Friday, April 13, 2007

A code of conduct for bloggers...

BY DANIEL HENNINGER in Opinion Journal
Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal'seditorial page. His column appears Thursdays in the Journal and
And so it came to pass in the year 2007 that a little platoon came forth to say unto the world: Enough is enough.
Two leading citizens of the Web, Tim O'Reilly and JimmyWales, have proposed a "Bloggers Code of Conduct."
The reason for this code isthe phenomenon of people posting extremely nasty verbal comments about otherpeople on Web sites devoted to political and social commentary.
For Mr. O'Reilly, a publisher and activist for open Web standards, the last blogospheric straw involved a friend whose suggestion that it was OK to delete offensive comments from Web sites earned her a backlash of vitriol on several sites, with one posting a photo of her alongside a drawing of a noose.
It is appropriate that this line should be drawn in the ether of the World Wide Web, who secontrolling ethos up to now has been that speech and expression should remain free, unfettered and--the totemic word that ends all argument--"democratic."
As it developed, too many of the Web's democrats, for reasons that have provided much new work for clinical psychologists, tend to write in a vocabulary of rage and aggression.
Take politics. In the House of Representatives, Members by tradition address each other as the "gentleman" or "gentlewoman." These salutations often drip with irony but exist nonetheless to temper the bitterness beneath much political combat.
The democrats around the Web regard any such modulating habits as hypocritical. Unlike the fogies in politics or tradition-hampered media, they describe their opponents as what they believe they are: morons, idiots, fools, sellouts, traitors, liars (perhaps the most used word on the politicized Web), crooks and various other expressions that the touchingly termed "family" newspapers still won't print.
The admission of need for something called a Bloggers Code of Conduct is about more than just the Web. The deeper import of what may be happening here should be evident in Mr. O'Reilly's remark, which was the final sentence in a long New York Times article on the subject last Sunday: "Free speech is enhanced by civility."
It isdifficult for me to imagine a more revolutionary sentence. One might call it"subversive." "Free speech is enhanced by civility."
The revolution comes at the end of that sentence. Free speech we know about. Civility we have forgotten. Ask Don Imus. Subsets of civility would include courtesy, respect, politeness and deference.
Civility is a public virtue. Like oil or wheat, it is a necessary social commodity that allows society to function. That said, it would be overreaching to lay the blame for civility's fall on the World Wide Web. The erosion of our stores of civility occurred over the past 40 years, undermined by torrents of political rage and self-assertion.
In 1968, Abbie Hoffman, theYippie saint and a founding father of anti-civility, wrote a book whose title alone still stands as the best summary of the new game: "Revolution for the Hell of It."
The Web democrats, the public hecklers, the loudmouths are Abbie's children. They know it and are proud of it. No limits. Don't like it? Get over it.
If you object, they will, like characters in a Dick Tracy cartoon, scream,"I demand my constitutional rights!" With the Bloggers Code of Conduct comesthe counterrevolution. Some excerpts: From the Wiki site, put up by JimmyWales, co-founder of the remarkable and controversial Web-based encyclopedia,Wikipedia: "We take responsibility for our own words and reserve the right torestrict comments on our blog that do not conform to basic civility standards."This is a shift from an early precept of the Web known by the acronym YOYOW, or "you own your own words."
In the world of YOYOW, one is responsible only to thedrummer keeping the beat in one's head. From Mr. O'Reilly's Web site: "If youknow someone who is behaving badly, tell them so."
Which is to say, we aresurrounded now by people who have no clue that they are behaving badly, or don'tbelieve that they are, or who argue that behaving badly is their "right."
Are they wrong?
Psychologists commenting on the phenomenon of Web-based verbalabuse or aggressive public heckling often talk about society's expanded notions of personal entitlement and the failure of baby-boomer parents to set norms of behavior for their infallible children. We have ratified a lot of over-the-line behavior. College administrators held the door open for four decades.
The question at the center of oral arguments in the Supreme Court's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case last month was: Who runs the schools, the kids or the adults? People behaving badly have simply taken the norms their elders gave them to a logicalending point on the Web. On one level, the idea of a code of conduct forlanguage on the Web marks the overdue restoration of adulthood in American life. But there is a harder side to this tension.
After news spread of the O'Reilly-Wales proposal, an (needless to say) angry battalion of bloggerscounterattacked, crying "censorship." Now we're beyond the merely obnoxiousculture of chin-dribble. Now we're talking politics and power. So the cry goesup: You can't tell us how to talk. That's "censorship." The censorship claimis often made by political Web players who want to be "free" to use whatevermeans will achieve the end of driving their opponents over the cliff.
Consider the Congressional Black Caucus. Its affiliation with Fox News to conductpresidential debates was fire-bombed recently on "progressive" Web sites. Example: "Guess it takes a whole lot of grease to fry CBC's chicken." Scared, the three major Democratic presidential candidates pulled out.
Censorship? Try doublespeak.
The strategy of deploying charged and hyper-aggressive language isnow evident: First intimidate one's targets, then coerce them--into conformityor silence.
And do it always under the banner of free speech and democracy. There is no evident political coloration to the broader concern that's arisenabout conduct on the Web. The anti-civility trolls are in restaurants, stadiums,theaters, planes, church, the airwaves, in dreams.
This is merely a recognition that rules of the road can indeed enhance, not suppress, the flow of truly freeexpression and minimize the already ample frictions of daily life.
Better late than never.

No comments:

John Cheeran at Blogged