Reader Indy raises an interesting question:

Have you ever considered the impact of Internet discourse on potential loss of trust in Americans in each other? Until I started reading messages boards ten years ago, I didn’t realize how readily some of my fellow Americans demonized and seemingly hated each other. Sure, I knew people had deep political differences and that the two parties had differing ideological or philosophical differences. And that what has been called “the silly season” of political electioneering often brought out demagoguery and name calling among candidates and their surrogates.

I knew some people were passionate about politics but figured there were a lot like me, ones who voted sometimes for one party, sometimes for a party, and who reveled in being free to do so. And there are, I can tell from face to face conversations with people. But the extent to which some (many?) Americans seem to distrust and in some cases even to hate each other for living in different areas, buying different products, raising their children somewhat differently, turning to different forms of leisure activities, and voting differently has been revelatory for me over the last ten years. That distrust and hatred undermines for me anything they say about freedom. I’ve lost that hazy, we’re all in this together, it’s a free country, you go your way, I’ll go mine feeling I had as a young adult, to a large extent. Judging by comboxes and message boards, there are many people who seem determined to pound me into being just like them or be considered unpatriotic, bad, worthy of hate. It feels undemocratic to me so I’ve come to distrust what they might do at the ballot box.
Worst of all, I’m more cautious in my charitable giving. I haven’t yet reached a point where I am more inclined to write a check to help people in Haiti or Chile than those facing disasters in some parts of the U.S. which I’m starting to associate with rhetoric flung against people such as I. But I do have to fight the feeling about people in parts of the U.S., “they sound so insular and tribal, many of them apparently hate me because I live in a city on the east coast, they wouldn’t want my help in the face of a disaster, anyway.” If I ever do let that feeling prevail, that would be huge hurdle to have to mentally jump over that didn’t exist for me before I started seeing angry rhetoric on the net ten years ago. And it is just as much a trust issue as what you describe. As a voter, I can’t keep saying, “we’re all in this together, can’t you let me go my way and you go yours and let’s respect each other as countrymen” and be rebuffed by table pounders and yellers without it in comboxes and message boards without it starting to wear me down psychologically. I do give to U.S. distributing charities, but I tend to write checks to general funds when possible so they can decide where the money goes. The last times I wrote specific, targeted charitable contributions were after 9/11 and after Katrina.
National bonds are fraying in many ways. There are very complicated trust issues out there, not all directed at government, some of which stem from how people argue about government, in fact.

This is a point worth considering. The people I know who are most involved in their churches and in doing good work for their neighbors aren’t the kind of people with the time or the inclination to haunt comboxes denouncing their fellow Americans harshly at every turn. Still, I think you’re onto something, and it’s related to a point I’ve considered before in this space, about whether our all-present, all-knowing, all-speaking media (I’m not just talking about the news media, but all media of communications, including the Internet) make it difficult to nearly impossible for any authority (governmental, ecclesial, what have you) to govern. How can leaders lead if they are subject to constant, withering scrutiny and comment undermining their authority?
This is something about our political economy that I don’t think we have come to grips with. Like most people, I think the greater transparency and accountability that comes with the Internet is a good thing. Without the presence of the Internet, the Catholic bishops who had been refusing for decades to deal with the abusive priest scandal would likely still be kicking that football down the road. It’s true with the Dan Rather/CBS News National Guard scandal, too. Take your pick: it’s harder for authorities to get away with misdeeds because of the Internet’s role in disseminating information widely, and in some cases digging it up.

That said, we don’t often talk of the downside of all this openness and transparency. It’s easy to see why. You raise this question, and people accuse you of censorship, of wanting to defend wrongdoing by those in high places, etc. We are so geared towards the tearing down of authority and all its pretenses, and thinking of defending its legitimacy by limiting, or self-limiting, our inquiry and commentary as an act of cowardice, that we never think hard about the kind of world we’re bringing about by tearing the veils off of every sin and failing of our leaders, and by loosing the reins of ordinary civility and kindness that keep us from saying exactly what we think of our neighbors and fellow citizens.
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