On insults-2: Heated language on the internet

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.


  1. VF says

    I find these justifications very unpleasant.

    I think insulting people is, in general terms, not a behaviour to have, unless being provoked to or something like that. I observe that people very easily drop insults on the internet in a repeated and systematic way which is just harrassment and cyber bashing. Some more clever studies, esp. by researchers in socilogy should be done to understand the origin of this toxicity of internet. Fortunately, there are people worrying about this, and trying to regulate the internet a bit. there has been people committing suicide, esp. highschool pupils, because of the misconduct of people on the internet. It is a duty of grown ups to protect the young.
    Now, in a similar context, I have myself been constantly insulted by PZ Myers, I still am, and also massively insulted and ridiculed in the comments of his blog, just because he does not understand a single issue in physics, nor do his followers.

    Why on earth should that be tolerated? Freedom of speech? If M. Myers, for example would, as you say
    talk differently “face-to-face in a private setting”, then it just means that his manners on internet is a form of harrassment. Internet favors bad manners, and a few twisted characters have pleasure with that.

  2. says

    It’s so so so true about the new ability to talk back. I think this is a major reason there is so much fuming about atheism: clerics are not used to people talking back, and they’re livid about it.

    There was no medium before in which thousands of people could pour scorn on the pope and that scorn would be public and on the record. Now there is. The pope doesn’t get a free ride any more. Good.

  3. Shawn Smith says

    I myself have been constantly insulted by PZ Myers…

    So, PZ goes around to everyone he knows and in every conversation says something along the lines of “You know that VF commenter? Zhe’s a real moron. Look at the stupid stuff zhe said yesterday….”? Every post that PZ puts up includes something that insults you? Are you really saying that?

    I have not seen any evidence of it. I don’t delve into all the comments because I have better things to do. But if you think the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics disproves evolution, or that Dembski has anything intelligent to say about probabilities, then you really do deserve to be insulted. If you don’t want to be insulted, then stop saying stupid things. It really is that simple.

  4. Dan-o says

    Shawn did you just insult someone in this thread? I find it very interesting how the aetheists always are the first to cast the first stone. Being 6’2″ and extremely athletic I do not get insulted in person unless the person has a death wish… Just joking. On the flip side I believe these little people on the Internet finally grow the spine they never had face to face. Which in a way is a great way for them to grow. To often thoughts are held inside which only means once released they come out with out much thought on how they will be interpreted from others. God bless.

  5. Beth says

    I don’t know how to reconcile telling people to either tolerate the criticism or leave the public marketplace of ideas while simultaneously condemning the verbal expression of intolerance exemplified by Rush’s condemnation of Sandra Fluke.

    I happen to agree with both of those attitudes, at least in the abstract. But I also experience cognitive dissonance in trying to reconcile them.

    Consider what happened to Sandra Fluke. How would you feel about someone saying that “Congressional Hearings are hot. If you can’t stand it, don’t testify”?

    I hope you would object to such an attitude. If we are to encourage participation in the public sphere by minorities and marginalized groups, it may be appropriate to dial the thermostat back a little.

    There are public spaces that are too hot for me to handle. I don’t read the comments at Pharyngula. I don’t listen to Rush. This is appropriate. I don’t want to limit other people’s freedom to express their ideas. But it also has the negative side effect of insulating me from hearing people who hold those opposing views. I often end up hearing their views only through the commentary of folks I already agree with rather than directly from the source.

    If it was just me, then it would just be my problem. But my reaction isn’t uncommon. The result seems to be an Internet with lots of echo chambers amplifying various expressions of rage about the injustices of our society, but little discussion between individuals in various groups to work out what compromises we can accept and live with.

    So I also think we need rules for public discourse that allow for thinner skinned individuals to participate in shaping the public discussion. I’m not sure how to accomplish that, but if we don’t, the “heat of the Internet” becomes a barrier that people must overcome before they can enter the marketplace of ideas and stump for their own. I see that as a problem. It will lead to a selection bias in those who get heard as only those willing to tolerate the sort of personal abuse common to the Internet will be participating.

    Even if we haven’t come up with solutions yet, when I consider the #Mencallmethings along with the resulting posts and discussions it has inspired, I can’t agree that it is futile to complain about the rhetoric on the internet. It is at least a conversation that acknowledges the problem. That’s the first step.

  6. Mark says

    So let me get this straight.

    You keep voluntarily returning to PZ’s website, voluntarily posting comments when you know that they’re going to inflame the other posters? That sounds like trollish behavior to me.

    Oh, but then you play the victim in this situation by claiming harassment!?!? You came to his turf, buddy. You don’t get to play the harassment card.

  7. Mano Singham says

    You raise some good points that I will be addressing in some depth in future posts in this series.

    As for the extension of my argument to “Congressional Hearings are hot. If you can’t stand it, don’t testify”, I think that anyone these days who ventures into any public forum to express an opinion on a controversial issue has to brace themselves for this kind of reaction. That is just the way it is.

    I was actually heartened by the vigorous defense that Fluke received from so many quarters. Remember that it was the mighty Limbaugh who caved, not her. She has come out looking really good. I am hoping that Fluke has been emboldened by her experience and that others will realize that they have allies who will come to their defense and will be willing to speak out too.

  8. ollie says

    “Consider what happened to Sandra Fluke. How would you feel about someone saying that “Congressional Hearings are hot. If you can’t stand it, don’t testify”?”

    Frankly, I agree with this. If you put yourself out there, your ideas will be critiqued and some of the critiques will be harsh…and flawed.

    Why some expect others to be treated with kid gloves I’ll never know.

    Note: Limbaugh was obnoxious and rude; no doubt about that. I can’t stand him.

  9. astro says

    My feeling is that those kinds of platforms are emerging and will continue to emerge. Since there are obviously many people like yourself who approach the internet like you do, paltforms and venues will rise to suit that need. That’s a good thing. The wide variety of comment policies on this very network is testament to the power of temperament to create unique spaces

  10. Beth says

    I don’t have a problem with harsh critiques of ideas. That’s the fire that allows good ideas to solidify and be useful while bad ideas get discarded. But it needs to be a controlled heat, like an oven or a kiln, to be useful for that purpose.

    What I have a problem with is the personal abuse that seems impossible to separate from harsh critiques of ideas. Rush didn’t just comdemn Sandra Fluke’s ideas about contraception coverage, he attacked her personally, calling her names and demonstrating what sort of treatment women can expect if they speak out publically.

    It seems to me that this ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ analogy isn’t terribly apt because I don’t feel like it’s the heat directed at dissenting ideas that’s the problem. It’s more like there are guards brandishing torches and deliberately burning dissenters in order to convince them to exit the kitchen.

  11. Beth says

    I’ll look forward to those future posts.

    I agree that this is just the way things are right now. I don’t agree that we have to accept that type of abusive and bullying public discourse as inevitable or unchangable.

    Like you, I am encouraged by the public response to this particular tirade from Rush, but it was only the latest of many and he is far from the only perpetrator of such abusive reactions to those with whom he disagrees. It’s common behavior on all sides.

    As another example, consider the loathing expressed for ‘accomodationists’ on this forum. Accomodating others in our society is seen as a bad thing to be avoided at all costs, rather than a necessary aspect of building a cohesive and functional multi-cultural society.

    So I think we should look for options that could move our society towards more civility in public discourse. I hope you will be proposing some ideas in your future posts.

  12. left0ver1under says

    The internet is a package deal. We get both incivility and more voices and facts being heard, rather than a phony “civility” and censorship by silence of unapproved statements – especially statements that are true.

    Even though it means dealing with trolls, paid liars and nutbags believing in fictions, I’m willing to live with that trade off.

  13. ollie says

    Being attacked my Limbaugh (and yes, what he did was crass and ugly) actually endeared her to many. No, it can’t be pleasant but yes, it is to be expected and it isn’t illegal.

    Ridicule should be allowed; for example I ridicule people who try to use a holy text to “rebut” scientific findings.

  14. Beth says

    Yes, I agree that it is to be expected in our society. I support it being legal and Rush remaining on the air. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Why did you think I did?

  15. Beth says

    Yes, that’s true. Multiple private venues are a definite improvement. But it does lead to more and more echo chambers being disconnected from the rest of society to the point they don’t realize how offensive what they are saying is to others. I think the athiest/slave billboard is just as much an example of that disconnect as Rush’s tirade was.

    I think that it’s worth attempting to make the common public square where ideas are debated a less degrading for the participants. I may not have to wear a burka to go out and participate in my broader society physically, but I do have to build and don some very hefty emotional armor before I feel comfortable doing so in cyberspace. And I try to keep to the sedate neighborhoods.

  16. Zugswang says

    Being 6’2″ and extremely athletic I do not get insulted in person unless the person has a death wish… Just joking.

    Watch out, everyone, we got ourselves a milquetoast “internet tough guy”.

  17. Beth says

    Please, can we go back to a phony civility? I’d really prefer it to the snarling undisguised hatred that seems to have been it’s replacement.

    We all have to learn to live together on this one planet of ours. Or figure out how to live elsewhere.

  18. Dan-o says

    Sorry I’m not leaving so hasta la vista radicals….sorry I had to say this first. I would much rather have a civil discussion with people than childish taunting and name calling. I may not agree but am willing to listen and and discuss before I make my own decision. God bless.

  19. schmeer says

    Not a single reader of Pharyngula or PZ understand even one issue in physics? That claim is worthy of some pretty serious ridicule. I can see why they keep abusing you.

  20. schmeer says

    Well, this is a positive development from the last thread on this subject where you ignored responses to your comments.
    And since we’re playing internet tough guy: yes, I would say that your ideas are stupid to your face, even though I’m only 5’11” and an average build.

  21. schmeer says

    Doubt all you want, but I’m more internet-tough than you. You can only stand up to smaller people. I just took on a 6’2″ athletically built monster without backing down.

  22. Dan-o says

    I like you already schmeer (even though you are on the darkside) now let’s continue the discussion.

  23. VF says


    Mr Myers keeps on mentionning my name once in a while, ALWAYS, with insulting phrases. I am just a researcher in a university laboratory, doing experiments in developmental biology. I do not return to put flaming posts in the first place, and just for fun or “trolling” as you say. I do return when fed up with his behaviour, as he continues. This man is a dangerous person for others, and has no respect for others. He is not a decent person. He is a typical example of somebody misbehaving on the internet.

    There is no need whatsoever to insult people doing research in academic laboratories, he was wrong to start, he is just wrong to continue,and he is extremely wrong to let posts be poured against others. Now, we find people tryng to justify this kind of behaviour. This is just rubbish.

  24. VF says

    No I am not saying that, I am saying that PZ Myers, every time he quotes my name, he does so with insults mockery, riduculing me, and then letting anonymous people rebound and continue mockeries in comments.

    The point is that I am just a normal scientist in a normal lab in France, doing acttual experimental research on embryos. Why on earth would I be a troll responding dementially to M. Myers? It just happens that this person uses his blog to offend poeple. I give this as a typical example. In physics we are used to counter-examples. M. Singham writes a sincere post with some clever thoughts around the quesiton of flaming vocabulary on the internet, and justifies it. But we have so many counter-examples of people just behaving like that “gratuitement” we would say in french,.

    In this specific case, it just happens that M. Myers is not a physicist and does not understand physics, and neither do the followers who trust him. Probably M. Singham by the way could make up his own opinion on this question, if he had time to waste.
    Still the conclusion is that we have authorities, like M. Myers pontifying and destroying people on the internet, just as the inquisition used to. All under some unpleasant justification about freedom of speech, novelty of internet, etc. it is likely that somebody will commit suicide some day, as a consequence of the posts of M. Myers, very likely. And there are other examples, this one is just one on Free THOUGHT bLOGS. M. Singham has not very far to look to just observe how mean people can be, just because “it’s internet”. This is, or at least can be dangerous, and should be regulated more.

  25. left0ver1under says

    B, I don’t like the incivility, but it’s like the old saying:

    Those would trade freedom for security deserve neither.

    If the only way to have free speech is to put up with profanity, trolls and insults, then it’s better than “civility” falsely created by censors who prevent the posting of profanities and prevent the posting of facts.

    Of course it’s better to have civility and unchecked free speech, but that’s bordering on the far-right’s fantasy of “abstinence only” as a means of stopping teen pregnancy. What we want to be true isn’t always possible.

  26. Beth says

    Civility does not equate to security. The costs of giving up freedom for security are well documented and on-going in our society.

    But does civility in the public square require censoring speech beyond what is already considered acceptable in our society? After all, there are acceptable limitations on free speech. Slander and libel are crimes, falsing yelling fire in a crowded theater, etc. Those limitations do not equate to censorship. So I question the assumption that calls for civility are the equivalent of calls for censorship.

    If the only way to have free speech is to put up with profanity, trolls and insults, then it’s better than “civility” falsely created by censors who prevent the posting of profanities and prevent the posting of facts.

    While I agree with this if statement, I’m not convinced that the if clause should be considered true. Facts can be posted without profanities.

    The abstinance only approach can be demonstrated a fantasy with empirical evidence that demonstrates it’s ineffectiveness. Can you provide any supporting evidence or argument for your contention that civility and free speech together is a fantasy rather than a possibility?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *