pageok
pageok
pageok
Disinhibition Nation:
This column by Dan Henninger in today's Wall Street Journal has much within it with which I disagree. Not the least is that it purports to be about blogs and blogging, but is actually about the Internet writ large, including chat rooms and IM. Even with respect to blogging, it seems to rely more on the tone of anonymous commenters than on bloggers themselves, especially those who blog in their own name, which nowadays describes the best-read blogs. Nevertheless, it raises some interesting issues that we internet partisans should consider. Two in particular strike me as worthy of discussion. The first is the coarsening of public discourse:
Intense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars. Now it is normal discourse on Web sites, the most popular forums for political discussion. Much of this is new. Politics is a social endeavor. The Web is nothing if not "social." But the blogosphere is also the product not of people meeting, but venting alone at a keyboard with all the uninhibited, bat-out-of-hell hyperbole of thinking, suggestion and expression that this new technology seems to release.
One of the things I find off-putting about comments is their snarkiness and vitriol. And, lest I be misunderstood, I think this tone exists in all ideological corners, which brings up the issue of the coarsening of discourse generally. And, lest I be further misunderstood, ever since I was a criminal prosecutor, my own language is far from pristine. Indeed, I consider my year as a research fellow at the University of Chicago after practice to be a sort of cold-turkey therapy for cleaning up my language in preparation to being an academic. But I never returned to the status quo ante.

However, I am not really concerned with whether expletives are becoming more common today, but with Henninger's main point about tone and vitriol that he suggests comes from a lack of inhibition that is peculiar to the internet, and that I believe has worsened over the past (pick your own time span). To what degree is the internet in general, or blogging in particular, responsible for this coarsening and is there anything to be done about it?

Henninger's second and more interesting observation is an alleged cause of the first:
Not surprisingly, a new vocabulary has emerged from clinical psychology to describe generalized patterns of behavior on the virtual continent. As described by psychologist John Suler, there's dissociative anonymity (You don't know me); solipsistic introjection (It's all in my head); and dissociative imagination (It's just a game). This is all known as digital identity, and it sounds perfectly plausible to me.

A libertarian would say, quite correctly, that most of this is their problem, so who cares? But there is one more personality trait common to the blogosphere that, like crabgrass, may be spreading to touch and cover everything. It's called disinhibition. Briefly, disinhibition is what the world would look like if everyone behaved like Jerry Lewis or Paris Hilton or we all lived in South Park.

Example: The Web site currently famous for enabling and aggregating millions of personal blogs is called MySpace.com. If you opened its "blogs" page this week, the first thing you saw was a blogger's video of a guy swilling beer and sticking his middle finger through a car window. Right below that were two blogs by women in their underwear.

In our time, it has generally been thought bad and unhealthy to "repress" inhibitions. Spend a few days inside the new world of personal blogs, however, and one might want to revisit the repression issue.

The human species has spent several hundred thousand years sorting through which emotions and marginal neuroses to keep under control and which to release. Now, with a keyboard, people overnight are "free" to unburden and unhinge themselves continuously and exponentially. One researcher quotes the entry-page of a teenage girl's blog: "You are now entering my world. My pain. My mind. My thoughts. My emotions. Enter with caution and an open mind."

The power of the Web is obvious and undeniable. We diminish it at our peril. But what if the most potent social effect to spread outward from the Internet turns out to be disinhibition, the breaking down of personal restraints and the endless elevation of oneself? It may be already.
Readers of blogs like this one are likely to be personally familiar with "dissociative anonymity" (You don't know me). "solipsistic introjection" (It's all in my head); "dissociative imagination" (It's just a game), and "disinhibition," if such mindsets are truly prevalent. If you are honest with yourself, would you say (anonymously of course) that you notice these traits in yourself? If so, what do you do, or think can be done, to counteract them? I would find an candid and nonsnarky discussion of these ideas more useful than a deconstruction of Henninger's column that lives down to his expectations of blogging.
Roger Sweeny (mail):
"Repress." Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. In the 1950s, it was intellectual conventional wisdom that people repressed themselves too much, that it was unhealthy, etc., etc. Why, hadn't Freud proved it?

In the 60s and 70S, the idea went down-market, sweeping just about everybody who was under 30 or wanted to be.

It also became obvious about then that the simple anti-repression model didn't work. People who "let out" their anger didn't lose it; they became more angry. People who didn't practise some repression weren't people you wanted to be around.

Most everybody knows that Roadrunner/Coyote violence isn't the same as real violence. You can draw things, say things, imagine things in a cartoon that you would never do in real life. Watching Wile E. Coyote get blown up doesn't mean you will look kindly on suicide bombers.

Sometimes on the web, people try out things, put on a performance, that they would not do in real life. I suspect that most of them are aware that things that are appropriate in one circumstance should be repressed in another.
4.21.2006 2:37pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
Are the comments actually more snarky, or are the just perceived that way since they lack the various non-verbal cues people use to soften things in conversation?
4.21.2006 2:44pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
Without the Internet, we wouldn't have stuff like this: http://us.vclart.net/vcl/
4.21.2006 2:47pm
JosephSlater (mail):
(1) As much as possible, use your real name and have real contact information. Yes, that can be risky for some in some contexts, but appearing as yourself makes it less likely that you will free to say whatever you want.

(2) Don't post in haste. When e-mail first came out, there was much discussion of how the ease of writing fast and clicking led to less thoughtfulness and more rudeness. Excellent advice from this site: "Reread your post, and think of what people would think if you said this over dinner. If you think people would view you as a crank, a blowhard, or as someone who vastly overdoes it on the hyperbole, rewrite your post before hitting enter."

(3) As with any debate, try to see if you have any common ground with the person you're disagreeing with. You might be surprised that you share some common goals, albeit not the same tactics or political strategies to achieve those goals.

(4) It's lazy and unhelpful to make ad homimen attacks.

(5) But it is true that some people are just performing or seeing what they can get away with. Pass 'em by.

(6) Teenagers (on Myspace or elsewhere) being melodramtic, maudlin, and self-obsessed? That's not news. Just hope that some of them get some good songs or creative writing out of it.
4.21.2006 2:53pm
Thief (mail) (www):
At least when it comes to political blogging:

1. "Dissociative anonymity" - as programmers say, that's not a bug, that's a feature. I think it is the most useful part of blogging, in that it seperates the person from the material 1. It forces the authors' to be judged on their own merits, not those of the author. 2. Anonymity protects authors from real-world reprisals. (If everyone knew my real name and job, and read what I write in that context, I wouldn't last very long.)

2. "Disinhibition" - To the point where it creates candor and allows people to say what they truly think, it's a net positive. When it degenerates into name-calling and ad hominem attacks (or worse), it adds nothing and leaves a foul taste. (Which is why I try very hard not to do it, ever.) Disinhibition is to blogging what spices are to food: horrible if taken straight, but if used in small quantities and in the right places, add flavor to something potentially dull.

3. As to how to avoid #2, at least in terms of blogging about politics, is to remember that "the personal IS NOT political." When the personal is political, every relationship, every problem, every solution, every idea, every act, every word, every thought becomes significant. Making what should be personal political means that politics becomes a mandatory game; and since the politics are absolute, every victory is hard-fought, every loss is a catastrophe, and every moment must be spent in the struggle, because otherwise you lose everything. Loving politics is fine, but don't let it become your life. Otherwise, disappointment and anger are inevitable. And these to the Dark Side lead...
4.21.2006 3:00pm
SenatorX (mail):
I am not so sure disinhibition is a bad thing. For one thing there is a big difference between saying anything you want and doing anything you want. Personally I like being able to comment anonymously. Absolutely there is a relaxing of inhibitions and this allows me to take risks that I would not be able to take in face to face interaction.

Isn't that most of the point though? As much as I come to The Volokh Conspiracy for the blogs, I come for the opinions of commenter's, and to see if my opinions (new and habitual) can be vetted. The last thing I would want to do is read comment after comment of agreements. If someone writes pure vitriol (and I get to decide what that is), writes in giant blocks with no spacing, or writes in all CAPS, I can scroll on by with my handy wheel mouse.

Basically it's like a training ground for gaining new and more sophisticated perspectives and ideas. You could say we should all identify ourselves but until there is a real benefit for me to do so, why should I? Why gain risk with no reward?

The power of the Web is obvious and undeniable. We diminish it at our peril. But what if the most potent social effect to spread outward from the Internet turns out to be disinhibition, the breaking down of personal restraints and the endless elevation of oneself? It may be already.

Change "Elevation" to "re-evaluation". The whole world is full of people and ideals that try to get individuals to DE-VALUE themselves in favor of others or the other's ideals. If being able to be anonymous is self empowering for people then that is a good thing as far as I am concerned. It's not like there are no incentives for people to conform to different blog standards. They are just not physically coercive, yet.
4.21.2006 3:08pm
Cornellian (mail):
Blog commenters are vitriolic? What an pathetically stupid suggestion - that article was obviously written by a drooling, gibbering moron.

(heh just kidding).

Actually having seen Randy Barnett speak, I admit I'm having a hard time imagining him as a foul mouthed, hard core prosecutor.
4.21.2006 3:11pm
Cecilius:
It seems that Henninger conflates a few different issues. As far as blogging "disinhibition" goes, he's got some valid points. I comment under a pseudonym so that I can argue a few points without any of them ever coming back to haunt me. I would not make them under my own name. But it's more of a caution than a freedom. You never know what can return to bite you in the rear. I rarely post things on a blog that I wouldn't say to someone face to face (however, conversation leaves no written record to wave around at a later date).

Occassionally, I do play devil's advocate, arguing with other commenters on issues I either am undecided about or don't care much about. I'm a young attorney. Arguing is my job. I can use the practice. I need no practice at making nasty remarks, so it's not something I do (much). Contrary to what some may think, it takes much more effort to write, proofread, and post than it does to blurt out something profane and belittling in the heat of a disagreement.

As for some of Henninger's other examples, it included video of real life behavior. While a blog may give more exposure, the beer-swilling, etc. was uninhibited behavior out in the real world - and not exactly new age, ground-breaking stuff, either. At worst, the Internet may act as a mere amplifier, giving cries for attention, vulgarity, moonbat rants, preening, and psychotherapy a wider audience. The creation and release of anti-social behavior and neuroses has its foundation elsewhere. Probably adolescence.
4.21.2006 3:15pm
Anonymous Parent (mail):
I will give you a personal example of disinhibition. We have a 19 year old daughter. She posts on a site called LiveJournal. My wife figured out her password (quite easily). She writes the most incredibly disinhibited stuff on her journal page, for all her friends to read. Some of it turns out not to be true, but a lot is. We, as parents, have used it to figure her out, as she has been dishonest with us in person about several issues. We are careful not to give away our source of information.

In a way, this is the equivalent of finding your kid's diary under the pillow in the old days and reading it. But this seems to go way beyond that.
4.21.2006 3:56pm
Houston Lawyer:
Tie this in to the recent article on judging someone based on how he treats the wait staff. By posting anonymously, you can reveal your true thoughts without fear of retribution. Those who are prone to bad behavior will continue that bad behavior when blogging or commenting.

People have long memories. I've been confronted years later for letters I wrote to the student newspaper when in college. Sometimes you can be more successful than you intended in upsetting those who disagree with you.
4.21.2006 4:05pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
1. But consider that at the time of the Framing, anonymous writing was virtually the rule. Publius, the Federal Farmer, etc.. Yet those bits of discourse were quite civil.

2. A look at small town newspapers circa 1890 will show that they were very personalized, not institutionalized, and went at each other tooth and nail. An editorial might cite the rival paper's editorial and call it more drivel from an idiot.

3. Every movement or position has some lunatic fringe. Traditionally gatekeepers (editor of letter to the editor, etc.) screened those out (except when necessary to quote them to make the other side look bad in a news article). On the other hand, they also screened out any non-lunatic thoughts that they didn't like. You pays your money and takes you choices.
4.21.2006 4:13pm
DK:
If anything, I am much more careful and inhibited on the Internet than I am in real life. Blog comments especially make me more cautious about grammar, relevance, and offending people in minor ways.

Like Randy, my real life language was very disinhibited by an early job - in my case, as a hedge fund trader. But that never really affected what I said even then in print or in email. One would think that the Wall Street Journal would have some awareness of the language and attitudes prevalent on Wall Street -- even today it would make most of the Internet blush.
4.21.2006 4:15pm
Tony (mail):
The human species has spent several hundred thousand years sorting through which emotions and marginal neuroses to keep under control and which to release.

Which explains, of course, why different cultures agree so much on what should be inhibited.

(Not!)

Really, this is one of the silliest statements I've ever seen quoted on this blog. Just compare Japanese and Chinese cultures and you'll see how fluid and variable standards of inhibition can be.

Although this, arguably, is not a strictly genetic argument, it illustrates one of the dangers of evolutionary psychology; while it's a promising field, it's also an empty vessel into which people pour whatever predjudices strike their fancy. It sounds all very authoritative to talk about how the "human species" has sorted out the nuances of culture over time, but you still have to consider actual evidence.
4.21.2006 4:22pm
Fub:
Randy Barnett quotes Dan Henninger:

Intense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars. Now it is normal discourse on Web sites, the most popular forums for political discussion. Much of this is new...


New? Only if you weren't reading usenet 15 years ago.

That blog commentators, or even blog writers themselves, would take this direction is less than surprising given the ample precedent.

A primary difference between usenet and blogs is the socially more broad and likely more populous readership and authorship of blogs, the higher profile to the general public. But the coarsening and the psychology explaining it is the same, and hardly new.
4.21.2006 4:35pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
It started with Richard Nixons (expletive deleted) expletive deleteds. I remember as a nerdy 12 yr old trying to fill in the blanks of what the president must have said on his self released transcripts. Years later, hearing the actual tapes was a dissapointment. Most of his curses were mild, of the "damn" or "jesus christ" variety.
4.21.2006 4:46pm
MDJD2B (mail):
Really, this is one of the silliest statements I've ever seen quoted on this blog. Just compare Japanese and Chinese cultures and you'll see how fluid and variable standards of inhibition can be.

It doesn't matter whether we drive on the left or right side of the road, as long as we all pick the same side. So it may be with standards of inhibition. Verbal and written communication have connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words used, and standards of inhibition are part of the grammar of this paraverbal expression.
4.21.2006 4:53pm
Bruce:
I think it's true for most that they are less inhibited in any forum -- real world or virtual -- in which the social consequences of speaking or acting are mitigated in some fashion, e.g., by being unknown and hard to trace, by not being a member and not wanting to be a member of a particular group, by physical distance, and by other factors. This is not unique to the Internet -- it probably explains "road rage." Nor is it tightly connected to pseudonyms. I might care what others think of me even if all they have to go on is a pseudonym, e.g. if I interact with them frequently.

What is true is that the INternet makes it much easier for non-members of groups to enter discussions and shield themselves from most of the group formation and/or sanctions that would apply in real space. But it can also make it easier to form communities or groups where they could not have existed before (oddly, I just got done teaching about this very notion). Random groups of strangers can, over short periods of time, develop very strong bonds that mediate their baser impulses. I'm thinking of the unit cohesion studies in WWII that showed that soldiers fought harder when they were with the units they had trained with than when they fell in with other units -- strangers -- during battle. Presumably in the latter case they weren't any more physically distant or anonymous. But nevertheless, their sense of obligation to their peers was reduced.
4.21.2006 4:59pm
Paul Gowder (mail):
Can someone explain "solipsistic introjection?" Is it really a claim that people believe that communication on the internet is non-real?
4.21.2006 5:09pm
Wild Pegasus (mail) (www):
This is stupid! And bullshit! And stupid bullshit!

- Josh, Go to hell!
4.21.2006 5:40pm
Jade (mail):
The "tone" of bloggers and commenters is one of contempt. This is poisonous to civil discussion, as it implies that "only a stupid idiot" could disagree with me. By the way, it's also contempt that sinks marriages and relationships. Every known culture has the same expression that signifies contempt: picture one side of the mouth drawn up toward the eye, with a short outbreath.
4.21.2006 5:51pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
I'll buy into "disinhibition," to a large extent, but think the coarsening lies more in the realm of utter egoism. Right now, it seems that "I" dominates behavior far more than even the 80s permitted.

"I" want my Starbucks, so I'll double-park on a busy street while I run in and get it.

"I" am in a hurry, so I'll ignore that red light.

"My" time is far more valuable than that of the peons, so "I" will do whatever conveniences me.

And if you don't like it, you know where to shove it.

I expect we're seeing blow-back from a generation (or two) that was encouraged to believe it was God's gift--every single, individual one--and that the other guys were, well, just "losers" and consequently disdained.

Couple this with a spreading inability to consider the least possibility that one might--Oh, Heavens!--be wrong about something, and language goes down the tube at the first challenge.

I see it far more often in comments than signed blogs.
4.21.2006 5:57pm
Pendulum (mail):
Anonymous Parent,

In my opinion, your behavior towards your daughter is appalling. Snooping in your daughter's password-protected entries is a terrible violation of trust in any parent-child relationship.

It would be one thing if your daughter were 14 and you were concerned about suicidal behaviors or something. But your daughter is 19! She's an adult, and if you had any respect for her individuality, you wouldn't be snooping in her private affairs - and then using them against her. Is it any wonder your daughter lies to you?

Were I your child, I can tell you that I would consider our relationship to be badly, badly damaged by your activities. It would take me many years, if ever, to regain the trust that you have broken.
4.21.2006 6:04pm
Splunge (mail):
Well...here's my 20 millibucks....

(1) I think there has been an increase in "disinhibition" in the past 30-50 years, but I think it's foolish to blame the Internet. I would put the blame squarely on the decline in a cultural mythology focussed around objective reality and firm (if not rigid) moral standards. I recall Alasdair MacIntyre ranting on about this in books I read in college 23 years ago.

The argument goes that we have spent decades training ourselves, and our youth, that there is no objective reality, merely points of view, that a man does not have one perdurable character, slowly carved by patient habit, so much as dozens of varying faces, "sides" and roles which he assumes as convenient to the moment, and so on -- in essence that reality and history are less one giant common stage on which we all act in plain sight of one another than a vast sheaf of private, independent, individual narratives that only sometimes intersect.

No surprise, then, that we should have a younger generation the members of which feel fairly free to create multiple independent versions of themselves, e.g. one to freely express the impulsive ravings of the id, another -- fully separate -- to embody the discipline and responsibility of the superego. I fully expect the girls who post half-naked on MySpace.com consider their "online" selves to be utterly separate from their "in person" selves, not unlike a porn actress who is a proper and conservatively-dressed businesswomen in person, and would be as shocked as any Austen heroine at the suggestion that she might suck a complete stranger's dick under a restaraunt lunch table merely because she did so on screen, in character. Similarly, folks who snipe angrily under pseudonyms probably consider their sniper "self" completely separate from their "in person" self, who may well be as polite as the Queen might wish at her tea-party.

In other words, it is not so much a devolution of character so much as a schizophrenic splitting of it: we are more likely to split off our angry, arrogant, exhibitionist, antisocial selves into separate narrative streams, separate minor characters in our life story. We say: I'm not a weirdo/crazed ball of rage/rude jackass, I merely play one, on the Internet.

And why not? It sure makes life easier if, unlike Captain Kirk and Dr. Jekyll, we do not need to take personal responsibility for our "wolf," our dark side, need not wage a life-long twilight struggle to discipline it, channel its energies, wrap it in the moderating influences of self-discipline and responsibility.

(2) Less philosophically, I suggest the truth is that the brutality of public conversation is nothing new to the neighborhood bar, the public school playground, or the shop-floor water cooler. But Mr. Henninger is a wealthy member of an elite, and he is almost certainly not used to hearing this kind of coarse plebeian discourse in his patrician professional life. He's spent most of his adult life in essence giving considered educated speeches in quiet tones to gatherings of ladies in silk blouses and gentlemen in silk hats at his wood-panelled club, and it's jarring to have the lowborn dishwashers now feeling free to take seats in the front rows and holler out their reactions in the same unrestrained and highly-personal fashion they do in the kitchen.

The quote Mr. Barnett (also a member of the same elite club, of course) adduces, and how he does so, is telling: to illustrate the proposition that public discourse has "coarsened" Mr. Barnett quotes Mr. Henninger as saying that "[i]ntense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars."

Er, except that -- in whose definition is what is said on construction sites and corner bars not "public discourse"? Only to those who are rarely found on construction sites and corner bars -- to the elite. Certainly the Internet has empowered the unwashed hoi polloi to intrude in their brusque style upon conversation that used to be confined to the aristocracy, and from the elite's point of view this is bound to be jarring and regrettable. Whether the rest of us should be equally horrified, or merely amused, is unclear.
4.21.2006 6:28pm
Jeremy (mail) (www):
I don't say anything on the internet that I wouldn't say in person. I suspect that's true for a great many people.

When people are trashy online, they're probably trashy in person too. When people are classy online, they're probably classy in person too. Just my assumption.
4.21.2006 6:37pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
If your public and private opinions are the same, then posting under your own name is no problem; also probably you're a fairly decent fellow in both realms.

Working backwards, I suspect a general disconnect between public and private opinions is at fault, and that is probably from political correctness run amok.

I myself was disinvited to mandatory annual consciousness raising seminars long ago, even though I was always nice, too.
4.21.2006 6:51pm
Quarterican (mail):
I'm probably *more* restrained on the internet than in person because (a) I post anonymously, which does cost you some credibility-points, (b) I'm highly sarcastic, that's led to misunderstandings in the past, and I hate using emoticons to indicate what I really meant, and (c) I'm a little defensive about people's opinion of me, especially when "I" am just words on a screen, so I usually take some time to revise my posts, sometimes decide against posting at all, etc. In real life I've got a short temper and a fast mouth, but online I can read something that upsets me, walk away, beat on a guitar for a minute, come back and be calm about it. Also, I'm able to walk away from an increasingly useless discussion/argument online, whereas I have a hard time doing that in person.

I do think everyone *ought* to follow the rule of only saying things they would say in person, mostly because sometimes people say things to *me* that they probably wouldn't say in person and I always end up feeling really contemptuous (and I think Jade is right about the corrosive effects of contempt) towards whomever is making with the insults.
4.21.2006 7:02pm
Joel B. (mail):
The cultural underpining of Biblical creation created a lot of the support for recognizing the need to inhibits one's inner desires. Calvinistic theology, which to some degree or another affected most protestant denominations in one way or another also assisted. By beginning from (do we all remember TULIP), the Total Depravity of man we can see that men need to control most of there baser desires. That is, when the culture was more cognizant of the Total Depravity of man, then culture did more to require that men not act totally depraved.

As the society has moved away from Biblical creation and calvinistic theology we have instead highlighted man as much the (now-current) pinnacle of evolution. This suggests that at least to some degree, well if these feels good it must be because it is good for me...otherwise I wouldn't have evolved this way. We elevate our instincts because that is what feels natural, whereas in the past we recognized as what feels natural as dangerous. As Paul wrote of the two men battling within himself, the man of the flesh and the man of the spirit. But this duality has been disposed of, there is only the man of the flesh, and he is to have his way. Is it any wonder that discourse should become more course in response.

Interestingly, Romans 1, although more commonly discussed in relation to sexual behavior and immorality, describes what happens further down the line after men have rejected God

"28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them."

We have decided at as a decide that was is natural is what is good, instead of recognizing that what comes naturally is what is dangerous and destructive to ourselves. Should it be any surprise then when men act naturally?
4.21.2006 7:03pm
JGR (mail):
Two important points.
First, the coarsening of discourse was indeed well on its way before the internet arrived, but I think it's fair to say that the internet has contributed to and increased the problem. Here as in a thousand other places, it is ridiculous to have an "either-or" approach - either the internet caused everything or it should be ignored as a factor. Prior to the internet, there were a relatively small number of small circulation political magazines that sometimes published rants of profanity and ad hominem attacks that had very little logical content - For instance, the left wing Z Magazine; and also the libertarian magazine Liberty, which generally had a higher quality but would sometimes run outright rants that were profanity-laced ad hominem attacks with little intellectual value. But these were still relatively small-circulation. There is a difference when a sight that gets large traffic is filled with statements like "Bush is a blankety-blank-blank" and that is ALL they say. At the end of the day, it boils down to the fact that even if everyday discourse is frequently vulgar and irrational, there is still a difference when the official news and comment media - which used to serve as a higher model - descends to that level. (Note that even if you were upset at the liberal BIAS in the media, this is a separate issue. Dan Rather didn't just go on the air and say Bush is a blank-blank-blank every night. Biased arguments are still arguments, the tribute that ideology pays to reason.
Second point: I think we need to admit to the fact that the celebrated laissez-faire of the internet doesn't always yield the utopian results that we thought it would, and this is principally true with comments. Speaking from personal experience, I don't do comments as much as I used to because it's just too much time and effort to deal with a single moron. As I wrote a while back in a comment thread on this subject:
"Related to the general quality of posts - I think there is something like a Gresham's law that a small number of bad comments can drive off a lot of good comments.
Does anyone else feel any frustration in trying to develop a personal code for when and how long to carry on a debate. I will usually just end a debate when it becomes clear (100% clear) that the other commenter has no interest in having an intelligent or reasonable debate. A little while back Eugene Volokh posted about the Vatican's press release that appeared to support government suppression of free speech if it offended religion, and asked if we could still publish Martin Luther or Christopher Hitchens. A commenter left a comment to the effect that Volokh didn't understand anything about Luther - Luther was himself a Roman Catholic priest and wasn't suppressed by the church. I wrote a reply spelling out the errors in the comment, which led to a long and rambling response about the life of Luther and other things. When it became clear that the commenter literally couldn't even understand the difference between a hypothetical and a historical statement, I cut the debate off and said I wouldn't respond any more. This led to the commenter's final post (they ALWAYS have one of these) that I was running "with my tail between my legs" (" You are obviously clueless and way over your head in this debate") http://www.volokh.com/posts/1139182381.shtml
You can see why these are so frustrating. For one thing, it isn't always obvious when a commenter is just being obstinate or isn't actually that bright. Etiquette forbids simply stating that a comment is stupid, which means you have to take the time - sometimes a long amount of time - to spell everything out in clear language in case the commenter really doesn't get it. Then at this point, the commenter frequently still either doesn't get it or pretends that he doesn't, and posts ANOTHER long post. If you cut off at this point, which I generally do, this always gives the commenter some type of childish glee that they have 'beat you.'"
4.21.2006 7:04pm
Joel B. (mail):
I suspect Pendulum, there are some who would say "Were I your parent..."

I myself do not yet have children, but the lack of respect for parents is amazing in my generation, that your parents owe you privacy is a thoroughly modern and dreadfully destructive notion. I suspect most parents do not care that you trust them (as eventually most children do), but that you obey them.

A parent has no duty to "respect their child's individuality." The parent's duty is to raise their child well.
4.21.2006 7:08pm
Bottomfish (mail):
As an attempt to explain vitriolic posts, I propose the statement by J. Frank Brumbaugh that the average person secretly believes himself to be superior to others and wonders why his superiority is not appreciated.
4.21.2006 7:26pm
Irensaga (mail):
Well, we can all be grateful for at least ONE incident of "disinhibition" on MySpace.com:

Police in Kansas just announced the arrest of 5 teenagers who indicated on MySpace.com that they were planning to carry out a Columbine-type massacre at their own high-school.
4.21.2006 7:31pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
In person, I cannot keep my own pace, or deliberate over my own emotional reactions, nor can I carefully review and analyze what is said/written. I am fairly easy to outtalk, intimidate, distract and (for lack of a better word) hypnotize.

In my personal relations, I would choose people with whom I am comfortable, and my in-person comfort level is such that I would be far more discriminating, and far more easily discouraged by real or imagined rejection.

My on-line experiences have exposed me both to people I admire, with whom I would have no ordinary intercourse or interaction, and people of views quite different from my own. Moreover, I am sometimes able to see and deliberate over views different from my own, in a detailed way that I would not in person. The informality and interactive confrontation of the blogs -- and the newsgroups before them -- are often far more revealing than more formal writing.

I do think the zeitgeist has an influence. The shift to the right in the nation's politics has left a lot of people like me feeling powerless, and we tend to respond by becoming angry and shrill.

Digby has some interesting things to say about taboos.
4.21.2006 8:01pm
SenatorX (mail):
Splunge says :The quote Mr. Barnett (also a member of the same elite club, of course) adduces, and how he does so, is telling: to illustrate the proposition that public discourse has "coarsened" Mr. Barnett quotes Mr. Henninger as saying that "[i]ntense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars."

Er, except that -- in whose definition is what is said on construction sites and corner bars not "public discourse"? Only to those who are rarely found on construction sites and corner bars -- to the elite. Certainly the Internet has empowered the unwashed hoi polloi to intrude in their brusque style upon conversation that used to be confined to the aristocracy, and from the elite's point of view this is bound to be jarring and regrettable. Whether the rest of us should be equally horrified, or merely amused, is unclear.


Oh Snap Mingey!
4.21.2006 8:03pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I myself do not yet have children, but the lack of respect for parents is amazing in my generation, that your parents owe you privacy is a thoroughly modern and dreadfully destructive notion. I suspect most parents do not care that you trust them (as eventually most children do), but that you obey them.

Bravo for the heresy. Raised three (two step kids, the hardest task) and raising two more. Some are no problem. Others ... never did any computer snooping, but some judicious snooping of other varieties oh, ended some drug dealing, broke up a few drunken parties before they got there, etc. What some teens get into these days is pretty hair-raising. I don't mean smoking pot or sipping beer. I'm talking about dealers of hard drugs who can be contacted by cell or pager late at night to make home deliveries, girls getting so out of it they have no idea whether or whom they had sex with, guys getting beaten to the point of three skull fractures, etc., etc. 2-3 of their schoolmates dead already. It's hard to get too worked up about juvenile privacy after the kid's been in a car crash with a drunken juvenile behind the wheel.

When it comes to raising kids right (not to mention alive), it's pretty much an end justifies the means proposition.
4.21.2006 9:16pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Tony:

The human species has spent several hundred thousand years sorting through which emotions and marginal neuroses to keep under control and which to release.

Which explains, of course, why different cultures agree so much on what should be inhibited.

(Not!)

Really, this is one of the silliest statements I've ever seen quoted on this blog. Just compare Japanese and Chinese cultures and you'll see how fluid and variable standards of inhibition can be.


Tony, you are missing the forest for the trees. That there are substantial differences between cultures with respect to inhibition is unquestionable. But in focusing on the differences you are neglecting the dominance of similarities. The difference tend to be all on the same range, within the same frame of reference, e.g., we may not all agree on precisely how much skin a woman may expose and remain decent, but we all (except for the nudists) recognize that there is a limit. We may differ on how to greet each other, but all cultures have developed systems of formal and informal greeting. Etc. To really drive it home, a Prius is very different from a BMW M3, but both have far more in common with each other, than either does with a horse.
4.21.2006 9:44pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
I miss the usenet flame wars. Or was that FIDO net. Well any way. As best as my memory serves me it was a lot more intemperate back then.

There were no good old days.
4.21.2006 9:59pm
therut:
I have noticed this myself. I am sure I am not the only one. I have noticed it so much that I try to not let it influence my own speech or behavior but I know it has. I think it will affect some more than others. If I had children I would be very worried and probably would severely monitor their internet usage. No myspace for them. I was at first shocked at what I was reading. I had no idea that people were so crude,rude and some of their ideas so well different. I can sure tell I was raised in a small town and the University and Medical School I went to did not have politics involved at all. I sometimes am sad that I have learned some of the things I have. It has not improved my assessment of humankind progressing. I think we are regressing and quickly.
4.21.2006 10:12pm
Max Kaehn (mail) (www):
I often think of particularly snarky and impolite things that I would like to say (solipsistic introjection), and don't; I was raised to consider this the basic politeness that keeps society running smoothly. If they're particularly eloquent, I either put them in a friends-locked post on my LiveJournal where people who know me will be able to appreciate them in context, or I tell my wife "and here's what I didn't say at work today" in the evening and she praises me for my self-restraint. (She has an MBA and many years of experience as a manager, so the praise is heartfelt, as she knows exactly what kind of trouble could ensue if I did say them.)

I've been very disappointed in the increase in use of profanity in modern culture, because it devalues the power of invective as a form of emphasis in communication. I use profanity only rarely, so people who know me will sit up and take notice when I do so. Making explicit rules about the use of profanity will tend to encourage rebellion; I just try to support politeness by example, and if enough people in a group do the same, newcomers will tend to do so as well.

On the Net, the societal feedback mechanisms that tell us when we're behaving properly are very restricted; e.g., you can't watch expressions change in real time as you speak. This gives people much more of a chance to work up a good head of steam as they compose a post, and for the next posters to do the same in response to the first one, and so on. The question I use as a yardstick is: Is this discussion leading to a solution to the problem? If people are providing perspective that helps understand differing viewpoints, that's a fine thing; if they're just repeating the same thing over and over again or insulting people, it's a waste of time.

Regarding parenting, the lesson that I learned as a child was that trust is earned, and I applied it to my parents (who divorced when I was 5) just as it was applied to me. My mother made it clear that we could talk about anything, and got good visibility into my teenage escapades and provided feedback that probably kept me out of getting into real trouble; my father was much more judgmental, and I found it easier to just leave him in the dark about anything he might criticize. If you already have the luxury of mutual trust, it's unwise to break it, but if your kids are already doing seriously dangerous things, I think Dave Hardy's damage control is entirely appropriate.
4.21.2006 10:48pm
Chimaxx (mail):
I find this whole line of argument troubling on several levels.

First, I doubt the basic premise. Is the vitriol or lack of coherent argument sometimes seen in chatroom discussions really any worse than Pat Buchanan vs. Tom Braden in the early 1980s on CNN's CrossFire. No one could spit out a vitriolic nonsequitor as easily or frequently as Pat Buchanan. Has the Internet given us more of this stuff? Sure, but it's a difference in quantity, not kind.

Second, the argument seems to rest on an internal contradiction: People say things in blogs and chatrooms because they are anonymous, feel a sense that it's not the real world, or see it all as a game...so therefore they are disinhibited in the real world where they aren't anonymous, know it's the real world, and understand it's not a game? If you argue that the Internet makes people present themselves in a disinhibited way BECAUSE they feel it's not real, it's hard to say that they'll turn around and carry this presentation of themselves into the real world.

MySpace seems to be a current whipping boy in this arena. I fail to see what all the fuss is about. Splunge tries to blame "the decline in a cultural mythology focussed around objective reality and firm (if not rigid) moral standards"--as if the romanticized past he alludes to wasn't full of piuos, upright gentlemen denying the illegitimate offspring they had sired with their servants, upholding the rule of law by every word while skirting it when personal necessity or private gain would permit it. We have always had to see ourselves as having different roles in which we present ourselves differently, if we were going to be able to perform oral sex with the same mouth with which we kissed our mother and prayed to our deity.

Splunge seems to express dismay at the notion of "a porn actress who is a proper and conservatively-dressed businesswomen in person, and would be as shocked as any Austen heroine at the suggestion that she might suck a complete stranger's dick under a restaraunt lunch table merely because she did so on screen, in character"--but really, what is so astonishing about that, and how else should we expect her to react? Would we expect the repectable 18th century plantation owner to ravish the household maid at the dinner table merely because he had done so behind the horse barn? He would rightfully be shocked at the suggestion, and so would Splunge's hypothetical porn actress.

Tony points to differing rules of inhibition between cultures and Mike BUSL07 argues that there is a core of similarity--but this is beside the point: Within a culture, there is a differnce over the level of inhibition in different sorts of public spaces. An Australian swimsuit commercial I saw online recently drives this home: Basically it asks, when is it a swimsuit and when is it underwear. The same spandex garment that is perfectly acceptable outerwear within 100 feet of the beach, becomes "underwear"--and thus unacceptable if worn by itself--in the grocery store.

So the original article is a kind of salvo in the war over what KIND of public space we want the Internet to be--as if it has to be just one kind of public space. And that's pretty silly.

Just as a letter to Mom, a love letter, a grecery list, and a business letter are all written with a different tone and with different content, one can use the same fingers and the same keyboard to write a reasoned argument to volokh.com, a horny inquiry to men4sexnow.com, and a job posting to monster.com--and not have to explain or defend one posting to those who respond to a different one. And that's only appropriate. I'd look as silly posting my CV to MySpace as I would wearing a swimsuit to the opera or a tux to the beach.

But what bothers me most about this line of argument is that it sets up the terms of the discussion in a way that pretty much destines it to be pointless. Has discourse on the 'Net changed discourse off the net? Of course, but we are probably unable to see its most fundamental impacts at this point, and they are certainly more subtle and complex than the parameters of this particular debate allow. Last century, radio, movies, the telephone, television, and photocopiers all saw these sorts of debates--long diatribes for political gain and serious treatises that utterly missed the point and that in retrospect generated more heat than light. A new communication medium emerges, and at first you hear from those who celebrate change ("Look at THIS! How exciting! We can communicate in new and different ways. It will enhance our way of life."). For a while, those who fear change hold their tongue, hoping it will fade away on its own, like CB radio did. Once it looks like it will stick around for a while, they pathologize the change ("Look at THAT! How Awful! They are communicationg in new and repugnant ways. It's destroying civil discourse and thus threatens civilization itself."). Ultimately, both arguments are always way off the mark and totally irrelevant to the more profound changes going on below the surface.
4.21.2006 11:38pm
Tony (mail):
Tony, you are missing the forest for the trees. That there are substantial differences between cultures with respect to inhibition is unquestionable. But in focusing on the differences you are neglecting the dominance of similarities.

I more or less agree, though I would include the degree of disinhibition we see on the Internet within this "dominance of similarities". To take a particularly "tell it like it is" culture, I've been more surprised by what some Chinese born coworkers have said out loud than I have by what I've read on the Internet.

But then again, I'm more surprised by some things than others. Paris Hilton was utterly banal; if that's "disinhibition", then it doesn't strike me as particularly consequential. When someone says out loud something like "well, obviously your mother hated you", (just as an example), that strikes me as a deeper and more provocative kind of disinhibition.

So I guess I don't see Internet disinhibition as much to worry about, since what's being said is generally so ordinary, and it's "shock" value so superficial.
4.21.2006 11:43pm
Tony (mail):
Splunge writes:

I think there has been an increase in "disinhibition" in the past 30-50 years, but I think it's foolish to blame the Internet. I would put the blame squarely on the decline in a cultural mythology focussed around objective reality and firm (if not rigid) moral standards. I recall Alasdair MacIntyre ranting on about this in books I read in college 23 years ago.

The argument goes that we have spent decades training ourselves, and our youth, that there is no objective reality, merely points of view...

No surprise, then, that we should have a younger generation the members of which feel fairly free to create multiple independent versions of themselves


I thought about this a while, and did some Web searching, and came across this description of one of MacIntyre's books:

It remains to be mentioned here that "Whose Justice, Which Rationality?" argues that certain social traditions - such as the Christian religious tradition - embody conceptions of rational enquiry within them, so that what makes for a rational reason to act, for example, can only be answered by accepting the philosophical commitments of a given tradition in the first place. On this view, what justifies a theory is 'the rational superiority of that particular structure to all previous attempts within that particular tradition to formulate such theories and principles'. There is thus no conception of rationality to be found over and above any tradition, no possibility of an objective rationality outside - and therefore able to adjudicate between - all traditions.

To my ears, this makes MacIntyre sound like a postmodernist. The decline of objective reality, in this context, looks like an inevitable consequence of increased awareness of other cultures and the impossibility of reconciliation between the values of those cultures. Objective reality is in decline because it was an illusion to begin with, and MacIntyre seems to be explaining why.

I realize I'm relying on writing about MacIntyre, but it's hard for me to "blame" the decline of adherence to objective reality when virtually everyone who claims to know what it is spouts ideas that are so impossible to swallow. It's fun to do a Google search on the phrase to see what people think have been "objectively" true at various times. Young-earth Creationism comes to mind...

I suppose it's reasonable to be nostalgic for a time when the illusion was intact. But that time is certainly behind us.
4.21.2006 11:53pm
Pendulum (mail):
Joel B.,

>I suspect Pendulum, there are some who would say "Were I your parent..."

That's fine. They'd be missing out on someone who's a respectful, thoughtful, and considerate child, so I guess it's their loss.

>that your parents owe you privacy is a thoroughly modern and dreadfully destructive notion. I suspect most parents do not care that you trust them (as eventually most children do), but that you obey them.

>A parent has no duty to "respect their child's individuality." The parent's duty is to raise their child well.

Why on Earth should the act of birthing someone entitle one to blind obedience till the end of time? Respect should be earned by behavior. Good parenting should be respected; bad or abusive parenting should not be.

"Anonymous Parent's" daughter is 19 years old. She is old enough to marry, fight in wars, or be a parent herself. If she hasn't been "raised well" by this time, then stealing her password to read her journal is not going to help much.

Invading her privacy is utterly manipulative. The idea that an adult-child owes sneaking, deceitful parents obedience is ludicrous.
4.22.2006 4:48am
Federal Dog:
I do not post under my own name because aside from being a lawyer, I teach.

If my academic colleagues knew that I was not hard left of center politically, the consequences would be immediate and devastating (course assignments, scheduling, money, facilities, etc.). Tellingly, the only demands to know my identity and affiliation invariably come from academics: There is no mystery why this would be the case. The intensity of these demands to know exactly who I am and where I teach are frightening at times: Academics really do need to wipe out all possible dissent, and several posters have expressed the need to wipe me out personally. I have no idea what would happen to me if it were known that I think, for example, that John Kerry is a clown.


Anonymous posting on Internet blogs has thus single-handedly changed the way many academics communicate. It has shattered the absolute lockdown on opinion imposed by leftist orthodoxies in the universities, and that is a *good thing.* It alone enables many of us, who dissent from leftist academic orthodoxies, to have a voice that we would otherwise never, ever have.
4.22.2006 8:44am
Paul Gowder (mail):
Federal dog, how can you impute this malicious retaliation-lust to the leftist members of your faculty on the pages of a very public blog by numerous right-of-center law professors? Have Eugene, Orin, etc. ever posted about losing "course assignments, scheduling, money, facilities?" (If they have, of course, then I'll retract this statement, but I don't think they have.)
4.22.2006 11:21am
Federal Dog:
"Have Eugene, Orin, etc. ever posted about losing "course assignments, scheduling, money, facilities?" (If they have, of course, then I'll retract this statement, but I don't think they have.)"



Why is this relevant? My post addressed why I, for one, post anonymously. Nothing more.
4.22.2006 11:33am
msk (mail):
Body of Work: The Concept

Since the early days of DejaNews, it has always been possible to gather old postings from a particular account, generating a sort of profile in the account holder's own words. Unless, of course he's a plagiarist, or shares his computer.

We will see cases of people losing jobs because of a body of messages attributed to them (which profiled them as hot-headed, or other undesirable trait).

Some people hesitate to use a full name online because it also belongs to someone famous/infamous, or to their dad, but we all know by now there's no real cyber-anonymity. The tedious work of searching causes most people to stick to fun stuff, rather than chase the question of who stands behind those initials.

One more thing re blogs: Angry people need to realize most people post a thought and move on to other matters. They aren't rudely ignoring anyone, they just tossed a paper airplane into the discussion and soon are reading, working, or playing somewhere else.

"Where is your answer? Why don't you stand and fight, if you really believe ..." is the kind of posting doomed to embarrass anyone who realizes later no one is hanging around reading the same blog 24/7. Except for blog hosts, most writers take only one brief shot at a topic, unless they need to correct a really crucial typo.

Reference by quoting is a courtesy when a multi-faceted argument diverges. It should not be mistaken for personal attack, nor does it imply that one quoted must come back and answer. Maybe they're out of town. Maybe they're in jail. We respond to ideas because ten thousand readers may share the same idea.

Kids need to hear this from their teachers and parents. No blogger has time to individually answer 300 remarks a day, so, therefore, add what you can't resist adding to the discussion and relax, knowing the topic will go on evolving.

The preachy tone above was my tact-challenged effort to summarize quickly -- always telling myself I'll just scan this blog for ten minutes and go. I'd very gladly have stated it better, if I'd had the ability to sound clever or subtle.

Somebody defined an infuriating ignoramous as "any fool who doesn't already know what I realized ten minutes ago." The impulse to set someone straight immediately, in no uncertain terms is natural, and may arise out of a generous nature, but a writer whose stupidity drives you wild may be ten years old right now.

Fortunately, computers can sort archived messages by chronological order -- the tiny "At least it shows I've wised up a little over the years," consolation.
4.22.2006 2:16pm
Splunge (mail):
Tony, the distinction between postmodernist "everything is relative" folks and folks like what I remember of MacIntyre, or C. S. Lewis in some of his writings, whom you might call moral absolutists, is in some sense surprisingly slight.

Both do, indeed, claim that you cannot through sheer rationality determine the true nature of reality and (more importantly) come up with the correct moral framework required to inhabit it. But then they diverge: the relativist goes on to say, well, in the absence of any rational basis for choosing one belief system over any other, we must give them all at least a roughly equal degree of credence. We have to start judging people on (for example) their sincerity, their dedication, or their consistency, instead of on their rectitude.

The absolutist starts from the same axiom and ironically draws the completely opposite conclusions: he says, well, in the absence of any rational basis for choosing one belief system over another, we have to simply pick one on the basis of pure faith, and then afterward adhere to it more or less blindly.

To the relativist, the absolutist's arbitrary choosing of one system is contemptible because it may falsely condemn good that doesn't conform to the chosen system. To the absolutist, the relativist's refusal to choose, even arbitrarily, one system is contemptible, because it declines the responsibility of forming judgments, and therefore may fail to condemn evil that would be evil under any reasonable choice of systems.

I suspect most of us fall agnostically in the middle. We are uncomfortable with pure relativism and pure absolutism. We want to choose one best belief system, but we are aware this is not possible fully rationally. We tend to think less of people with other belief systems, but we are also somewhat tolerant. We tend to be fuzzy relativists and sort-of absolutists, depending on circumstances.
4.23.2006 7:04pm
Charles Iragui:
Isn't there a difference between exhibitionism (pix of oneself on the web in the style of Jerry Springer) and the things one will do only under the cover of anonimity (vulgar posts made under a pseudonym)? These are very different phenomena, though both are empowered by the web.

The first is the result of the breakdown of ecclesiatic control of public behavior in all modern societies. "Decency" was always hitherto considered the province of religious authorities.

The second is ancient; witness the myth of Gyges' Ring in the Republic: what would one do if one could be invisible.

Recently there was a spat when the WaPo closed down a forum that became too vulgar for the standards of that paper. Why should the WaPo or anyone else not retain the power to control the public square that they have created? The simple solution to the problem Henninger raises is to publish standards of behavior and police them.

Are people becoming worse because of the Internet? Did Socrates corrupt the young? Plus ca change.
4.24.2006 4:20am
Mark Hagerman (mail):
Re: dissociative anonymity (You don't know me) - Probably not, but you might; I use my real name almost everywhere (I'm sick to death of "handles").

Re: solipsistic introjection (It's all in my head) - No, I outgrew THAT in high school.

Re: dissociative imagination (It's just a game) - As an old-guard RPGer, I tend to agree. But that doesn't make the game any less serious, does it?

Of course, I'm 51. What's going on in teenagers heads these days, I've no clue.
4.24.2006 6:09pm