Once in a while, a furious debate flares up about the proper tone that people should use in exchanges with one another on the internet. This occurs within the skeptic community as well, the most prominent division being between the groups now referred to as accommodationists and the new atheists. The most common charge laid against the latter is that they sometimes use intemperate language in criticizing both religion and the accommodationist position.
I too have been occasionally accused of displaying a sense of superiority and cynicism, and ridiculing and making fun of people who disagree with me. There is some justification for this latter charge but the fact that people think it is something that should be complained about arises from two factors: (1) people not being aware that the norms in the new public sphere created by the internet are quite different from that of the old public sphere; and (2) conflating the norms of the private sphere with those of the old and new public sphere.
Before the dawn of the internet, there was tight control of who had access to the public sphere. It was only the media organizations and a select few non-threatening public intellectuals who could get their views disseminated widely. There was little recourse for any member of the general public to get their point of view heard, even if news reports or the commentators were flat out wrong about the facts. All one could do was write a letter to the editor of the publication or the author of the piece and hope that they would deign to respond. To get even an acknowledgment that they had heard you was rare and to get a correction was even rarer.
This completely unequal power relationship resulted in the public having to take a supplicatory attitude when approaching these powerful people who had access to the public space, hoping that by being obsequious one could get one’s foot in the door. It also resulted in a sense of arrogance on the part of those who had access to the public sphere, who were easily seduced into thinking they had superior intellect and judgment simply because they were rarely challenged. And they became used to being treated deferentially.
Of course, ordinary people could be quite scathing in their criticisms of what they read and heard but these views could only be expressed in private to their immediate circle and rarely entered the public debate. So journalists and commentators and public intellectuals could say what they wanted. As long as news editors and their bosses did not mind, they were free from challenge.
The internet has changed all that. There is now a new public sphere and many more people have access to it and they are using it to say what they could only grumble about in private, and I suspect that they are expressing it in the same strong way they used to do before. Now the words of politicians, journalists, and others are subjected to close scrutiny and there is immediate public pushback when they get something wrong. Many simply have not adjusted to the fact that they no longer occupy Mount Olympus, out of reach of the rabble. And they definitely are not used to the fact that the scathing criticisms that earlier could only be voiced in private (and which they could ignore even in the unlikely event that they heard them at all) are now being giving much wider airing. It is such people who often complain about the ‘lack of civility’ in the modern media era. What they do not seem to realize is that this ‘lack of civility’ always existed but it just did not reach their ears.
It is a different world now. I can point to numerous examples where public figures have been taken to task immediately by a chorus of criticisms about things they got wrong and have been forced to correct and backtrack. It is no longer possible for them to use ignorance as an excuse to continue to repeat falsehoods or discredited ideas. The immediate firestorm that erupted around Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke and forced him to make an apology was enabled by the internet. His transgression was that he personalized a political issue, and tried to discredit the position Fluke was taking by attacking her as a person. In an earlier age, he would have got away with it. But in the internet age, you have to expect to receive in kind whatever you dish out. Limbaugh’s single big megaphone is now counterbalanced by many people with small megaphones.
Were some of Limbaugh’s critics also intemperate in their language? Very likely. But that is the nature of the internet where the public actions and words of people are subject to any and all manner of criticisms, and what was once articulated only to those in the immediate vicinity are now available to the whole world. This is the new reality and while there are those who find it distasteful, there is nothing they can do about it or, in my opinion, should be able to do about it. They have to learn to live with vigorous and robust (and sometimes rude, crude, and profane) public speech. This does not mean they have to conform. Each person can choose how he or she wishes to behave in this new public sphere and can choose what they want to read or see or listen to. But it is futile to complain about the rhetorical style of others on the internet.
Having said all that, I have to emphasize something I have stressed repeatedly, that the norms in the private sphere have not changed that much. When one is talking to people directly, face-to-face in a private setting, a completely different and more traditional set of norms still apply. Civility still largely rules. But people should not expect those norms to be observed in public settings.
The internet kitchen is hot. If you can’t stand it, you shouldn’t enter.