I’ve got a couple of ideas for follow-up posts to this one, so a little bit of background is probably in order. “Thoughts that stuck” are those simple ideas, sometimes said in passing, that have stuck with me over a long period of time because they capture the essence of or provide an interesting way to analyze a thought-provoking issue.
The first “thought that stuck” comes from a conversation I had with my family during high school, when my dad would bring home “issues of the day” for us to talk about at dinner. During one of these discussions, back in the relatively early days of the internet, we were talking about how the internet could affect social mores, and my mom took this view of the influence of the internet (heavily paraphrased):
The anonymity that the internet affords people, coupled with the dramatically expanded access that it provides to other people from around the world, has the potential to make previously discouraged attitudes, opinions, beliefs, etc. more socially acceptable because there is always going to be someone else on the internet that shares your view.
Now I’ve added a lot of language there that I’m sure wasn’t in her original dinner table remark, but the essence of the idea is there. As I think back on this, I believe it was in the context of discussing the Columbine High School shootings and the cultural forces that may have contributed to that tragedy (but I’m not sure about that).
The in-community enforcement of social norms (for example, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter) would serve to discourage aberrant behavior, by marginalizing and ostracizing those who held those beliefs. In contrast, the internet age allows access to a much wider population, increasing the possibility of finding someone else who shares the same outside-of-mainstream views and, for people who had previously felt like “outsiders”, possibly validating those beliefs as acceptable (whether or not they would be considered as such by the broader population). This expands the range of “socially acceptable” behavior, and possibly brings ideas that were previously considered “fringe” or “radical” views closer to “mainstream.”
Though this was originally brought up as an example of the validation of behavior that would be better left unvalidated, I think it cuts both ways. Access to a more diverse set of views can serve to move any previously “fringe” view into the mainstream, whether that mainstreaming benefits or harms society (and “benefits” and “harms” here could be subject to a significant amount of debate). So while the internet provides an easier means for neo-Nazis and terrorists to share views and expand group membership (a harmful mainstreaming, in my opinion), it also provided a means for supporters of same-sex marriage to do the same when that view was considered a “fringe” view (a beneficial mainstreaming, in my opinion). Looking at a comment thread on pretty much any contentious issue these days, you can see both the negative effects (trolls, hateful speech hidden behind online anonymity) and positive effects (insightful discourse, respectful disagreement).
So this idea that my mom tossed out as part of a dinner discussion 10 years ago is one that I continue to think about, and has and will continue to lead to some really interesting discussions and ideas for further exploration. For example, how strong are the competing sides of this issue? On the balance, has the expansion of socially acceptable beliefs had a positive effect on our society? My personal inclination is that it has, but then I’ll see something like Martin Peretz’s New Republic column that said “I wonder whether I need honor [Muslims] and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” And I can’t help but think to myself… would he say that in a world where there weren’t people all over the place anonymously saying things that are much more offensive? Or has giving a voice to hateful views expressed without consequence moved that comment (and others like it made by supposedly reputable journalists) from “unacceptable” to “acceptable”? And if the answer to the latter question is yes, is that a good thing for our society?