“The second most deadly instrument of destruction is the dynamite gun [Editor’s Note: this was written before the atomic bomb was invented though the point is still valid],—the first is the human tongue. The gun merely kills bodies; the tongue kills reputations and, ofttimes, ruins characters. Each gun works alone; each loaded tongue has a hundred accomplices. The havoc of the gun is visible at once. The full evil of the tongue lives through all the years; even the eye of Omniscience might grow tired in tracing it to its finality.
The crimes of the tongue are words of unkindness, of anger, of malice, of envy, of bitterness, of harsh criticism, gossip, lying and scandal. Theft and murder are awful crimes, yet in any single year the aggregate sorrow, pain and suffering they cause in a nation is microscopic when compared with the sorrows that come from the crimes of the tongue. Place in one of the scale-pans of Justice the evils resulting from the acts of criminals, and in the other the grief and tears and suffering resulting from the crimes of respectability, and you will start back in amazement as you see the scale you thought the heavier shoot high in air.
At the hands of thief or murderer few of us suffer, even indirectly. But from the careless tongue of friend, the cruel tongue of enemy, who is free? No human being can live a life so true, so fair, so pure as to be beyond the reach of malice, or immune from the poisonous emanations of envy. The insidious attacks against one’s reputation, the loathsome innuendoes, slurs, half-lies by which jealous mediocrity seeks to ruin its superiors, are like those insect parasites that kill the heart and life of a mighty oak. So cowardly is the method, so stealthy the shooting of the poisoned thorns, so insignificant the separate acts in their seeming, that one is not on guard against them. It is easier to dodge an elephant than a microbe.” ~ William George Jordan
The advent of the internet ushered in a new era of communication. It amplified the human voice and in some ways leveled the playing field between those who previously controlled the distribution of information and those who had something to share but didn’t have the means or the access to do so.
With it came a big bang not of matter but of information, although much of what emanated forth was untrue, unreliable and just plain wrong. With it came a new tool for revolutionaries who are now no longer confined by arbitrary geopolitical boundaries. Marketers salivate at the prospect of the gold that is being mined from social media sites where its present and future customers freely and regularly populate the data centers with their likes and dislikes, revealing the networks of friendships and acquaintances they maintain.
In short, the internet magnified the goodness and the evil in the hearts of men around the world while exposing his deepest (and far too often shallowest) thoughts for all to see. Back in the day, the careless tongue of a friend or the cruel tongue of an enemy was limited in its reach and duration. Their vituperation was more often than not delivered openly. This lack of anonymity likely made revolutions more challenging, but they happened nonetheless and from what I can tell, with greater frequency.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful right and rights are certainly an important part of the structure we call civilization. I read today in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” that:
Rights dominate modern understandings of what actions are permissible and which institutions are just. Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.
Freedom of speech is the right guaranteed by the free-speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction. A few people along the way have pushed for unlimited protection, but most jurists, along with most U.S. citizens feel that some restrictions on speech under certain circumstances are acceptable if not necessary.
Another important factor in the swelling controversy over freedom of expression on the internet is well-described in a speech delivered roughly a decade ago by William Fisher to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. He noted:
The second of the two kinds of background you might find helpful is a brief introduction to the current debate among academics over the character and desirability of what has come to be called “cyberdemocracy.” Until a few years ago, many observers thought that the Internet offered a potential cure to the related diseases that have afflicted most representative democracies in the late twentieth century: voter apathy; the narrowing of the range of political debate caused in part by the inertia of a system of political parties; the growing power of the media, which in turn seems to reduce discussion of complex issues to a battle of “sound bites”; and the increasing influence of private corporations and other sources of wealth. All of these conditions might be ameliorated, it was suggested, by the ease with which ordinary citizens could obtain information and then cheaply make their views known to one another through the Internet…
…Recently, however, this rosy view has come under attack. The Internet, skeptics claim, is not a giant “town hall.” The kinds of information flows and discussions it seems to foster are, in some ways, disturbing. One source of trouble is that the Internet encourages like-minded persons (often geographically dispersed) to cluster together in bulletin boards and other virtual clubs. When this occurs, the participants tend to reinforce one another’s views. The resultant “group polarization” can be ugly. More broadly, the Internet seems at least potentially corrosive of something we have long taken for granted in the United States: a shared political culture. When most people read the same newspaper or watch the same network television news broadcast each day, they are forced at least to glance at stories they might fight troubling and become aware of persons and groups who hold views sharply different from their own. The Internet makes it easy for people to avoid such engagement — by enabling people to select their sources of information and their conversational partners.
I find this debate fascinating as the outcome will shape the future of democracies everywhere and for many years to come. Moreover, I have a personal stake. The internet has transformed my life in many ways. I am now a genius…well, maybe not, but just about any question I have can be answered with a quick search. I have access to information that easily rivaled that of any King or Emperor in the thousands of years preceding our present era. The goods and services I consume as well as those I put in service through my businesses are all likely made more efficiently and less expensively because of the instantaneous flow of information between suppliers and producers, producers and consumers. I can keep up with friends in ways that I never would have imagined in my youth. And the list goes on…
That said, I am deeply concerned for the future of free speech. I feel that the same protections and limits afforded by the First Amendment to books, magazines and newspapers should be extended to authors and publishers on the internet. I believe as well that we must educate ourselves and our children on this vital topic, including the matter of its limitations.
If the crimes of the tongue and pen are as devastating to humankind as Mr. Jordan so eloquently asserts, they most surely should be considered crimes when posted on the internet, anonymously or not.
Time will tell.