It is a sad fact about the Internet that thoughtful news commentaries and blog posts are often appended with strings of comments that degenerate into hostility, name-calling, or obscene language.  Lately, I have encountered more of these than usual (not on this blog, thankfully), and it makes me wonder what happened to mutual respect and good manners in public debate.  Evidently, in the minds of some people these days, the Internet put an end to that.

Like many aspects of contemporary life, this got me to thinking about Plato, specifically a famous passage in his Republic.  In Book II, a character named Glaucon relates a story of a shepherd named Gyges who discovers a ring which has the power to make him invisible.  Realizing the potency of his new possession, Gyges uses it to seduce the queen and murder the king, thus establishing himself as the new ruler.  Yet, prior to discovering the ring, Gyges was a rather ordinary guy, a humble shepherd who worked hard for his pay and never hurt anyone.  Glaucon’s point is that the only reason Gyges behaved himself was to avoid reprisal.  He obeyed the laws because he feared he’d get caught and punished if he disobeyed.  So when he happened upon a means to avoid such consequences, he exploited it to the extreme.  Furthermore, Glaucon suggests that all of us are like Gyges.  The only reason we act morally—to the extent that we do so, that is—is because we are compelled by the laws governing society.  The truth is, says Glaucon, we are immoral by nature, and if any of us had the Ring of Gyges, we’d act no differently than that ordinary shepherd.  Under the cloak of invisibility, even the most righteous would prove their perversity by stealing and snooping, if not seducing and killing just like Gyges.

As a Calvinist, I wholly affirm the doctrine of total depravity, and I consider Plato’s myth to be profoundly insightful (as did J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Ringsseries was inspired in part by Plato’s story).  Though I think Glaucon goes too far in suggesting that given the power of invisibility everyone of us would succumb to such extreme temptations, I do think many folks “fake it” and act morally only because, as Glaucon suggests, they fear the consequences of detection.  In a strange way, the internet confirms this truth, as so many people are willing to ditch all decorum when posting comments on various websites.  When I read such hostile or abusive language I think, “Who are these people?” (Naturally, they never identify themselves.)  Well, they are no doubt the same people I encounter every day—at the store, on the street, perhaps even in the classroom.  In public (presumably) they behave themselves, but on-line they acquire a limited form of Ring of Gyges.  And while invisible in that domain, they let their true moral colors show.

They say you can judge a person’s character by how they handle themselves in small matters.  If that is true, and anonymous comments on websites are any indication, then there appear to be a lot of bad characters out there.  Old Glaucon had a point.  On the other hand, lest I sound like a moral pessimist (some would say all of us Calvinists are), most people do behave themselves on-line, even while “wearing” the electronic Ring of Gyges—restraining themselves and managing a respectful tone when making comments.  Is this a falsification of Glaucon’s thesis?  Perhaps.  But then again, maybe not.  This might actually serve to further confirm Glaucon’s point, since (at least many of) these same people might behave themselves out of fear divine reprisal.  After all, the internet cloak of invisibility doesn’t obscure God’s view.

Of course, we will never know how many of us are motivated out of a desire to please (or not to displease) God.  But Scripture does clearly and emphatically teach both that God knows all things and that he will judge all of our actions, words, and even thoughts.  For example, we are told that “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecc. 12:13; see also 2 Cor. 5:10).

So let’s keep this in mind as we post comments on websites, particularly when we find someone’s opinion disagreeable or even repugnant.  Ultimately speaking, there is no anonymity.  And no one is ever really invisible.

Comments anyone?   🙂


4 Responses to “Plato, Calvin, and Internet Anonymity”


  1. Charlie

     

    One of the psychological mechanisms that keeps us in check is shame, which is the inhibition we feel when our bad behavior is noticed, particularly by someone from our own community or tribe. So, for example, students will go to Ft Lauderdale on spring break and behave in ways they would never try at home, because they aren’t known there. They’re anonymous — unless photos get posted on the internet. Crowds create a type of anonymity, which is why they can turn ugly. A person with a strong moral code will resist these temptations and behave the same way whether he is observed or not. Christians, of course, are aware that God sees everything we do, and that we are never truly unobserved. Is it that sense that God sees everything that gives us the will to behave appropriately in the dark as well as the light?

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  2. PaulE

     

    It’s interesting that some online communities are better than others. Smaller communities, in particular, seem to have more thoughtful comments. Maybe that has to do with the added anonymity of a crowd (which Charlie mentions) – it’s much easier to write a spiteful comment when it is one of several hundred as compared to one of a handful. But I think it also has to do with the inability of a community to assimilate new members when it grows too quickly.

    For instance, in the days of Internet yore, the Usenet community dreaded the annual September influx of new university students. These new users would dilute the quality of the forums until after a month or so they would acclimate to the expectations and conventions of the network. In September 1993, however, AOL opened Usenet access to everyone. When the new users flooded the existing community’s capacity to assimilate them, it became known in Usenet lore as the Eternal September.

    The onus, then, isn’t just on the commenters to be mindful; I think also bloggers, editors, existing members, etc… have a duty to set expectations for their site. Unfortunately, it’s kind of like parenting in that regard. Certainly children are responsible to behave; but there is also a parental responsibility to set expectations of good behavior. Of course, often it’s not easy; and so many sites make a only hand-waving gesture at it (e.g. maybe filtering bad words), which may be part of why so many sites seem populated with inane comments. But good sites are run by people who work hard to cultivate good discussion even as they grow.

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  3. Rathous13

     

    I think you are correct in that anonymity does allow less scrupulous people to act cruelly online, but I think your post might ignore a larger point. Anonymity frees posters from all imposed restraints, not just those restraints which keep discussion civil. Anonymity can allow some to divulge information and useful commentary that they might not be able to, otherwise, because of pressure from society or shame or legal repercussions. A drug user might anonymously make a comment on a news article which is enhanced by their personal experience, without fear.

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