Have you ever wondered what makes for the civility (or at least quasi-civility) with which we interact in our everyday lives?
Why, for instance, do we refrain from punching someone who has bumped into us on the street? Why don't we walk up and scold somebody who is yelling into a cell phone at the library? Basically, why do we so often refrain from confrontation when we feel we've been wronged?
Some would point out that we try to coexist peaceably for the sake of making our own lives easier. Others would argue that some sort of divine power sees to our wellbeing by ensuring that we do not harm others. And yet another group might believe that, for some inexplicable reason, humans are inherently good.
To those of the latter creed: I challenge you to read The Badger Herald shout-outs and maintain your present disposition.
If you're not familiar with this newspaper's shout-outs feature, all you really need to know is that it is an online forum to which, if approved by a moderator, people's comments are posted. And, once a week, a handful of said comments make it to print in the Herald.
The subject matter of shout-outs varies widely. In a single edition, for instance, one might see comments ranging from a condemnation of a particular professor, to a nonsensical ramble, to an inquiry about the identity of an unknown person with whom the commenter made eye contact on the street (there's a common shout-out term for this that I've chosen to omit due to its extreme overuse).
But, as much as the shout-outs differ from week to week, there seems to be one recurring theme: Comments made via this forum are often more hateful and venomous than anything to be found in normal public discourse.
Consider the following comments posted on the shout-out forum over the past week.
Some posts were just generally harsh:
"[Shout-out] to the girls who ride the ellipticals at the Serf and think they are such fitness gurus. You better ride that thing all month, sweetheart."
Some were bigoted:
"Does UW get any of the smart coasties, or do the smart ones go to school on the coast? are there smart coasties”"
And some were so chauvinistic, barbaric and preposterous that it's difficult to believe they were intended to be taken seriously:
"Shout-out to the bouncer at Mondays. Apparently having huge bitch tits gives you the right to take away people's IDs. I hope (and know) that you will burn in hell a desperate and lonely soul."
Or maybe I just don't know what "bitch tits" are.
So what explains how our level of discourse sinks to such depths when we are granted anonymity?
One can only wonder whether — if it were possible to simply turn on some sort of anonymity shield — we might interact on the streets the same way we interact in the shout-outs.
It's tempting to have faith in the inherent good of humanity, and I do believe that a minority of people are responsible for a majority of the more reprehensible shout-outs. Nevertheless, when considering both the quantity and extremism of negative shout-outs, it is impossible to avoid speculation about how much animosity and resentment simmer below the neat and tidy surface of our society.
So, to those lobbing attacks from behind this veil of secrecy: Shout-out to mustering up a little courage and letting us know who you are.
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.