THE BLOG
01/15/2015 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The New Wild West

2015-01-15-shutterstock_49558354.jpg

An unhappy target of uncivil speech on the Internet (not me)* Photo by doglikehorse * Licensed through Shutterstock, Inc.

"Shut up, you're such a baby!"

That's the comment "peter" posted about my Bloomberg Businessweek online column on the ethics of office gambling. There are two problems with ad hominem attacks like this:

They're uncivil, and they say nothing about the validity of the argument under discussion.

Nastygrams are common in the virtual world, where many of us spend a lot of our time, and they're not just on Twitter and Facebook; I've seen comments on the websites of The New York Times and other highbrow publications that are more churlish than the one above. Is our society less civil than it used to be?

According to the annual report Civility in America, 71 percent of the people surveyed believe this is the case. Of course, we've been complaining for a long time that things have gotten worse. Consider this statement about young people: "They have bad manners and contempt for authority. They show disrespect for their elders. They chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

Widely attributed to Socrates, this quotation actually comes from Kenneth John Freeman's 1907 dissertation at Cambridge University, in which Freeman discussed ancient views of the young. Any way you slice it, though, the belief that behavior was better in the past has been around for generations.

I'm not convinced that our society has devolved. With respect to medicine and voting rights, for example, we're better off today. When a 1920s character in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris claims that the Belle Epoque was the golden age, another retorts that to people from the late 19th century, "the golden age was the Renaissance. They'd all trade the Belle Epoque to paint alongside Michelangelo or Titian. And those guys probably thought life was better when Kubla Khan was around." The world probably isn't a less civil place now; it just seems that way.

But as "peter" reminds us, there is a place where it's easier than ever to engage in uncivil behavior with people you don't even know: the modern-day Wild West known as the Internet. Online we can hide our identities, so we can say whatever we want without fear of reprisal. It may be the first time in history in which actions have no consequences. (It's Plato's Ring of Gyges problem that you probably studied in your college philosophy class, but that classical thought experiment is now a real concern).

One way to drastically reduce uncivil behavior on the Internet would be to require that everyone's full name, photograph, and contact information be posted next to anything he or she writes online. Unfortunately, holding people accountable in such a fashion would also make it less likely for some to speak their minds freely, which could hamper the flow of enriching ideas. And an online debate, no matter how polite, could lead to physical violence, since it would be easy to track down someone who says things others don't like.

Tolerating uncivil behavior, unfortunately, is the price we have to pay for virtual communication. I don't like reading hateful responses to the things I online, but the alternative -- a policy that stifles speech -- is a lot worse.

I wish, though, that more people would have the respectfulness and humility of Patrick Henry, a former professor of religious studies at Swarthmore College, which I attended . "I believe this with all my heart," Professor Henry used to say about his faith. "But I may be wrong."

This post was originally published in a slightly different form in the Swarthmore College Bulletin.

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