Destroying Society Even Before The Internet

John Hawkins blames the internet for the deterioration of our society:

So why has the Internet so uniquely contributed to the deterioration of our society?

Well, you have individuals from all over the world who can talk anonymously to people with whom they have no personal connection, and they can say absolutely anything without fear of being punched in the nose. Put another way, the Internet takes away all the factors that keep people from saying the rude things that they may be thinking, but wouldn’t blurt out if they were face to face with another human being. On a more sinister note, the Internet allows misfits, sexual deviants, and sociopaths to form communities outside the mainstream where they can reinforce each others’ values. Instead of being a weirdo or loner that society may be able to cajole back towards normalcy through negative social reinforcement, everyone from pedophiles and conspiracy theorists to hackers and “I did it for the lulz” trolls can meet up with hundreds of like-minded souls on the net who tell them what they’re doing isn’t abnormal; to the contrary, it’s great!

That sort of compartmentalization is one of the reasons politics has become so ferociously partisan. On the Internet, people have broken up into small, like-minded groups where they have minimal contact with people who disagree with them. As a result, there is little pressure to show respect for the opinions of people who see the world differently — since those people are, for the most part, not present. It means that facts that run contrary to their ideology will tend to be viewed with suspicion at best and will be totally ignored at worst, thereby creating groupthink on a titanic scale…

Here’s the thing about all these issues: many people act as if there is a clear delineation between “real life” and the “Internet,” but that’s simply not so. You don’t spend all day reading conspiracy websites and then forget about them when you go offline. You don’t read liberal blogs all day that refer to conservatives as Nazis and then wash that out of your brain at the end of the day. You’re not going to spend hours in online forums explaining why it’s fine to steal online music or hack into someone’s computer without having that affect the way you morally view other situations offline.

Now it’s the internet. In the past I’ve heard that comic books or television were responsible for the deterioration of society.

The internet can contribute to hyperpartisanship, but more often it reflects what is already in society. Look back at the newspapers in the early days of the nation when they were primarily advocates of a particular party. James Joyner provides some examples from the past.

In the 1950’s we had McCarthyism without the internet. During the 1960’s we saw both the excesses of some extremists in the anti-war movement. More significantly we saw the institutionalization of this hyperpartisanship in the Republican Party under Nixon and Agnew. Politics improved a bit after Nixon resigned but promoting hyperpartisanship  returned as  a primary GOP strategy with Newt Gingrich and the Republican control of Congress in the 1990’s.

Before there was the internet there was talk radio and the beginnings of Fox News.  People were capable of being both rude and hyperpartisan before the internet.

Stealing music is also nothing new. When I was in school it was common for people to borrow record albums and make cassette copies, as well as recording songs off the radio. The internet just makes it far easier (and costlier for the music industry)  but does not mean that today’s kids are any more likely to lead a life of crime due to stealing music. While you can argue about the validity of their beliefs, people do separate such copying of music from other acts. People who steal music, right or wrong, do see this as different from stealing something physical in a store. There are delineations made, and the internet is not likely to create more criminals in the real world.

Hawkins is right that the anonymity of the internet contributes to the rudeness, but there was plenty of rudeness in society before the internet. Besides, the internet also allows ways to limit the effectiveness of such rudeness. Most blogs of any size have found it necessary to either eliminate or moderate comments. The internet makes it easy for people to easily send rude comments to a number of strangers, but it also makes it easy to quickly delete such comments leaving the acts of such people fairly meaningless. We can choose what we read on line. I don’t waste any more time with the extremists on the left who regularly refer to conservatives as Nazis than I would on extremists on the right who refer to liberals as socialists or worse.

Update: Checking John’s other site I note that the current top post at Right Wing News is number five in a series of interviews with Ann Coulter. Anyone who posts five  interviews with Ann Coulter has little business giving advice on either promoting civility or avoiding hyperpartisanship. Ann Coulter also provides an example of someone who can spread her venom both with or without the internet.

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