I have observed, over the past few months, that many major blogs and news sources have taken to disabling or at least heavily moderating the comments on their websites. Here in Canada, Holy Post, the National Post‘s religion blog, has taken this step almost exclusively due to the bad behaviour of commenters. Describing the customary combination of ignorance and vitriol that accompanies most posts on the blog as the “least attractive part of this site,” editor Charles Lewis elaborates thus:
I reached the point where I did not want to spend my free time baby sitting what should be a site for adults. I also know many of you think of the Internet as some kind of free community where anything goes, but I’m afraid I do not agree. This site is owned by a private company — and so we have the right and duty to filter out libel, racism and just plain foolishness.
In a later piece, Lewis was much more direct:
[T]he reason is simple: there a number of people whose comments are so foul and grotesque that we cannot leave them stand.
I can appreciate the exasperation that comes through in Lewis’s comments. On the rare occasions when I have ventured, with much trepidation, into the comments section of major science, politics or religion blogs, I have been reminded of just how hateful (not to mention illogical) people can be when protected by the anonymity of the Internet. Whether it is debates about science and religion or the latest exploits of Toronto mayor Rob Ford or if/how climate change causes catastrophes like the recent one in the Philippines, or any other potentially controversial issue that hits the news, it seems that online forums on these topics (and others) tend to descend into madness with alarming speed and predictability.
In his book Virtually You, Elias Aboujaoude takes a sobering look at the effects that the Internet can have and is having upon our personalities, habits, and behaviour. It’s not a very pretty picture—the general idea seems to be that we are less inhibited, less informed, less disciplined, less discerning, and, well, less civilized online than we are in “real” life. Aboujaoude wonders about whether or not the current state of affairs online, might just resemble Thomas Hobbes’ famous “state of nature”—the war of all against all. Rather than shaping our behaviour in uniquely deleterious ways, the Internet—so naturally and frequently associated with “progress”—may actually be reversing some of the hard-won social accomplishments of “civilization.”
Here’s how Aboujaoude puts it:
What if the virtual world, rather than making us more bellicose, immature, and impulsive, is simply allowing our true instincts to return? Could the new you be, in a sense, more real than the real thing? Is e-personality more true to our core? Is virtualism, by turning the clock on civilization and the social contract, simply taking us back to something that might be called our “state of nature?”
It’s an interesting idea. Might the Internet be showing us our true colours? And how exactly should we think about our true colours in the digital age? When online profiles are customized and edited at the click of a mouse, when companies can be hired to write favourable reviews of your restaurant or business (or at least show appear higher on the screen than the negative ones!), when the lines between truth and fiction seem to be a lot fuzzier than they once were, it can be easy to grow very cynical indeed about who we are and what we say in the realm of public discourse.
In Matthew 5:36-37, Jesus offers some very simple teaching to the crowds.
And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don’t hide or obfuscate the truth, don’t mock and ridicule the views of others, don’t try to make yourself look better than you are. Pay others the respect of dealing with them fairly and honestly. These words sound wistful, even naïve in our age when we expect everything to be spun before it hits our ears or eyes, where we assume that ideas will be attacked more often than engaged with honesty, openness, and respect, where we are conditioned to expect half-truths, lies, and poisonous polarizing discourse. All you need to say is simply “yes” or “no?” Jesus sounds like he lives on a different planet than we do!
But Jesus did not live in a time so very different from our own. Jesus, too, was well acquainted with the abuse of power, moral corruption, and slick, evasive words. Jesus knew all about our state of nature, even as he pointed (simply) beyond it. Honesty, integrity, simplicity, respect, empathy, trust. Whether we are in first century Palestine or the twenty-first century digital age, these are the building blocks of any culture or politic or sphere of discourse that has genuine human flourishing as its goal. These are the steps we must take as we pursue what we were made to be and to do.