At the cottage for Thanksgiving weekend, we've been catching up with each other.
My brother-in-law, unprompted by me, mentioned that he has had enough of the Internet for the time being, and is spending his days off-line. He's the third or fourth person that I've heard this from in the past month, although that could just reflect my social group. His reasoning is quite similar to my own: the level of vitriol and acrimony gets to be a bit much to stomach. In his case, the sites he prefers have to do with auto racing, which would seem an uncontroversial topic. However, there are heated arguments about American versus German cars that descend to the depths of anger and cruelty for no apparent reason.
This is what astounds me when I read online messages. The Internet was supposed to deliver greater communication and understanding, the arrival of the promised global village. And yet, people vie with each other in speaking ill of their fellows. Message boards begin to approximate an angry mob, obsessed with the purported evils of some outside group. No charge is too outlandish; good faith is never forwarded.
I read political news sites and horror film message boards. In the former case, some vitriol is to be expected; but not to the extent that one actually encounters. I've read liberals who genuinely suppose that critics of the President are anti-Americans, vicious racists, or side with the terrorists! I've read conservatives who are unsure if liberals are evil, or merely support evil! One bizarre debate I read on a libertarian blog last week centered on Roman Polanski's arrest and how President Obama would respond: one side believed he would pardon Polanski because "liberals tend to support rape"; the other side argued that he wouldn't pardon Polanski because "liberals hate Poland". Eventually, someone pointed out that, no matter what happens, "liberals are evil", which seemed to put the debate to rest. The horror film sites are the same; they argue just as passionately about how they "just can't believe the stupidity" of anyone who liked some recent film they disliked. Like the old joke about academia, the arguments on the Internet are so heated because the stakes are so low.
The standard explanation for all of this is that the anonymity of the Internet breeds malice, and it's true as far as it goes. My grandparents would never have been cruel to the other members of the Lion's Club, for instance. And yet, they had the Lion's Club, and neighborhood committee meetings, and bowling leagues, and all of the other manifestations of active civic engagement. They knew their neighbors, their grocer, their milkman, and the local police officers. They had those things that embedded them within their society and provided a sense of belonging.
At some point, all of that changed, of course. There is a great Douglas Sirk melodrama called All That Heaven Allows in which Jane Wyman plays a widow whose children want her to settle down, instead of marrying a blue collar stud, played by Rock Hudson. Something that amazes me when I see the movie now is how owning a television set is treated as an act of surrender to lonely old maidenhood. If she accepts the TV set, the kids will know she's ready to stay home and stop going to parties at the local country club! People with an active social life simply did not own television sets in 1955!
The class barriers depicted in the film should prevent us from idealizing the 1950s. After all, my grandparents belonged to another civic group that raised money with annual minstrel shows. There certainly were "out-groups" and alienated individuals back then as well. It just wasn't that everyone was, more or less, alienated and atomized. Now people feel a deep connection with people they've never met and a deep animosity to other people they've never met, and little connection to their neighbors, grocers, or local police.
And now, of course, people grow up having deep relationships with little glowing screens. Forget about not owning a television set- there's something antisocial about that! And who wants to be the weirdo without a laptop or cell phone to "connect" them to other people while they're walking around in crowds of strangers? When I think about the increasing meanness of the Internet, I can't tell if the problem is the anonymity of life online, or the facelessness of real world interactions.