Turning Over the Rocks?

In response to yesterday’s blog post about residential “sorting,” one of this blog’s regular readers sent me a report about a study that confirmed that sorting, but also confirmed a disquieting element of contemporary American life:

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

“Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. “

The study’s conclusions mirror my own research, and I’m persuaded that they are accurate, but I think the quoted paragraphs raise a different–and even more troubling– question.

Is our brave new world of Internet interactivity and social media eroding those “social norms”?

I recently had this discussion with the editor of a local “niche” paper. He was bemoaning the tone and content of comments left on the publication’s website, and posited that the ability to speak without having to identify oneself–the ability to remain anonymous or at least feel that you are shielded by the medium–has weakened those social norms, and thus our reluctance to share unpopular and socially disfavored opinions.  The expression of bigotries has become less constrained. (The recent Facebook rant by Charlotte Lucas is just one of hundreds of examples.)

There’s no doubt that online nastiness is at its worst when the discussion is political, but it is also increasingly–and distressingly– common to come across racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic sentiments as well.

The real question, I suppose, is: has the Internet simply operated to shine a light on the nastiness? Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?

Or has the ability to go online and find fellow bigots who will confirm your resentments and displaced hostilities actually increased their numbers?

I don’t know. But I worry….


  1. Anonymity makes it possible for people to express their thoughts without the burden of personal responsibility. Everyone is Rush Limbaugh.

  2. I do not believe the operating factor is anonymity. I believe the operating factor is a political form of tribalism.

    There was a time when certain things were only said, in confidence, to people one already knew was a like-thinker. Racism, hatred aimed at a religion, etc., were understood to be inappropriate, and even those who held the views kept them to themselves in polite company.

    Today, we have Fox News, talk radio, and internet blogs that reinforce every ugly thought, that assure people, “there’s nothing wrong with what you think – we’re all thinking it.” Even if people are only visiting a crank website that attracts only the ugliest of thoughts, enough time on the website will convince people that everybody, well, all the smart (meaning – “people who think like I do”) people, feels the same way. So why not trumpet it at the next staff meeting, pool party, child’s birthday?

    The bifurcation of information, which allows us to pick the “news” that reinforces our beliefs, also feeds and supports the beliefs that were once espoused only in the comfort of our homes.

  3. I fear that your point encompasses both “tone” and “content”. When we are in actual eye contact with another person we are constrained by social norms to typically more considerate conversation. When that person to person contact is unavailable, and we are addressing or referring to anonymous others we tend to treat them as things, not people.

    As far as content is concerned, when writing, our self talk is like a hate radio show in that all response is managed to eliminate anything but agreement. We simply don’t take the calls that point out that we are acting stupid.

    Clearly writing skills, like speaking skills, are developed by feedback from others for both tone and content. Thought full words have power accompanied by responsibility for their impact. Perhaps written communications more so due to lack of immediate reflection off of other perspectives.

    Like many topics here, modern life demands more of us. More education for sure. Perhaps less entertainment and more work. Perhaps celebrating achievement vs celebrity. Perhaps more fundamental and less fad. Perhaps more personal and less subjective.

    Are we up to it? Some are for sure but better education is table stakes nowadays, for sure. Life long learning.

  4. I would agree with poster Joe above.

    As a White Male Baby-Boomer just from my own experience there has always been the nod and wink fear mongering which has morphed into an industry for the dooms day prepper mentality. There is a fill in the blank of crucial events for these people of when the mythological America of the past was subverted by: Vaccines, fluoride in the water, taking prayer out of Public Schools, taking corporal punishment out of schools, FDR, etc.

    The Internet has provided a distillation for these views – Obama wanted Ebola in the USA is the latest.

  5. An article in today’s New York Times states that the quality of words is more important than the quantity of words in the language development of young children. So too, I venture, for the continuing development of maturity in adults. Unfortunately, English majors today are castigated, even though language is a primary tool that everyone in every society needs in order to allow the society to thrive. Yes, language can be used for evil purposes. But to know language and to know how it works is a skill to be cherished, not ridiculed. Rhetoric – the art of discourse – at one time was a principle study for the well-educated person. Today it is almost a cuss word.

  6. “Has the advent of this new communication medium operated to “turn over the rock” so that we now see things that have always been there, but have been less visible?”
    At times, Gay people or Jewish people (inadvertantly or not) “Pass” as “normal”.
    In those settings we have learned much about how Family, Friends and co-w0rkers REALLY feel about us. Not the best of days when that happens BUT informative
    . I think Rush & Fox made hating the “other” perfectly acceptable.
    Is their day in the sun almost over?

  7. Initially, internet communication seemed to be a great way to reconnnect with long-lost friends and stay in touch with family too far away or busy lives prevented occasions to visit. Being deaf, the internet is my primary source of communication, not only socially but business matters and contacting medical providers. Of course Facebook offers the opportunity to hunt up those we have lost touch with and didn’t know how to contact. Sadly; it has been my experience to lose some of these old friends and family members after responding, with researched facts, to provide information other than accept their misconceptions and refuting the lies they had received and passed on regarding political matters. Friends can discuss politics, disagree and remain friends – and family – but not when they are staunch Republicans. Sadly, these past 6 years have brought about ugly political rants on all forms of social media and much of it, whether overt or not, is racial and often overt anti-Muslim at it’s base. I once spent four days researching a list of anti-Obama accusations, condensing the facts I found on many sites to brief responses item by item. An amazing discovery while doing this research was finding the same 24 accusations, verbatim, in many forms. Some sloppily done, some in a plain format and others in very professional looking format and presentation. Going through all of the repeated accusations in their many formats along with the many fact-based web sites is why it took me four days. Very interesting; some accusations had an iota of truth which had been distored or misquoted, some were misinformation being repeated and some were out-and-out lies. I happily managed to clear President Obama’s name but received few responses…some people I never heard from again:) As for not knowing the identity of many senders of these media distributed diatribes, their pseudonyms usually give you clues to the quality of person they are and often their mental capacity. I pay more attention to those who identify themselves and tend to put more belief in their comments…but not always.

Comments are closed.