‘Someone is wrong on the internet’: In online debates, we fail to cultivate charity and humility

A now-famous cartoon on the xkcd
“webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer
keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to
bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong
on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile
online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a
society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in
justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over
the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the
defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights
and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one
side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet
empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of
rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is
that all of these are achievements in justice.

Someone might object: well, of course — those are political
accomplishments, and politics is, or ought to be, largely about the
pursuit of justice. That’s right, as far as it goes, but it overlooks
the key variable that has changed in the late modern world: the dramatic
increase in the information available to us about political action. We
simply know more about politics, in all of its dimensions, than our
ancestors ever could have.


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