Thursday, January 29, 2015

It's The Internet, Stupid: "The Real Problem with Public Discourse"

For readers too young to remember, "It's the economy, stupid" was a variant of the line Bill Clinton's #1 strategist for the '92 campaign, James Carville, came up with to motivate and focus the campaign's workers.

From Drexel University's The Smart Set:

"the stamp act sux thanks obama"
From Humphrey Ploughjogger to plowjag666
I distinctly remember when I stopped reading online comments about my essays. For some time I had been reading them on a website of a magazine that published me and allowed unedited comments. To my disappointment, no knowledgeable critic had pointed out errors in my work that I could correct, or made informed arguments that forced me to rethink my position. The commenters seemed more interested in insulting one another. 

Mrpoophispants, for example. The avatar that went with the name showed a wailing baby in diapers. (I have changed the name and image slightly, to protect the guilty). In the comments section under my essay, Mrpoophispants accused the Incredible Hulk (again, I have slightly changed the name) of being like Hitler. No, the green and musclebound Hulk told the baby in diapers, you are like Hitler. It went downhill from there.
I remember thinking: Really, who insults people online while hiding behind the screen name of Mrpoophispants? Around that time I had read about the case of a well-respected dentist who was outed as a notorious online troll. (And you wonder what your doctors are doing, while they keep you waiting — they are writing snarky comments about newspaper columnists and TV anchors). I had also read that online commenters are disproportionately middle-aged and elderly men. This information helped me to imagine my online commenter’s alter ego, his Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne:
Bob Anderson, 64, chuckled to himself, as he settled down in his Snuggies behind his computer, having returned from picking up his arthritis meds at the drugstore. A whole afternoon of anonymous online vituperation against famous authors and other online commentators awaited him. And the best thing about it was, nobody in his life — not his parents, his adult children, his grandchildren, not his neighbors nor the members of his church congregation—knew that Bob Anderson, retired accountant, family man, churchgoer and pillar of his suburban community, was really the infamous scourge of the Internet, that dreaded and admired titan among trolls, Mrpoophispants.
I thought of Mrpoophispants when I read Jonathan Chait’s widely-discussed essay for New York magazine, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” and Glenn Greenwald’s response, “The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists.” For what is worth, I think both get a lot right — but they also get some things wrong.
Unlike Chait, I think that public discourse is threatened less by a resurgence of 1990s-style political correctness than by Internet-enabled anonymity (yes, Mrpoophispants, I’m talking about you). Wearing a mask tends to liberate repressed impulses; that was the whole point of Venetian costume ball masks and the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Allowed to hide their identities, progressives, conservatives, and centrists alike are liable to abandon self-restraint and hoot and shriek from the safety of anonymity in an online mob. Anonymity turns the Internet into the Id Net....MORE