Plato once asked the question, if people were granted invisibility would they behave more or less morally? In other words, does anonymity make us better or worse, more honest or less honest, better people or worse people? The fact that Plato even asked this question brings into doubt his reputation for intelligence. History is littered with overwhelming evidence that when human beings are granted anonymity, they become capable of practically anything. Without the judging eyes of our peers we become mean, hateful, brutish thugs for the most part. Need proof? Visit the message boards of your favorite social media site when the subject of race pops up.
My Mother never went to college. She never sat around eating pizza and ruminating on philosophy all night in a dorm. But that’s not to say that she didn’t have a philosophy, or at least philosophical insights. One of them was, “You’re only as good of a person as you are when nobody’s looking.” Mom used to hate it when people would only do their “good works” to the sound of trumpets. She would get all “up in the pictures” talking about the vanity of men and women who could only be counted on to do something decent when there was an audience.
But there is another side to this anonymity business. Yes, people do act artificially better in public but that redounds to the public good. Hypocritical good deeds are still good deeds. But anonymity gives the darkness of our character an outlet. When my Dad was the Pastor of Winns Baptist Church back in the 1970’s, the majority of the members were good people, honest, hard-working, salt of the earth types. But when you spend 16 years in the pulpit of a church, you will make your share of mistakes and Dad was no exception to that rule. When he did, he got called on the carpet usually face to face with someone who had taken exception to something he had said or done. But by far the worst treatment he ever got came in the form of the anonymous letter. Always typed, always without a return address, these screeds would attack him with ruthless vitriol and...unspeakably bad grammar.
With the advent of the Internet, anonymous communication is everywhere and most of it is poisoning us and our discourse. To read comments that people make about race, sexual orientation, and religion behind the cloak of anonymity is to peer into the dark night of the soul. Dad’s hate mail at least took some degree of forethought and planning. They had to get a piece of paper, find a typewriter, address an envelope, lick a stamp, and walk to the mailbox, all activities that allowed time to think things over before actually sending it. Today, anyone can spew forth the vilest thing and broadcast it instantaneously without filter. Technological advancements in communication have not made us better communicators. It has granted us a license for cruelty.
The readers of this blog don’t always agree with everything I write. But my name and my reputation is attached to everything you read. Consequently, I must exercise temperance. Some of the stuff floating around in my head needs to stay there, because to give them voice would be hurtful. So here’s my proposal of the day, how about instead of censoring the Internet, we insist on disclosure.