|Robert F. Kennedy (photo courtesy of Milkaddict.com)|
Tim Rutten at the LA Times credits the Internet with contributing to and amplifying the vitriol in American politics. I suggested as much in a recent post in which I mentioned the obligatory sarcasm and cynicism that dominates the blogosphere, especially in anonymously posted diatribes. The uglier your attacks on those with whom you disagree, the more page views you’re likely to garner, and this is equally true for Left and Right-wing bloggers.
Rutten argues that political speech today does not reflect Bobby Kennedy’s America, due primarily to the technology that powers the new media. Rutten writes:
Is our political speech really more bitter and poisonous than it's ever been?
No, though it's certainly more debased and lacerating than it was just a few short years ago. We've been through eras of bitterly expressed politics more often than we'd probably care to admit. The Federalists and anti-Federalists bickered ferociously. Contention over the Bank of the United States during the Jacksonian era was fierce. The political rhetoric leading up to the Civil War was murderous. Franklin Roosevelt's policies were the target of vile opposition. And during the McCarthy period, intolerance abounded.
If there's a major difference between these other periods in which political expression was an ugly business and ours, it probably lies in the technology of speech. We live in an era saturated with communication of all sorts, and this has both radically democratized political speech and opinion and deprived it of any restraint or standard of responsibility.
Because we're literally bathed in politicized speech, which is different than political speech, when rhetoric turns ugly, it seems as if it is all around us because in some sense it is. In former eras we were buffered by constraints of time and distance, which new media have erased.
The Internet has been a great enabler of incivility, not only because it so easily allows the anonymous or pseudonymous expression of the most violent or hurtful opinions but because it reinforces the illusion of a virtual world in which there is nothing but speech. Anyone with a laptop or a smart phone can engage in endless wrangling with the political figures they know only as broadcast images flickering across the video screen. In such an environment, there is no need for the restraint or civility that is an essential part of dealing with flesh-and-blood people or the actual consequences of a real world.