What’s Wrong with Cyberspace? An “Atrophied Sense of Humility and Charity”

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Professor Alan Jacobs (English, Wheaton College) has a reflective post on “The Online State of Nature” over at Big Questions Online.  It is inspired at least in part by the cartoon at right (image source: here at xkcd.com).

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.

Someone might object: well, of course — those are political accomplishments, and politics is, or ought to be, largely about the pursuit of justice. That’s right, as far as it goes, but it overlooks the key variable that has changed in the late modern world: the dramatic increase in the information available to us about political action. We simply know more about politics, in all of its dimensions, than our ancestors ever could have. * * * 

And so, 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. * * * 

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.

Read Jacobs’s full post here.

I suppose this post caught my eye because (false) righteousness is an accusation hurled often at feminists — including me, for writings on this blog.  And feminists — including me, writing on this blog — often critique the lack of civility in cyberspace.  

The righteousness, lack-of-civility and failure-to-cultivate-charity-and-humility critiques ask that cyber-writers assume good faith (or at least some good faith) on the part of others.  I am far less sanguine than Jacobs about the high-mindedness of internet denizens.  Many (most?) anonymous commenters lack Jacobs’s desire for thoughtful engagement.  

-Bridget Crawford

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