Friday, January 21, 2011

Name withheld by request

It's a jungle out there.

When I say that, I mean what seemingly everyone else in the media has said: There is a lack of civility among many in this country. Granted, it may not be as blatant as in past centuries, but name-calling seems to be old hat for commentators, politicians, and others who generally have a camera or a microphone in front of their faces.

I love a good debate, and I've always lived by the maxim that if one side stoops to insults, that side has lost. After all, insults are usually what fly when you've run out of important things to say. But it seems many people don't abide with that maxim. Perhaps it's because they've run out of important things to say themselves.

Mostly folks like to point fingers at who is causing the level of discourse to take a nose dive. Some blame talk radio. Some blame selected politicians. Some blame television commentators or even entire networks. I think I have the real culprit in mind. The Internet.

Please understand that the world wide web is not responsible for things resembling hate-speech. It's the speaker's fault and the speaker's responsibility to tone down the rhetoric. But the anonymity offered by the Internet takes away the inhibition of many who might behave if everyone knew his or her identity. It's like lobbing grenades while traveling incognito.

Back where I grew up, the local newspaper did not require those who wrote letters to the editor to sign them. That way, person A could write about the terrible service they received at the local gas station and not have to worry about having the clerk let the air out of her tires on her next visit. Or person B could scream and whine about his neighbor's trashy lawn and not need to hire a guard to keep the litter off his property. The signature for those letters would be “Name Withheld By Request.” As a reader, if you read the editorial page to see some juicy letters, you skipped the ones with names at the bottom and went straight to those from Name Withheld By Request.” Those anonymous letters were always full of a mixture of anger, guile, hatred, and likely a little too much alcohol. But they were written because “nobody will ever know who wrote it anyway.”

I'm glad we don't print those letters here at The Times Bulletin. We still get them, mind you, but they are filed inside a large green plastic bag. Usually they aren't even read. If you aren't adult enough to put your name on your opinion, I guess that opinion isn't worth anyone's time.

I've spend a lot of time on the Internet over the past dozen years or so, on forums, chat rooms, blogs and the like. What could be a legitimate, healthy face-to-face debate often becomes more heated and vengeful when the participants are hiding behind Internet screen names or handle. Think about it: If I am “Ed Gebert” there are expectations for civil behavior since people can track me down, but if I am “ihateeveryone238” no one expects anything from me. I am a character, a persona, a mysterious identity.

And trust me, those hiding behind screen names usually are the ones dragging down civility in online conversations. Not everyone with screen names is doing that, but if the debate is in the mud, chances are it's shutupanddie66 who started it.

But I can't blame everything on Internet anonymity. I knew a guy online who was always an obstinate jerk whenever he took part in a discussion. One day I met him in person, and he turned out to be the exact same in real life. There's something to be said for consistency, I suppose.

But for all the talk of being civil, there are always going to be arguments. I heard a fellow today complain that people at a local coffee shop were up in arms about the latest go-round of whether to allow beer to be sold on city property. He seemed to be shocked that people were upset with one another about the whole affair. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself that this certain coffee shop has seen plenty of arguments over coffee in the years since 1922. A former professor of mine told me he learned about many of life's weightier questions while listening to the patrons at a bar in Willshire.

But do we have to be so nasty about it? Do the people who disagree with me have to be such idiotic, brainwashed low-lifes?

Whoops. I guess I lost that one.

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