Mark is blogging about nastiness in the blogs – specifically, blog comments – and has pointed his readers to an article about the downside of free speech, meaning, the downside of using the First Amendment in the US consitution to justify saying what you want about another person. You know: Gossip. Lie. Which is wrong.
But what got me writing, was this in the editorial:
[…]a Web site of postings for law schools prestigious and otherwise, where students blab about whatever. An awful lot of it is about other students, most of it mean-spirited. This is all extremely weird for those of us born before the Carter administration[…]
I was born before the Carter administration. I don’t think people’s morals are worse today than ever before; even Socrates complained about the young people of his day, so older generations have always eyed younger ones with a bit of skepticism. I am now (unfortunately? unnecessarily?) in that boat, because I can’t help but wonder at the lack of boundaries exhibited by the current crop of adolescents.
There are rules about how to get along with people. Not laws, but codes of conduct – morals and manners. Some have made it into religions, like the classic one about treating others as you would like them to treat you. It’s one thing to get caught up in a discussion and maybe say/write something in the heat of the moment. It’s something else not to realize that someone could be hurt by it, and not just emotionally right then and there, but later, because others also heard/read the comments – and believed them.
Intelligent law studens displaying an utter lack of empathy – or even the gift of foresight (looking ahead at possible effects)… I don’t believe for one second that young people today have no heart, so where did they get the idea that this is somehow not mean or harmful?
Since I have seen people of far more advanced years practically have a mental meltdown in Usenet discussions and spew the most incredible accusations, I have a theory that this is a direct effect of the computer era: Typed words on a screen do not let you see the “victim’s” reaction, nor the reaction of silent readers (lurkers). There’s little or no feedback, unless someone actually writes a response. You can spew umpteen times a day and get ten responses, but they are not representative of the other 10 or 10,000 who have also read you. If you stood in the college quad and yelled, you’d see your audience and have an idea of how many heard your yell. Silence in the face-to-face world doesn’t always mean agreement; it can mean stunned disagreement, but we can tell which thanks to facial expression. In writing, facial expressions and tone of voice are missing, and only partially compensated for by using emoticons. So we find ourselves reading or writing vicious words and personal attacks that we would never have heard or said in real life – and we find ourselves too often reacting wrongly because of lack of other cues that can clarify intent.
First amendment rights, sure. But that amendment was never about deliberately hurting people or lying about them. We need to remember the difference. The right to free speech is about the right to share information and opinions about public matters. That’s not the same as sharing confidences about a person’s private life. We need to remind everyone that behind every keyboard is a real, live human being – however faceless – and stuff that gets put in writing lives for a very, very long time.
The world of blog comments, web forums and chat groups, is an odd mix of instant intimacy and friendship, and anonymity and physical distance. This blurs boundaries and makes us sometimes forget that we are, after all and nevertheless, communicating with other people, and that our actual audience – witnesses to our exchanges – is largely unknown to us.
I am actually more even-tempered and diplomatic in writing than in real life, since writing affords me both opportunity to wait (and calm down) before responding, and the delete key. That’s a huge advantage to writing. I wish more would see and use that advantage.