All the noise
One of the many things the Internet has accomplished is to make generally available the kind of commentary previously restricted to the walls of men’s rooms.
It’s all there: the relaxation of inhibitions afforded by anonymity; the indulgence in prejudice, hostility, anger and contempt; the hyper-masculinity*; and even an occasional lone flash of imagination and wit.
My estimable colleague, David Sullivan of The Philadelphia Inquirer, recently contrasted that kind of discourse with the kind people used to seek in newspapers: “Newspapers — which exist in a world of ‘Let us tell you something we have determined to be right and you do not know and realistically you could never find out on your own’ — simply can't compete with ‘Let me show you what a dude I am.’ "**
This coarsening of public discussion appears to go hand in hand with a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts. It is not just that there are differences of opinion being aired; one expects vigorous disagreement over aesthetic judgments and political views. What is disturbing is that if you differ from my perception of reality, I will simply heap personal abuse on you.
The phenomenon itself is not novel — one recalls the vicious pamphleteering between Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries or the scurrilous accusations that have marked American politics from the earliest days of the Republic.
But the sheer volume of it — volume in both senses, quantity and decibel level — is disturbing. It crowds out much of what attempts to be reasonable.
*Observation suggests that men who are assured in their masculinity see no particular need to comment on the masculinity of others.
**These comments should in no way be construed as a reflection on a certain popular Web site whose members — many of whom, I am assured, hold the Ph.D. — engage in freewheeling discussion, genial banter and amusing personal remarks.