Three Answers to Nastiness

At Ex Forencis, Larry Daniels is working out the anonymity issue.  Not because of the lack of credibility problem, but because they are mean. Larry, you should know, is a southern gentleman, as well as a guy who puts his name to his opinions, for better or worse.  He wouldn’t post something online that he wouldn’t say to your face.  Others do not adhere to Larry’s code of honor.

Is the internet making people meaner? Or is it just giving people a chance to be mean without consequences, allowing them to channel their inner monsters in a fast and convenient way?

If you read the comments that follow many news stories on web sites for television stations and other news outlets, it is frightening to see what people post about people accused of crimes, local politicians, celebrities, and anyone else who happens to raise their ire. Veiled threats, accusations about the personal lives of the person in the news, hate speech, it’s all there.

While I value free speech as much as anybody, it is funny that exercising that free speech is so much easier when you can remain hidden behind your keyboard. I don’t think people would be so quick to say some of the things they do about a person if they were within nose-punching distance of their target.

Notably, Larry hasn’t tried to work this nastiness into any side agenda in order to claim that it’s sexist or ageist or lookist, or any other “ist”.  It’s just plain nasty.

While the courts go to great lengths to protect the first amendment right of anonymous speech, it is not absolute as courts are now beginning to tackle serving anonymous defendants in internet harassment and defamation cases.

States have passed or are considering passing cyberbullying laws and other protections for people who are the subject of on-line threats, defamation and harassment.

Is this the answer?  It’s one of three potential solutions.  Another option is to do nothing, which apparently isn’t sufficiently satisfying to those who are wounded by the harsh words of their detractors.  And then there’s a third:

Sticks and stone…
Remember when someone called you a name as a child, and you ran home to Mommy to seek comfort and retribution?  What did Mom tell you?  That’s right.  Sticks and stones, baby.  Sticks and stones.  Anyone who has spent any time online knows that the cyberworld is filled with otherwise perfectly nice people who are disinhibited by anonymity and self-importance, allowing them to vent their worst self to compensate for their particularly small genitalia.  So what?

These aren’t special people.  They are the same people we meet, speak with, shake hands and give money to every day of our lives.  We just don’t know if because we see the actual person rather than read his or her ugliest thoughts. 

When I finished college, I put on a backpack and took to the road.  Eventually, I ended up in Germany, which was a very fun place for a young man.  But this was a long time ago, and every time I looked into the face of a 60 year old man, I thought to myself, “what were you doing in 1943?”  It disturbed me greatly.  World War II hadn’t been over long enough for the horror to wear off yet, and I found it impossible to divorce myself from the idea that anyone of these people could have been shooting at my father or murdering my distant relatives. 

But I couldn’t see what was inside their heads.  And I couldn’t blame them blindly for what they might, or might not, have done.  So I kept my suspicions to myself and went on to enjoy my time in Germany immensely.

I don’t know who these nasty anonymous posters are.  I know they aren’t me.  I know they aren’t Larry.  But they could be the guy at the gas station, or the gal at the grocery store.  I could walk around suspicious of them, but it wouldn’t help me any.  I could find out if I wanted to start suing every nasty person in sight, but that’s really not much of a life and, more than likely, wouldn’t improve the condition of life on the internet since there are far more nasty comments that courtrooms.

What strikes me as a far better way to deal with the nastiness is to come up with one of those cool internet words, like w00t or n00b, but one for anonymous posters who post nasty things.  We all know, or certainly should know, that these posts are worthless, meaningless, incredible and ugly.  When we read someone else’s bit of nastiness, we should be able to post that word as the response of the normal to the disinhibited nasty people.  Cut them down to size with a single syllable.  And the rest of us can LOL at them for being nasty and stupid.

If I can get past looking into the eyes of men who carried guns for the Third Reich, then I can certainly get beyond some disinhibited jerks who feel tough by posting nasty, vicious comments under a cloud of anonymity.  I bet others can manage this as well, without asking for new laws and judicial interference to silence people who call them names.  We already have laws to protect us from those who would actually act out their anger toward people whose views disagree with theirs, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with that. 

But nasty comments are still just words.  Sticks and stones, baby. 

6 thoughts on “Three Answers to Nastiness

  1. Sojourner

    Excellent post. Here in Galveston, Texas our local newspaper often shuts down forum threads on controversial subjects because people get nasty. It’s absolutely infuriating. Of course, people are routinely arrested for cursing here as well. Similar to this case in Alabama.

  2. Larry Daniel

    Hey Scott, as usual I agree with your assessment. Great post.

    I remember a trip I took to Norway back in the early 80’s. It was interesting that many older Norwegians still had considerable dislike for German tourists because many of them could still remember the occupation of Norway by German soldiers.

    Even in that extreme of a situation, it is too simple to lump a people into one bucket of evil.

    Sadly, in the prosecution of a war, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on the line are not fighting a political battle, but one of simple survival. Lofty ideals fade to the background in the trenches and it comes down to each side having to demonize the other in order for the public to support the war and the fighting men and women to overcome their natural desire not to kill another human being.

    Of course, none of that is related to the topic. lol. Sorry. Just got into musing over your excellent comments.

    Be well my friend.

  3. Gritsforbreakfast

    It’s not always as simple as ignoring them. Sometimes non-public figures’ names get bandied about in ways that are wrong, harmful, and IMO demand stronger action.

    I had one ex-Texas Youth Commission employee contact me this spring to ask that I remove several comments mentioning him (in posts that weren’t about him at all), at least two of which in my view were overtly libelous. Anonymous posters had attacked him in comment strings that were hundreds of comments long and I’d never noticed them. But when he went later to look for a job, those were the highest ranking Google pages that came up on the poor guy’s name and he was asked about it at job interviews! (To make matters worse, by all accounts what was said was false.) This sort of trollish behavior by TYC employees continued until recently when I finally just shut comments on the juvie prison threads down because a) my purpose is not to be TYC guards’ informal bulletin board and b) I don’t have the time nor motivation to monitor long comment strings for truly harmful speech and every single string degenerated quickly in to that sort of personalized, off-topic name calling.

    My general policy is they can say more or less whatever they want about me or anybody I consider a public figure, but off-topic anonymous slanders against non-public figures IMO need not be tolerated out of some faux commitment to free speech. My blog is MY forum for free speech, not theirs; I consider commenters guests.

  4. SHG

    As far as “best practices” for handling comments from the bloggers perspective, I agree completely and (as you know) monitor my comments fairly closely.

    But this post is from a different angle, the perspective of making the blogger (you and me) subject to government regulation in order to compel us to either delete comments or identify anonymous commenters.  While all bloggers should take some care to self-regulate their blawgs, I don’t think you’re suggesting that the answer is new laws to control blawg comments, force us to track and identify readers and commenters or make us legaly responsible/liable for the accuracy of comments.

  5. John Neff

    I do not consider a screen name to be anonymous because if anyone wants to take the trouble they discover the identity of an anonymous poster.

    Grits allows people to use anonymous as a screen name and the practice is to use that name and the time of the post to respond to a particular post. If the same person posts at another time you have to guess from the context and writing style which of the many persons that use anonymous as a screen name is the author of a particular post. It would not be as confusing if they were required to post using a unique screen name.

    By the way I started posting using a screen name (because that appeared to be the normal practice) then I started using my initials and now I use either my initials or my name.

    I really appreciate the close monitoring of the comments because it does improve the level of discourse.

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