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State of Nature

This morning, I noticed with interest that Holy Post, the National Post‘s religion blog, has decided to disable comments on their posts for a while due to the bad behaviour of commenters (curiously, comments are allowed on the post announcing that comments will no longer be allowed!).  Describing the customary combination of ignorance and vitriol that accompanies most posts on the blog as the “least attractive part of this site,” 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.

Truth be told, I don’t think that the level of nastiness on Holy Post is too much different than any other religion blog from a mainstream news source, but I can certainly 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 Holy Post or others like it, I have been reminded of just how hateful (not to mention illogical) people can be when protected by the anonymity of the internet.

Which reminded me of a book that I finished this week as I was ferrying back and forth to the mainland for a meeting.  Elias Aboujaoude’s Virtually You is 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.

I was particularly intrigued at Aboujaoude’s musings 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?”

An interesting idea… What do you think?  Is the internet showing us our (natural) true colours?   Just wondering…

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Phil Thomas #

    Before I had ever sat in front of a computer screen, I made a statement that it seemed to me from what I had heard, that the internet could be described briefly as “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”. Now since spending several years (about 10+) on the internet, I believe I made a true statement. And the original “tree” certainly revealed something of man’s nature.

    April 16, 2011
    • It is a medium that certainly presents something like that first choice in front of us in unique ways, isn’t it?

      April 17, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        ” And the original “tree” certainly revealed something of man’s nature.”

        Did it actually reveal or did it push a morality upon us? Is the internet not a similar concept except more versions of morality are fighting for dominance? The question to me here is not really if it exposes our true nature (whatever that is) but rather it is allowing us to expose who we want to be without the pressure of appearances demanded by societal norms. Some people embrace new freedom and become who they want to be, while for others there is no change in behaviour.

        April 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        “Did it actually reveal or did it push a morality upon us? Is the internet not a similar concept except more versions of morality are fighting for dominance?

        Sorry I half typed something else out and only erased part of it.

        I meant to suggest that the internet has created an environment where more moralities can fight out as opposed to in more ancient times where different systems had to remain much more hidden to the dominant ideologies.

        April 18, 2011
      • A couple of things, Tyler:

        1) I don’t think there actually are a whole bunch of genuinely different moralities out there. I think there are various conceptions of what constitutes the boundaries of what is largely a shared social ethic. But that’s probably just quibbling about technicalities…

        2) Perhaps I’m just visiting the wrong sites, but I don’t see a great deal of evidence that the internet really is this environment where various conceptions of morality can “fight it out.” I think that, ironically, the internet tends to make us more entrenched in our positions. I’ve read a number of analyses of online culture that point out that people tend to visit mostly those sites and read those views that reinforce their existing opinions. We can’t cope with the sheer volume and variety of information that the web makes available, so our worlds—even online—tend to remain small. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but in very broad terms this seems to be what’s going on.

        Perhaps that assessment sounds overly negative. I don’t mean to say that the internet offers nothing good or redeeming. I think that to the extent that it provides access to good information and gives people a voice who may not previously have had one, the internet is to be celebrated. I guess it’s just a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff—which gets tricky when there’s just so much chaff :).

        April 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        Hey Ryan,

        In addressing point 2, I would differ in conclusion greatly. While yes, as you suggest in your first point there are not a lot of entirely different moralities out there, they are different enough that we do argue about them. Our interaction then must be an extension of them and the internet as a platform for conversation allows us to get away with more… look at the levels of online pornography for example. In day-to-day life that magnitude of pornography is seen as not acceptable. Yet, it is the most popular item on the internet. Is that not a battle ground for a different morality to make progress in its main stream acceptance?

        I am not trying to discuss the moralities that we say we suscribe to, but rather those desires or inclinations that we have that we do not vocalize. Again, with pornography, clearly their is far greater numbers out there that suscribe to that sort of thing and do not make that known else where.

        April 18, 2011
      • I think that the pornography example you bring up nicely illustrates one of the main points of the post. In the absence of constraints upon our behaviour, we will revert to our most base instincts (a la Hobbes). This doesn’t seem to me to be about a new morality appearing as a challenge to older ones, where obscene levels of degrading pornography are all of a sudden morally exemplary. This is about what people can get away with when their behaviour is largely undetectable and when there are no immediate social sanctions upon them.

        April 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        But the assumption with that is that it is one of our basic instincts. Rousseau used the same reasoning to come to a completely different conclusion on what the base human desires are.

        How can new (and I mean new as in previously non-dominant) moralities become more mainstream if they will be persecuted in the main stream? Social networking has introduced the concept of limited privacy and this is seen as a virtue by many (Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) and people are told to put s much data about themselves on the internet. Others believe that people prefer to keep their privacy to do certain things. Which one will win out?

        April 19, 2011
      • I don’t think that either Rousseau or Hobbes was 100% correct. The state of nature for human beings is neither angelic nor animalistic. It’s a mix of both (although I think the case is arguably easier to make for a more Hobbesian view :)). In Christian language, I would say that this is because we are at the same time both image-bearers of God and sinners, and both show up, to varying degrees at various times, and in response to varying social conditions.

        I’m not suggesting that different conceptions of what is morally permissible or obligatory ought not to be discussed online (that would be a little ironic, not to mention hypocritical of me, given the nature of some conversations on this blog!). But I do think that the nature of the online world removes certain psychological and social constraints that are actually necessary for human flourishing and well-being.

        April 19, 2011
      • Tyler #

        Hmm ok I tend to agree on both those points haha. Maybe we are talking a bit past each other?

        I tend to see the internet as a place that is slightly different than day to day life that allows boundaries to be pushed… a new arena for morality and how it play out creates a new paradigm. Such as TV and the printing press, etc. were methods in which ideas were spread. As a result they helped undermine existing popular moralities.

        Could you elaborate on this?

        “I do think that the nature of the online world removes certain psychological and social constraints that are actually necessary for human flourishing and well-being.”

        Because many people have expressed similar sentiments in a positive manner.

        April 19, 2011
      • I don’t really mean anything too profound… I’m simply thinking that, in the past, the realities of real human interaction exerted certain pressures on behaviour. For example, having to look a real person in the eye before purchasing pornographic materials may have served as a bit of a deterrent—a deterrent that is obviously no longer operative when anything and everything is the click of a mouse away in the isolation of a dark basement with nothing but me and my computer screen.

        The same thing is true with online discourse. Having to see how our words affect real people across the table from us can have the effect of of moderating the tone of our conversations in a way that we don’t always see online. By reducing “conversations” to boxes of text hurled back and forth at faceless, sometimes even nameless entities, some important elements of ethical discourse are easily lost.

        I think that having to think about how our behaviour will be viewed by others can actually be a very good thing. It can lead to us making better choices, even if grudgingly and for not entirely praiseworthy reasons.

        April 19, 2011
  2. Rita #

    Ryan – Having to deal with the possible negative consequences of our words tends to hold most of us in some degree of restraint, so that we do not say precisely what comes to our minds, or precisely what we feel that other(s) needs to know or hear. When anonymity is guaranteed, we are suddenly free of that restraint – there is no accountability whatsover. My sense is that this draws some people to anonymous forums. It happens in areas other than the internet – the local newspaper in my town has a weekly feature that allows people to submit items anonymously for publication either roasting or toasting others. It can and sometimes is used for positive feedback, but it definitely is used to express nastiness too.

    April 17, 2011
    • Yes, the lack of accountability certainly plays a role in the state of affairs online. I think this is one of Hobbes’ central points: in the absence of a “sovereign”—someone or some institution to regulate and police social behaviour—humans will behave like animals toward each other. Of course, the internet has very few regulations, leaving us free to “be ourselves,” for better or, more often, for worse.

      April 18, 2011
  3. Rita #

    … and I do find that some of the worst nastiness comes forward in discussion about matters of faith – from those supposedly defending faith or religion, and those attacking it.

    April 17, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Let me be the luddite aka, if the paper bag fits over the head, I’m wearin’ it. 🙂

    “Have you been told today?” is a common Scottish bon mot. No big deal. “Sticks and stones” and all the rest as the saying goes. While I don’t seriously mean to affirm hostility I do think there are a lot of overly sensitive responses to what in the end are merely words on screen directed from mostly anonymous sources. Irrespective of the character implications regarding the authors of thoughtless or unnecessarily aggressive comment, I don’t think it flatters the respondent to make a major issue of it. Assume your conversation partner is sincere but overly passionate, respond to what is constructive ( or not at all if nothing is) and move on. For something to be truly offensive, someone must first take offense.

    There. Consider yourselves told. Now, Maggie! WHERE’S MA SUPPER !!!

    (I’m probably not a big fan of comment banning)…shhh!

    April 17, 2011
    • I don’t like comment banning either—I think I’ve only done it once or twice in four + years on this blog. I’m not convinced Holy Post is doing the right thing. But I don’t agree that “for something to be truly offensive, someone must first take offense.” Some words really are hateful. Words on a screen are not always merely words on a screen. Just think about the phenomenon of cyber-bullying and the sometimes life-threatening effects it can and does have on young people.

      April 18, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes, you are right to remind me of the tragic impact that “cyber-bullying” can and does have. I was thinking more about the sometimes intemperate discussions that occur between adults over issues about which both parties are lacking in agreement but not in passion.

        Still, from a Christian perspective, ought there not be space for a “turn the other cheek” I will take no offense and in this way diffuse offensiveness, argument?

        It is something of a slippery slope to be sure. Steeling the young in such a way that we may actually promulgate the continuation of hostile behavior, is a real danger of my perspective. On the other hand, had those who have done harm to themselves or others as a consequence bullying simply rejected the claims of their taunters, no harm would have come from it.

        April 18, 2011
  5. In the past I have belonged to a couple of e-mail listservs devoted to preaching, and each time I have unsubscribed because of ungracious clergy on the list. Not ungracious to me (usually), but in general… clergy with a deeply troubled, negative spirit. It doesn’t take many of this bad disposition to spoil the experience for everyone.

    I don’t think the Internet is creating more unhappy clergy and religious people, but it does give them a wider platform to stand on and air their unhappiness. The Internet also removes the modesty that face-to-face communication often fosters.

    April 18, 2011
    • That’s really unfortunate, Chris. Embarrassing, really.

      I think you’re right—the main thing the internet does is provide that “wider platform.” It gives free reign (and perceived legitimacy, perhaps) to some of our most negative and destructive tendencies and cuts our discourse off from any kind of wider accountability to real human beings.

      April 18, 2011
  6. What is more embarrassing, Ryan, is when I slip into the online snarkiness myself. It hasn’t happen often, but I have always repented of it afterward. That old saying is true: “I have often regretted speaking, but rarely having remained silent.” Your point that the nature of the Internet itself tends to draw this out of us more easily is well taken.

    April 18, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Hey Chris, quick question. When you do ” slip into the online snarkiness myself,” is it more than you would in a regular conversation?

      Like you, I do sometimes say things in a manner I later regret, or after a look over (once it is posted) realize that I could have said something a little more diplomatically but find that it is much less “snarky” than I do in day-to-day conversations. It is almost as if typing slows me down and forces me to check myself.

      April 18, 2011
    • I like that old saying, Chris. It is wise indeed.

      (I, too, cringe when I read some of my past comments on various forums. Another pitfall of the internet, perhaps… “my sins are ever before me.”)

      April 18, 2011
  7. Tyler, yes more than in regular conversation. I have more facility with the written word than the spoken. I am more reticent in person.

    The other day I ran across a contentious comment I made on someone’s blog a couple of years ago. It made me cringe. I’d have never said it in person.

    April 18, 2011
  8. Ken #

    I don’t think the internet changes anything.

    Yesterday I went to a large Earth Day fair. I saw a young woman standing with a group of Planned Parenthood supporters were holding signs in front of a Planned Parenthood booth. Her sign said “people who oppose abortion are evil and are going to hell.” No anonymity. I wondered what Planned Parenthood thinks of the sign. I wondered if the organization had any control over the signs and the people holding them.

    Down the sidewalk, a few hundred feet I guess, a scruffy-looking man held a sign saying he is a Christian. I overheard him say to someone, in what sounded to me like a harsh tone, “then you have not been saved because you have not repented.”

    Such things are part of public discourse, on and off of the internet.

    A blogger is a publisher, and responsible for everything published at the blog. The blogger sets the standard. That is a safeguard that is often lacking in other venues. It is up to the blogger to exercise it or not, up to the blogger to set the acceptable range of tone and content.

    April 18, 2011
    • LarryS #

      maybe the lady with the sign should read Rob Bell’s book 🙂

      April 18, 2011
      • That would just be piling confusion upon anger, Larry :).

        April 18, 2011
    • Ken, I’m not suggesting that the internet is responsible for the advent of bad behaviour or uncivilized discourse. Your examples obviously show that we don’t need a computer screen or anonymity to be offensive. I am simply saying that the internet makes it easier for more people to be nastier more often and in a more widely accessible forum.

      Perhaps the people you saw at the fair are just more abrasive and confrontational by disposition. Perhaps for every person like this, there are 10 or 20 or 100 or 1000 who would say similar things if protected by anonymity. The internet lets us find out.

      April 18, 2011
      • Ken #

        That is what I thought you were saying. It just doesn’t match my impressions. Instead, I think the aggression finds other outlets and does not go unexpressed.

        I don’t think we can determine this. All we can do is exchange impressions.

        At the same time, I think some bloggers relish a fight and provoke it. Kind of like Jerry Springer. The blogger is the publisher of the good and the evil, the editor. It sounds like the blogger about which you wrote just didn’t want to do this anymore. It disgusted him. It is interesting to watch Springer morally justify what he does. Interesting only, not plausible.

        April 18, 2011
  9. James #

    On the other hand . . .
    as one of those people who, unlike Chris, is able to be rude in both oral and written mediums 🙂 the thing I like about written discourse is the accountability it demands of me. I don’t have to rely on my failing or tainted memory to recall what I have said- there it is for me to reread, often with chagrin.
    I see text as a gift from God. It also allows a brief moment of reflection between my expression and hitting the “Post Comment”. That too is a gift I treasure and try to exercise with increasing frequency.

    April 19, 2011

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