmly believe the antidote to hate speech is more speech, not less. If we try to suppress hate speech, we give it power and mystery. Better to hash it out in the open, no matter how repugnant we may find it. Free speech is not always pretty, but it is necessary.
Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword knew what they were talking about. Words are powerful. Choose them wisely.