Free speech turns feral on the internet
One of the claims made for the internet is that it has opened up public dialogue on a scale never experienced before.
And it's true. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection – or any of the myriad devices now available that enable users to communicate online – can enter cyberspace and contribute to the discussions of the day.
They can start a blog, as I did, or they can contribute to the comment threads that allow people to respond to blog entries with their own opinions.
On news media websites, too, readers can submit comments responding to published opinion columns. These comments are usually moderated – in other words, vetted before publication – but the moderation is typically light-handed. Only the most blatantly defamatory or offensive language is filtered out.
Never in history has so much opinion poured forth largely unchecked in public forums. In the old days, anyone wanting to take issue with a newspaper columnist had to sit down, write a letter to the editor and sign it with his or her real name and address.
There was no guarantee it would be published, and even if it was, it might be abridged because of space limitations.
You can still go through this quaint, old-fashioned routine, of course, but there's a much more effortless way to have your say. You can submit a comment to the paper's website. It's virtually instantaneous, you can say as much or as little as you like, and it doesn't have to make sense.
What's more, you don't have to put your name to it. You can use any enigmatic, vaguely menacing or silly pseudonym you choose.
Some newspaper websites attract hundreds of online comments. Depressingly, the opinion columns that provoke the strongest reactions are often about sport – for example, the column by Australian sports writer Paul Sheehan criticising the All Blacks' Kapa O Pango haka, which so infuriated New Zealanders that 868 responded.
The best-read blogs also routinely attract hundreds of comments. All this is held to be liberating and good for democracy – and so it is, up to a point. No-one can complain any longer that newspaper editors (or talkback producers) are the gatekeepers controlling entry to public opinion forums. Now anyone can have their say, at any time and from anywhere on the planet.
But while the sheer volume of comment has increased exponentially, no-one could pretend that there has been a commensurate rise in the standard of debate.
In fact, quite the contrary. Far from being the stimulating, uplifting marketplace of ideas fondly envisaged by free-speech idealists, the internet and blogosphere is a seething, toxic cesspit of jeering, name-calling, vulgarity, bile and mendacity.
Its dominant characteristics are malice, rage and ignorance – a lethal combination that extinguishes any hope of intelligent dialogue.
Anyone scanning the comments sections of newspaper websites and blogs soon notes recurring patterns. The first is the sheer volume of personal abuse – the tool most frequently resorted to by those who disagree with other people's views, and deployed with equal ferocity by those on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. The strategy is to intimidate one's opponent, not with force of argument, but with vituperation.
Often the anonymous commenter fails to see – or more likely pretends not to see – the central point of the other side's argument, preferring to introduce extraneous issues, thereby diverting the debate from the issue under discussion. Another tactic is to wilfully misconstrue what has been written or to wildly extrapolate it to justify derogatory conclusions about the author.
If the tone of online debate wasn't so deeply depressing, some aspects of it might be almost amusing. A typical pattern is for the first few comments to be reasonably lucid and relevant, then for the thread to rapidly spiral downwards into a deepening well of viciousness and rancidity that steadily becomes further removed from the subject supposedly under discussion.
By the time you get to about the 30th comment, the participants have forgotten what started it all and are intent only on insulting each other.
It's tempting to draw a comparison with a sharks' feeding frenzy. It takes only one commenter to draw blood and then it's all on. In short order, the thread is splattered with entrails and severed limbs.
And here's something else I've noticed: the same pseudonyms crop up time and time again, denoting an abundance of angry and bitter losers who have nothing better to do than trawl the net all day looking for someone to "flame".
Often the combatants know each other from previous encounters.
Not even the most ardent champion of the internet could argue that these venomous and cowardly outpourings have elevated public debate.
Perhaps free speech now comes too cheap.