Dirty Little Not-So-Secrets: The National Political Discourse
It's becoming obvious to me that I spend too much time on my computer. And I am suffering for it. No, I don't have carpal tunnel syndrome or eye strain (yet!). But I am definitely feeling the effects of some very unpleasant symptoms: annoyance, incredulity, shock and sadness. I am also exhibiting 'd' as in disbelief, biting my tongue in anger, grinding my teeth in frustration, and jabbing my finger on the delete key with practiced alacrity.
Sadly, my reaction to others' reactions on the Internet suggests that the amazing modern electronic revolution has not only allowed communication to flourish, it has permitted it to deteriorate to the gutter level of incivility. Freedom of speech has in too many instances become freedom to offend, and, as a result, entering the mass media discussion comes with gut-wrenching risks. Be prepared to be brutally insulted by those who disagree with you. Brace yourself for bombast, rudeness, ridicule and downright lies. Accept that it is all dished out freely under the cowardly cover of anonymity provided by the miracle of high speed electronics. A word of advice, though: Even if you think you have the stomach for it, do not get enmeshed in Internet discourse without a thick skin and a barf bag!
I learned this hard lesson when I wrote a weekly newspaper column. Once in a while there would be a letter to the editor commenting on a piece I'd written. But these were routinely edited for "inappropriateness." And there probably wasn't much of that, anyway, since no letter would be published without the real name of the sender. No pseudonyms, "handles" or disguises were permitted. Nobody could crouch behind a catchy moniker like "Awarewolf," "Hitshot," or "Kill-R-Beez."
But once an article is posted on the Net — the "national everything talkathon" open to everyone — few holds are barred. Complaints and compliments rain down like Tropical Storm Isaac, with the barest of levees in place to contain them. Some diatribes are coarsely calculated to rile up those who disagree. Name calling (e.g. "Re-pig-lican" or "Damnocrat") is purposefully — even gloatingly — designed to bully and bash. One never really get used to such anonymous vitriol, of course; and fighting back is fruitless.
America has always been, to one extent or another, a politically divided country. That is to be expected in a democracy. Dissent is what makes us free. Yet there was a time not all that long ago when citizens of opposing viewpoints could debate the issues short of getting down and dirty. The sea change — with its inflexible calcification of opinion — has been coming on gradually. And it has been enabled to great extent by the ease and immediacy with which our opinions can now be spread, sans a shred of personal responsibility or reason required.
Technology is one of the few things that has advanced for the better in my lifetime. But it has its downsides, too. And nothing brings that home more brutally than opening one's computer and observing the national "chat."
Photograph: "National Citizens for Eisenhower" in 1952, as shown in the "'VOTE!' exhibition of political Americana on Cornell University, 2000
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