People often show extraordinary kindness to other people. Tornado victims assist one another; fundraisers are organized for those who lose their homes to fire; strangers come to the aid of the wounded after a bombing. When acts of goodness occur, we celebrate the human capacity for good.
People are also capable of extraordinary cruelty. I'm not talking about violent crime. I'm referring instead to anonymous posting on the Internet.
If you ever feel a need to despair for the future of the human race, I suggest you read anonymous comments posted on various websites. Pick most any website that allows anonymous posting and you will see what I mean. Most comments are fine, but there are far too many hostile ones.
If you enjoy a mix of poor grammar and adolescent obscenities, for example, try YouTube. Even the most innocuous videos can receive foul-mouthed responses. Below a video of Broadway actor Andrew Rannells belting out "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon on a Tony Awards broadcast, someone took the time to write, "Mormons believe some f****ed up sh*t."
Internet trolls, as they're called, set out to sow discord, harass others, hurl insults or start arguments, just for the sake of arguing. The sheer amount of ugly anonymous public commentary on the Web resembles the dystopian universe created by novelist George Saunders in which the "Normals" disdain the "Flaweds" and are resented and despised in return.
The Digital Age has brought the anonymous comment to a new low. Anybody with a smartphone can fire off an obnoxious quip with lightning speed. Twitter and other such benign digital tools have become playgrounds for those who find satisfaction in hurling insults with impunity and without accountability.
When print newspapers were media kings, anonymous letters to the editor were typically rejected. You still must sign your name and verify your address at most papers in order to register your opinion in print. Now those letters appear online as well, and anonymous haters and supporters alike can battle it out in the comments sections.
A few years ago I took some journalism students on a tour of the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer. The digital gurus there were still trying to get a handle on how to deal with anonymous commenters. How much monitoring should take place? Should it be a free-for-all, or should there be some censorship? How does a digital editor maintain decorum?
One of the editors stated the issue succinctly: "We're still trying to figure out if a lot of people are commenting, or if it's just the same 12 people talking to each other."
This is my suspicion whenever I log onto a paper like The Washington Post. I'll see that some story has generated 5,000-plus comments, and wonder how many of those are the same people doing multiple posts. Many of these repeat offenders insult each other using such clever slurs as "Dimocrats," "Libtards," "Tea Party idiots" and so on.
Full disclosure: I have submitted (grammatically correct and curse-free) comments to news stories online using an alias. Each time I did it, I felt guilty and a little slimy. I am writing this column in part to publicly declare -- under my own name -- that I will no longer practice anonymous commenting. Going forward, if I have something to say, I will identify myself and state my opinion, and I encourage others to do so.
The First Amendment is a wonderful thing. We should use it wisely. All along the political spectrum, admirers cite the courage of the Founding Fathers. Yet, what if Patrick Henry had submitted his "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech anonymously? What if the Declaration of Independence had been published with no signatures? John Hancock made sure his signature on the Declaration was large and flamboyant, so much so, his name has become synonymous with signing one's name to a document.
Conversely, The Federalist Papers were published anonymously. The "author," known as Publius, was actually the trio of John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Publishing political tracts under pseudonyms was standard practice in the Colonial period, in part to focus attention on the argument itself rather than the leanings of the writer. Attacks and opposing opinions might be directed at the paper that printed an essay, as opposed to attacking an individual. Had The Federalist Papers been published anonymously on the Web today, anonymous commenters would attack the anonymous authors with foul language and syntactically challenged sentences with little punctuation to the point of cyberspace oblivion...
The current decline in civil discourse comes from many quarters. Politicians and citizens decry the lack of common courtesy in debates large and small. I maintain that anonymity on the Web is one factor in this decline, and if everyone with an opinion to share had to back up that opinion with a signature, there might be more restraint. Too often the comments section of a website reads as though it's dominated by snickering 13-year-old boys trying out curse words for the first time.
Let's all drop the weird usernames and have the courage of our convictions. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and sign your John Hancock.