There’s Something Wrong with the Internet…

Not something technical.  Nothing related to search speeds, data rates, or image loading.  No, the “something” I’m thinking about is more of a social ill.

Call it, the loss of polite discourse.

This has been developing for a long time.  The internet has become an environment that encourages facelessness.  Distance.  Anonymity.  You can post opinions, sling insults, or go into attack mode pretty much without fear of repercussion – as long as you don’t mind receiving the same.

Back in the good old days, we held our tongues in check as we cautiously explored the beliefs, thoughts, and opinions of others – usually with an eye toward finding things we could agree upon, rather than searching out difference and quickly resorting to name-calling and similar abuses.  When we did openly and vehemently disagree, there was usually enough social pressure that we at least pretended to give the other person’s opinion a fair hearing.

Face to face interaction seemed to moderate the worst in us to a degree that online life rarely does.  And when there was an in-person blow up, it was an uncommon and memorable (and often unpleasant) experience.

Compare that to today’s online environment where there’s a fight breaking out every few seconds.

New news outlets have emerged that exacerbate this dynamic – be they politically leaning, religious focused, or devoted to a particular cause.  The virtual death of fact-based, investigative news reporting is a secondary consequence of this phenomenon.  I mourn the loss, as trying to get at the facts has become an investigation in itself.

The way things appear to work today is someone writes a provocative opinion piece (usually just a few hundred words or so, because our collective attention spans are a mere shadow of what they once were), then publishes it on a sympathetic “news” outlet.  Next, some of the people in agreement with the opinion “share” it on Facebook.  And then the fun begins.

Insults, dismissive quips, sarcasm, labeling, generalization, and an overall atmosphere of intolerance usually pervade the comments section of any controversial (or semi-controversial, in some cases) articles – both on the original page where the article is posted, and on their supporter’s Facebook pages.  Rarely are these comments thoughtful, well-reasoned, instructive, and they pretty much never change anyone’s mind.

And then there are trolls, individuals that lay in wait for a chance to lob grenades just to try to get the ball rolling.  At least some of us have matured to the point where we ignore troll-work, but there always seems to be some poor sucker that takes the bait.

In today’s environment, civil discourse on controversial subjects seems to have virtually disappeared.  We talk to those people that agree with us, while hurling insults or worse at those that don’t.  Little effort is made, even of a perfunctory fashion, to understand the position of others who DON’T agree.

And those of us old enough to have been trained by the old norms of face-to-face interactions often find ourselves sitting on the sidelines, reluctant to get into what would have been, in our day, thought of as an ugly and socially awkward fight.  Effectively, our voices have been silenced.

Sometimes I find myself pining away for the good ole days.

To wit, the resent flap over Indiana’s RFRA law which, given my ties to Indiana, placed me a bit closer than usual to the center of the fray.  In the early going, the avalanche of opinions were all pretty much one sided – if you weren’t flatly against this law, you were a bigot who hated the LGBT community, and probably enjoyed drowning puppies on the side.

A bit of reflection would have probably convinced most reasonable people that there must be more to the story than the rhetoric at that moment – that the state legislature in Indiana was simply filled with bigoted politicians who wanted nothing more than to ramrod through a law benefiting their constituency at the expense of anyone and everyone else.  But then at that time, no one was being reasonable or reflecting.  Far from it, in fact.  All I saw in the early going was screaming, name-calling, and vicious attacks on anyone that might give even a hint of disagreement with the prevalent, online opinion.

Eventually, some arguments for why RFRA might not be just a tool designed for gay-bashing began to surface, and I was able to attempt to sort through the issue.  Alas, it was a long time after the “debate” appeared to have ended.

All things considered, I don’t consider RFRA a bad concept.  I don’t think that people should be forced to violate their own religious beliefs – it is, after all, one of the founding principles of our Constitution.  Where such principles come in conflict with anti-discrimination laws (which, I suspect, will happen rarely), I don’t think it is unreasonable for the situation to be resolved in court based on the merits of the competing arguments (which is, I believe, what would happen under RFRA), rather than simply, by default, always being governed by the anti-discriminatory rules.  The same can be said for other, conflicting laws, as well, such as Obamacare.  This is basically what the supreme court affirmed in the Hobby Lobby case.

I do have some concerns that the law might be overly broad, and that some opportunistic people (“The Church of Cannabis,” for example) might try to push the limits on the definition of what is “religious.”  Of course, writing laws (or rules) perfectly so that they can withstand every possible extension to the extreme, is a pretty tough challenge – if you don’t think so, then try your hand at it.  I had plenty of experience with similar wordsmithing when developing work rules to be used in the corporate world.

So now that I’ve said my peace, let the lobbing of grenades begin…