Dennis Prager

Whenever people lament aspects of the Internet, they are most likely to lament the net's ubiquity of pornography. Only God knows, for example, how many kids, searching for some government information, typed in "whitehouse.com" only to be greeted by pornographic images (happily, the website changed hands in 2004). It is almost impossible to completely avoid such imagery even with filtering programs.

But there is something at least as awful -- and arguably more destructive -- that permeates the Internet: the lies, vitriol, obscenities and ad hominem attacks made by anonymous individuals on almost every website that deals with public issues.

Sexual images and prose for the purpose of sexual titillation are not new. But the ability of anyone in society to debase public discourse is new. Until the Internet, in the public's best known venue for self-expression -- letters to the editor published in newspapers and magazines -- people either expressed themselves in a civilized manner or they were not published. And overwhelmingly, even those letters that were not published were written in a respectful manner because the letter-writers had to reveal their real names and their addresses (though only names and cities were published).

Being identifiable breeds responsibility; anonymity breeds irresponsibility.

That is why people -- even generally decent people -- tend to act so much less morally when in a crowd (the crowd renders them anonymous). That is why people tend to act more decently when they walk around with their names printed on a nametag. That is why people act more rudely when in their cars -- they cannot be identified as they could outside of their car. There is no question but that most people would write very different entries on the Internet if their names were printed alongside their submission.

E-mail provides another example. It is the very rare individual who sends a hate-filled, obscenity-laced e-mail that includes his name. As the recipient of such e-mails, I know firsthand how rarely people identify themselves when sending hate-filled mail. It is so rare, in fact, that I usually respond to hate mail that includes the writer's name just to commend him for attaching his name to something so embarrassing.

The Internet practice of giving everyone the ability to express himself anonymously for millions to read has debased public discourse. Cursing, ad hominem attacks and/or the utter absence of logic characterize a large percentage of many websites' "comments" sections. And because people tend to do what society says it is OK to do, many people, especially younger people, are coming to view such primitive forms of self-expression as acceptable.


Dennis Prager

Dennis Prager is a SRN radio show host, contributing columnist for Townhall.com and author of his newest book, “The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code.”


 
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