The Internet and the World Wide Web have proved themselves to be powerful means of promoting research, scholarly discussion and debate, and all-around learning. At this point it is difficult to imagine doing without them. Yet they have a dark side, too. On that side we find, sometimes even at sites dedicated to professional give-and-take, a remarkable amount of inconsiderate, rude, and downright insulting expression.
Recently, for example, a fellow contributing editor of the History News Network’s Liberty & Power Group Blog — let’s call him Mr. X — made a post to call attention to a new blog. He might have done so by stating:
Those interested in science and peer review issues might be interested in a new blog.
But, instead, he wrote:
Those interested in science and peer review issues for more than finding lame reasons to discount work on global warming might be interested in a new blog.
Now, regular readers of Liberty & Power will recall that not long ago, on May 7, I posted a short article at this site under the heading "Peer Review, Publication in Top Journals, Scientific Consensus, and So Forth" and that a lively discussion ensued in which Mr. X and several others debated various issues related to my article, in particular, issues bearing on the subject of human-caused global warming. In that discussion and others at the same site, Mr. X expressed strong claims for his position and suggested in so many words that those who disagreed with his views were, shall we say, personally deficient in some way, although the nature of the deficiency — whether it was intellectual, moral, or ideological — usually remained murky in the midst of exchanges that sometimes grew rather heated.
Well, all right, Mr. X is scarcely the only person with strong feelings about the science of global climate change, its methods, and its findings. But now, when he revisits this topic, he inserts in his post a gratuitous and backhanded characterization of those who disagreed with him earlier as "those interested in science and peer review issues [only] for . . . finding lame reasons to discount work on global warming." Disregard the clumsy sentence construction — after all, it makes little sense to suppose that anyone seeks "lame reasons" to support his views — and consider only the writer’s inclusion of an uncalled-for insult in his statement. In 1944, F. A. Hayek dedicated his great anti-socialist tract The Road to Serfdom, evidently with complete sincerity, to "the socialists of all parties." Mr. X, however, feels no obligation to extend the same sort of courtesy to his intellectual opponents (as he habitually takes other contributors to Liberty & Power to be whenever they take issue with any of his views and at times defensively in anticipation that they may take issue).
Of course, my example is so mild and trivial that one might well wonder why I call attention to it, and I admit that it may have struck me in part because Mr. X has had occasion to throw verbal spears at me and my views in the more distant past, as readers of Liberty & Power with extremely good memories may recall. But apart from this latest example, any of us can surely point to a great number of instances in which contributors to Web-site discussions and debates have deliberately made ill-mannered statements rather than equally informative but courteous ones.
Often, I suspect, this nastiness occurs because the medium offers discussants personal distance or anonymity of a sort that other venues do not. If you insult your colleagues at a faculty meeting or in the hallway of your office building, then even if they do not retaliate immediately, they may await an apt occasion to pay you back in kind, perhaps with interest. In face-to-face settings, a certain amount of common courtesy suggests itself as sensible even to the nastiest sorts of people, if only to save themselves grief at pay-back time. On many Web sites, however, comments are allowed from one and all, and many of those who post comments do so while identifying themselves, if at all, only by Internet nicknames or enigmatic icons. The marginal cost of posting an insult for all the world to see is negligible, and the risk of serious personal retribution is virtually nil, especially for persons who have no established reputation to protect in the first place, so nothing impedes a person who is given to making spiteful remarks and dispensing personal insults.
I place an article of some sort on the Web perhaps every two or three weeks, on average, and many of them are later linked to or reposted at other Web sites where comments are invited. Over the years, I have been called nearly every insulting name imaginable by those who post comments on my articles. Perhaps the most popular insult is "idiot," although various synonyms also make a strong showing. The more vulgar writers declare me to be an "a**hole," a "s**thead," and so forth — if you are a man, just think back to your high school locker room for the rest of the inventory. For my views on war and the state, I am often described as a "coward," an "anti-American," or an "America hater"; I am said to lack "guts" and to be the sort of man who would stand by while his wife or daughter was raped or murdered — all this calumny being flung, mind you, by people who know virtually nothing about me.
Perhaps the most remarkable insults are those that dismiss me as a "socialist," a "liberal" (by which the insulter clearly has in mind a contemporary American left-liberal), or a "leftist." Strange to say, others describe me in contrast, often in a style more condescending than blatantly insulting, as a "conservative." Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with me or my views will understand immediately how far off base both of these classes of ideological insult are — I have been a lifelong opponent of socialism, and I am certainly no conservative — but Internet insulters do not feel constrained to learn anything about a person before they fling an insult at him. The Web seems to attract a host of people who are densely ignorant and do not read or think carefully. They visit Web sites wearing a bandolier of personal affronts, and on the slightest provocation they shoot from the hip, content to let Allah sort out their rhetorical victims.
If a site is open to everybody, then nothing can be done about this nastiness unless someone manages the site and suppresses the viciousness. On sites such as Liberty & Power, where only authorized persons can make original posts, it might be possible to use moral suasion to keep the start-up discussion within civilized bounds. I appreciate, of course, that in certain metropolitan areas of this country an insulting style of discourse is as common as traffic congestion. Many of us, however, hail from elsewhere, and we have acquired the perhaps quaint idea that nastiness does not make a positive contribution to the process of learning from one another. On behalf of these others, I beseech those given to insults: mind your manners. If you do, you may even find that people will pay more attention to what you have to say.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan Government Power and a Free Society. This article originally appeared on the History News Network.