Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:25 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:25 | SYDNEY

Civility on the internet


Sam Roggeveen


9 March 2009 17:45

Clive Hamilton's spray about the culture of the internet has drawn comment in other parts of the Ozblogosphere and deserves a response here too. Short version: it is nonsense.*

Here's Hamilton's closing paragraph:

If free speech means no more than the absence of restrictions on people using public forums to say whatever they want, and however they want, then the Internet is the promised boon. But if free speech means encouraging a free-flowing dialogue that draws the public into an exploration of alternative ideas and enriches civic culture, then the Internet is its enemy.

Of the two definitions of free speech on offer here, neither is entirely satisfactory. But surely the first is superior? The freedom to say whatever one wants is, after all, pretty valuable. Hamilton's preferred definition, on the other hand, raises difficult questions: who would decide when dialogue is 'free flowing' (or even what it means), and 'draws in' the public? Which ideas are 'alternative' (and therefore acceptable), and which are not? And who is the arbiter of enrichment?

The heart of Hamilton's argument is that an 'ugly culture of dogmatic and belligerent interventions' discourages people who want to debate issues politely from taking part in blogs and forums. Hamilton may be right about this, but he offers only one piece of evidence for it, and he fails to make the obvious suggestion that anyone who feels this way could simply start up their own blog. Yes, that too could be invaded by flamers and trolls, but Hamilton acknowledges that there are ways of policing this. Or you could do what The Interpreter does, and filter comment through an editor.

But let's say that's all too hard and many people are still discouraged from joining online debates. This does nothing to further Hamilton's case that the internet is 'the enemy' of free speech. It merely shows that it is a highly imperfect vessel for it. But that's hardly news, and it needs to be weighed against the substantial good the internet has done (my Lowy lecture of December 2007 set out some of these arguments).

To be fair, Hamilton does acknowledge this, grudgingly:

To be sure, there are corners of the World Wide Web where communities with common interests engage in civilised discussion, where opinions are formed and changed. Yet there is always a danger that these polite exchanges will be gate-crashed by an opinionated cyber thug roaming the net.

To refer to 'corners' is massively understating the case; simply following the links we provide from this blog in an average week will attest to that (or try clicking  on just one, then click on one link from that site, and so on and so on). Clearly, there are vast reservoirs of crap out there, but what does Hamilton want, to shut it all down until we create his idyll?

Regular readers will know I'm a fan of Leonard Cohen, and I learnt something from him last year that relates to this topic. Around Christmas time, UK TV talent show winner was heading for the top of the charts with her version of Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. My initial reaction was, on reflection, pretty snobbish. It seemed to cheapen and vulgarise the song to have to have it performed by a talent show contestant.

But really, even if it was awful, how does that diminish what I experience when I listen to Cohen's original? Or for that matter, how does Liberace's music diminish Mozart? I can't see how it does.

So it's not really a question of 'good' internet commentary needing to outweigh the bad, because it never will — 98% of everything is crap. But to invert an old saying: never mind the width, feel the quality.

* Just to acknowledge the truth of Hamilton's claim that anonymity breeds incivility, I initially wrote 'arrant nonsense'. But then I asked myself, 'would I say that to Hamilton if I ever met him in person?'  Mind you, anonymity makes people more honest too. As Andrew Norton argues, movie reviewers are tougher than book reviewers because the former are less likely to know the people they're criticising.