Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Cloak of Anonymity

In Plato's Republic, in the course of figuring out whether any man is truly just, the idea is presented that if a man could have a ring which made him invisible, then one could truly judge his character by how he behaved,  because he wouldn't be putting on a show for the sake of appearing just and honorable.

Of course this is only a thought experiment, because if such a ring existed then the man who had it would indeed be beyond the judgement of others.

Plato could never have imagined computers and the internet in his wildest dreams. A world where people are free to say what they are thinking without being held personally accountable for their words. What we end up with is a great tool by which to judge our culture as a whole, as well as specific regions in the country. For instance, the Confederate States accounted for 90% of the explosion in hateful, racist social media comments in the days after Obama's reelection... the same states that the Supreme Court later decided are no longer in need of election law oversight by the federal government because "times have changed."

The kind of racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia that is most visible in our country today is so subtle that it's almost subconscious. It's obvious to those who are the victim of it, and those who are sensitive enough to pick up on the codes that are built into our language and gestures, but when one points it out and says, "Aha! See that? That's what I'm talking about!" It's too easy for everyone else to say, "That? That was an innocent joke," or, "that would have happened to anyone regardless of their race or gender or sexual orientation."

But now, the reality of our mentality as a nation can be found in the comments section of any major website. Just go on YouTube, pick a random noncontroversial subject, and choose a video that stars a female or a person of color. To say that the comments are appalling is an understatement. These comments are not subtle, they are not lighthearted jokes, and they rarely have anything at all to do with the content of the video. They are just hateful nastiness for the sake of being hateful and nasty. Basically, the kind of behavior that was perfectly acceptable in 1950's America.

There has been a lot of brainstorming about how to censor this behavior in public forums, like forcing people to verify their identity before they can post comments. I think that would be a bad idea. Let's not go back to pretending these vile and dangerous ideas and attitudes are a thing of the past. If anything, we need to start paying more attention to these comments. Sites like YouTube and Twitter should have a running banner at the top of the screen scrolling every sexist, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic comment that is posted. For every half hour of news broadcast, two minutes should be devoted to reading these comments out loud on the air.

Because at this point, any person in this country who claims that derogatory attitudes about ethnic and gender groups is no longer a problem in our culture are either being willfully ignorant, or they are the ones making these outrageous anonymous comments.

After all, the driver of hate is fear. Fear that given opportunities outside the home, women might seek out interests other than serving men. Fear that homosexuals getting married will threaten the stability of heterosexual marriage. Fear that equal opportunities for nonwhites will result in fewer opportunities for whites.

So let's stop trying to ignore these people and start shining a bright light on the bile that they spew in our public square from under their cloaks of anonymity.

We can't make them take responsibility for their words, but we can start taking responsibility for what those words reveal about our culture.