TCS Daily

The Medium Isn't the Message

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Daniel Henninger is pretty down on the blogosphere. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, he complained that blogs are lowering the tone of political discourse:

"I don't think the blogosphere is breeding cannibals. But it looks to me as if the world of blogs may be filling up with people who for the previous 200 millennia of human existence kept their weird thoughts more or less to themselves. Now, they don't have to. They've got the Web. Now they can share."

It's big of him not to make the cannibalism accusation -- we bloggers get so tired of that. But he goes on:

"The power of the Web is obvious and undeniable. We diminish it at our peril. But what if the most potent social effect to spread outward from the Internet turns out to be disinhibition, the breaking down of personal restraints and the endless elevation of oneself? It may be already.

"Disinhibited vocabulary is now the normal way people talk on cable TV, such as on "The Sopranos" or in stand-up comedy. On the Web and on the street, more people than not talk like this now. What once was isolated is covering everything. No wonder the major non-cable networks are suing to overturn the FCC's decency rulings; they, too, want the full benefits of normalized disinhibition. Hip-hop, currently our most popular music form, is a well-defined world of disinhibition. At the risk of enabling, does the Internet mean that all the rest of us are being made unwitting participants in the personal and political life of, um, crazy people?"

Pardon me for sounding rude, but what, exactly, does this have to do with the Internet? The "let it all hang out" ethos predates TCP/IP. And cable TV and hip-hop were around long before the Internet had much effect on American culture. And the truly defining moments of culture-shift are pretty old, too: Black-power salutes at the 1968 Olympics, the appearance of televised cursing on Norman Lear's All in the Family, the abandonment of court decorum at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. And it seems to me that it's pretty hard to blame the Internet for what's on TV now, too. Instead, it seems to be a general cultural phenomenon -- the same thing that has people attending church, or dining out, in shorts and flip-flops. Disinhibition isn't just for the Internet. It has become general, and the notion of behaving better when in the public eye has taken quite a beating. Henninger's focus on the Internet misses the point: His own examples suggest that if people are behaving badly on the Internet, it's because they're behaving badly everywhere.

Henninger seems -- like a lot of newspaper people these days -- to be focusing on problems with the Internet not so much because the Internet is a problem, generally, as because it's a problem for, well, newspaper people. The newspaper industry is sinking financially, and the Internet is getting blamed not only for that, but for anything else that's handy. That's too bad, though, because once you strip away the paranoia and FUD-spreading, Henninger has something of a point. Political discourse, of course, has been going downhill since, well, about 1968 too. (Or maybe 1967, with Barbara Garson's scurrilous play, MacBird, which featured a necrophile LBJ exulting over JFK's assassination.) Not that we ever enjoyed the kind of golden age that some social critics today might imply, but people certainly did, in general, maintain a degree of decorum, or respect for office, that vanished with the generalized hatred of LBJ and Richard Nixon. And things have certainly gone downhill since, if that's possible.

In my own corner of the media world, the blogosphere, things seem to have gone downhill too, with personal attacks, efforts (sometimes successful) to get people fired, and worse becoming more common. It's reached the point, in fact, that bloggers on the left and right are actually talking about how to raise the tone.

I'm very much behind that effort. Name-calling isn't argument, and in fact personal attacks get in the way of actual argument. They encourage division and ideological cocooning: You might not mind a site that calls your ideas wrong or dumb, but you probably won't spend much time visiting sites that call you, personally, evil.

But you don't get over name-calling by engaging in name-calling, and that's basically what Henninger is doing. Things were better before those unwashed types got to share in the public square. Bloggers, Henninger implies, are unfit for public discourse. But there's another name for bloggers: readers. And more-than-usually interested readers, too. Newspapers are losing readers while dissing bloggers. Or, more accurately, newspapers are losing readers while dissing readers. Go figure.

In fact, the Internet is often a remedy, not simply a vehicle, for irrational personal attacks. If we want a kinder, gentler, and more civilized society, we'd be better off focusing on the kind of behavior that's acceptable, and that's not, and less on over-the-top attacks on an entire medium of communication. Even one that's costing the old guys money.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.


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