Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.
Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.
What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.
A now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.
Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…
As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.
This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.
This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”