Has the Internet damaged our culture and our politics? John Hawkins thinks so. He writes about a decline in civility in our culture, the power that comes from being able to anonymously say what you like without fear of repercussion, online polarization between left and right, and a decline in attention span.
Back in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had a series of famous debates in which both men spoke for an hour and a half each. Today, only 10% of people on the net will even watch an entertaining five-minute video all the way through. That’s problematic for our society because there are quite a few issues that simply cannot be adequately boiled down to a single slogan or sentence.
It would be foolish to deny there are problems with the Internet in our country. But to borrow a phrase from the gun rights movement, “The Internet doesn’t destroy culture, people destroy culture.”
Put another way, if you were to drop the Internet into the midst of the political life of 1858, would the people of that time have become drooling sycophants with the attention spans of six-year-olds? Of course not. Their social structure was such that the Internet would have developed in an entirely different way. The Internet was formed by culture, not the other way around.
Long before the existence of online forums, talk radio allowed people to mouth off with some anonymity. If you live in a good sized town and have a fairly common name, unless you have a one-of-a-kind voice no one knows who “Fred in Seattle” is and certainly no one will punch him in the nose.
Letters to the editor in newspapers are much the same way, even though people have to sign their names. The anonymity of other forums doesn’t make our society coarser. It just opens the door for others to join in the coarseness already in progress.
As for polarization, certainly the Internet has led to a cluster of polarized groups, but once again we have to ask if the Internet is responsible for this. I don’t think our political differences merely come down to the triviality portrayed in Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book. Rather, there are bigger differences than perhaps at any time in American history. When the differences are so pronounced, it leads to a much higher level of hostility.
Because for so many years we have settled political differences through the courts and not the ballot box, every presidential election and every administration has at its core basic cultural questions. Will abortion be legal or illegal? What will marriage mean? What level of religious freedom will be enjoyed? In essence, underlying each national election is the idea that the next administration will make either devastating or positive decisions concerning taxes, foreign policy, and defense. It will also help decide what type of culture we’ll have and what type of nation we will be.
When passions and issues get hot, politics gets coarse. But it’s been coarser at other times in our nation’s history. In 1856, two years prior to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate, Senator Charles Sumner (R-Ma) mocked Senator Andrew Butler’s (D-SC) handicap on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Senate didn’t even bother to sanction Sumner.
Instead, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), went over to the Senate and beat Sumner half to death, leaving Sumner unable to perform his duties in the Senate for three years. The House couldn’t even muster the votes to expel Brooks. Brooks resigned from Congress but was re-elected. His constituents sent Brooks several new canes (one that had the phrase “hit him again” engraved on it). And within five years of that beating, the nation was to begin a civil war that would leave hundreds of thousands of Americans slain
The problems Hawkins highlights are hardly new and at various times throughout our history have even been worse.
This isn’t to say that we should be complacent about the state of our culture, but we shouldn’t pursue a cultural version of the economic stimulus and just do something to say we’re doing something.
Rather, we must adopt a triage view of our nation’s culture. There are critical issues that must be solved and serious problems that should be addressed — problems that it would be nice to correct. And then there’s stuff that we’d better just accept because there’s nothing we can do while still being effective on the more important issues.
Much thought and discussion will go into what those priorities should be, and successful execution will require people to participate in the most counter-cultural behavior of our times: thinking.