Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Practices self-control": a more subtle concept on the Web than in person


I recall in the Arlington County elementary and junior high schools back in the 1950s that my report cards had items called “progress of the pupil as an individual” and “progress of the pupil as a member of the group”, and one of the items of the latter was “practices self-control.” A “3” meant “improvement needed.”

Self-control, of course, is the heart of a civil society. I spot someone in a public accommodation and I notice something that I personally “disapprove” of, I may wince at the thought but, even though the observation is “true”, in a civilized society I don’t mention it. We have to get along. On the web (where a Spock-like "rationality" rules), it seems that a lot of people haven’t learned any sense of civility, given the cyberbullying, gossip sites; and sometimes even in the major media, major personalities ranging from Imus to David Letterman make gaffes, either with inappropriate words or other innuendo, that turn out to be offensive.

One problem with the Web is that comments can be put in nice language but they still can give evidence that a speaker has a certain “attitude” about some people, particularly with respect to station in life. The freedom of expression on the web – in a free entry system that we have come to depend on – lets us set limits on the connections we will seek from and accept with others, and it lets us counter the coercive collective tactics of various interests that would like us to remain dependent on them. That’s good, but there’s a rub. While social networking sites and blogs can bring us together, they can also keep us apart.

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