The Internet exists in a state of nature. Anyone can say anything. Anyone can be anything – the old can be young, the ugly beautiful, a man can become a woman. The medium displays human nature in purest form, beyond the reach of fear or shame.
This explains the spread of pornographic sites. This also explains the verbal violence in political discussions, and the occasional eruption of the attack emailer and the unhinged commenter, like feral children out of Lord of the Flies: “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!”
I have read this post in Sophistpundit, “The Necessary Rules of Discussion,” and it has made me think.
Google “Bush chimp” and you get 240,000 hits; “Bush Hitler” reaches 1,460,000 hits, a demented figure. But google “Kerry traitor” and you get 113,000 hits. The left seems to be winning the race to the lunatic edge, but probably just because they are losing at everything else, and need to vent. This isn’t about ideology: it’s about barbarism. The key question concerns the reality of the kill-the-beast noise, whether it represents political viciousness in the flesh, or only a digital pose.
The necessary rules of discussion. Why “necessary”? Why shouldn’t we daub ourselves in warpaint, and shake our spears and howl at the enemy? What’s the harm of engaging in a lusty dose of aggression?
Go back to Karl Popper, to his now-neglected masterpiece The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper was primarily a philosopher of science, and he approached the subject of political debate in the same spirit. His point was a simple one. In any belief I hold, and any argument based on that belief, I might be wrong. On the basis of such humility in the face of the facts, the twin edifices of science and liberal democracy are built. I might be wrong. The other person might be right.
This means I must respect his argument, and examine it at face value – otherwise I might stay benighted and deluded. But if I respect his argument, I must respect his person. I really have no choice: how can I say, “On the one hand, I’ll treat your proposition seriously, on the other hand – kill the beast! Spill his blood!”
Out of this respect for the speaker and his potential truth, no matter how irritating, how against the grain, arise the institutions that defend and ensure free speech.
What’s to be done? Human nature is what it is. The Internet won’t be tamed, and if compulsion and intrusion are the only means to impose some order, then it shouldn’t be tamed. The digital-political Goths will persist in crying for blood, just as pornography will persist.
But if we flip the problem around, the Internet becomes the place where we can demonstrate the best of human nature – a truly “open society” governed not by laws but by self-restraint. As a model I’d propose Glenn Reynolds, the estimable Instapundit, and not only because his tone is modest to a degree that must confound the zealots right and left, but also because of his generosity in pointing readers to sites other than his own.
Other bloggers would qualify as well. Yes, there are many more howling than talking. That will always be so. The larger point, though, is that a single calm voice can often be heard above the din of a million shouting crazies – and that we should each strive to be that voice.