Monday, November 09, 2009

Unintended Consequences

I started using the Internet when I was a freshman in college back in the fall of 1995. Admittedly, I've been quite active in various message boards and/or other forums of political expression ever since. Indeed, that's even when/where I came up with the moniker, "Perplexio" which I've been using ever since. I logged into Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and wanted to come up with a screen name that reflected my personality. I really liked "Perplexion", unfortunately it was 1 character too long. The "n" dropped off. But I liked the sound of it and thus "Perplexio" was born.

That's neither here nor there though. Over the years in the various outlets of the expression of opinion-- listservs, email mailing lists, web based message boards, etc. etc. I've noticed that discussion has become increasingly more rancorous-- especially political discussion.

The anonymity of the Internet does tend to cause people to shed the shackles of restraint and say what's on their mind-- no holds barred, full speed ahead. Unfortunately, the less restraint people have the less tactful they become in the expression of their opinions. Expressing those same opinions face to face would likely cause many of us to be more tactful and careful with our choice of words; with the delivery of our message if you will.

Not bearing witness to the fruits of our words, the reactions of those who are reading them and hiding either intentionally or unintentionally behind a computer monitor can have dire results. It can cause what would normally be polite and civil discussion to turn into a venomous war of words with the bile of hatred being spewed back and forth.

As the usage of the Internet has grown substantially since it first started coming into vogue polite and civil discourse has become increasingly more rare. The level of rancor has grown and spread. It's heard on talk radio (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage), seen on TV (FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, etc.), and it permeates the Internet like a malignant tumor (, Politico,, the websites of the aforementioned Cable news networks, etc.).

And because it's become so omnipresent it's begun seeping into interpersonal relations. It's led to a de-conditioning of people's preference of intelligent, polite, and tactful discourse. In its place appears to be an overwhelming desire to not only make one's point at the expense of all other opinions but to do so in as underhanded and below the belt manner as possible. I'm not saying we're all like that, we're not. However, I do believe that this approach is becoming more and more the rule and not the exception.

There also seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to resort to over-the-top hyperbole. Whether it's Sarah Palin's reference to "death panels" in the ongoing health care debate or Nancy Pelosi referring to Americans who disagree with the Democratic majority's stance on health care as "Nazis" or "Brownshirts"-- these remarks are over the top and serve no one and inevitably weaken the credibility of the speakers (which is quite a feat considering how little credibility was there to begin with). It's fostered a very pervasive "us vs. them" or "red vs. blue" mentality as neither side is willing to discuss so much as they're willing to out-do the opposition.

Could it be that both sides have legitimate concerns and reasons for those concerns? No, because conceding any points to the opposition in this era is seen as weakness. Our founding fathers knew when to stand their ground and when to compromise (although, admittedly many of the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were likely just as rancorous, if not moreso, than the current health care debate). The difference is that those debates bore fruit! There was at least some semblance of a willingness to compromise. It doesn't appear that we even have that any longer.


drewzepmeister said...

Interesting concept on internet behavior. I've seen WAY too much bashing going on. I REFUSE to indulge in this kind of behavior. If I don't have anything to say with kindness and respect, I'm not going say anything at all...

Kevin Moriarity said...

I fully agree. I think there are three things contributing to the situation: a general coarsening of society, anonymity, and the desire for speed - to be first. I think the last factor leads to less thought, and we end up with more buzzword oriented posts than reasoned opinions.

People are also like sheep... how often do we hear or read the same "talking points" parroted over and over, gleaned from the elites in the media?

Susan as herself said...

I tend to treat the internet as I would a stranger: no talk of politics or religion. (It never ends well.)

Perplexio said...

Drew: It really is unfortunate that people's desire to express their freedom of speech increasingly comes at the expense of those they are expressing that freedom to or with. There's nothing wrong with expressing one's freedom of speech-- but generally people are more willing to listen if you use your free speech responsibly and tactfully. Kudos to you for doing just that.

Kevin: Excellent points, Kevin. The media is notoriously guilty to value speed over accuracy. They'd rather be the first to break the story and have to issue a retraction later if they're wrong than properly research and get all the facts for the most accurate story possible. I believe the fast paced nature of American culture as a whole is at the root of many of our problems. Heck I'd argue even the obesity problem in our country is related to speed. People eat faster than their brains are able to process how full their stomachs are. They keep eating long after they're actually full as their brains haven't yet gotten the message that they're full. You've already hit the nail on the head with the media being so hell-bent on being the first to break a story, and I believe even in general discussion people want to be the first to respond or the first to get their ideas out to the extent that they don't really listen to each other. Discussion and conversation has shifted from listening and responding to waiting for one's turn to speak without really paying attention to what the other person is saying... which brings us back to that breakdown in civility.

Susan: There's certainly something to be said for your approach as well. There is, after all, such a thing as being a bit TOO open with ones opinions.