I'm giving one of my favorite lectures today, on the history of political campaign advertising. It's fun to watch students realize that very little of what we see in modern politics is new. The basic messages (and to a lesser extent, techniques) have been around for a couple of centuries. Americans generally know very little about history, so they tend to assume that their problems are new. Oh, the media is so partisan! (Yeah, check out a 19th Century newspaper) Campaigns are full of mudslinging and dirty attacks! (Find one that wasn't) People are so stupid! (As they have always been).
Every time there is a disaster or tragedy these days, we look at the contents of internet comments sections and immediately lose whatever hope for humanity might remain within our cynical hearts. What has happened to this country?, people ask. The correct answer is, of course, nothing. The only difference between Americans today and those from a century ago is that now we have a global platform for making our knee-jerk, reactionary, and ignorant opinions public. It's doubtful that people in the 1890s would have been filling Twitter and newspaper websites with pearls of wisdom and kindness.
It is completely natural to speculate, to have thoughts driven more by fear or emotion than reason, and to express anger. I'm sure people felt the same way when they heard about Pearl Harbor as they did on 9/11. Those thoughts and feelings were not broadcast around the world and recorded for posterity by the millions. They didn't run to Facebook to share tacky pictures exhorting one another to pray, engage in wild, half-assed speculation, or fuel their pet conspiracy theories. If they had the opportunity, they would have. As it was, the only way to express those thoughts was out loud. Common sense and a tiny bit of decency were probably enough to prevent many people from doing that.
The internet, however, offers no barriers to speaking what we overly-generously call our minds. We have anonymity, an audience, and no repercussions for what we say. Hell, why not air our ridiculous ideas about The Muslims and tell a bunch of other anonymous strangers to fuck off. There are no costs. We can say whatever we want, immediately. And this is the problem, because Americans have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing between can and should. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to express more of our uninformed musings using our Inside Voice rather than Twitter.
The internet and 24-hour cable news environment overwhelms us with "grief porn" in response to events like Monday's bombing. It encourages us not only to express great sadness but to do so publicly. It's not enough to spectate; we have to be part of the chorus of prayers and tears. We personalize things to make it about ourselves – OMG, I once knew a guy who lives in Boston! – and we use the collective anguish as fuel for irrational ideas. Why wait for facts when I'm angry and upset now?
We've always been less than enlightened thinkers as a nation. Today, though, we have a window into our half-baked thought processes and speculative "journalism" encouraging us to join them in a leap to conclusions. We have every opportunity to say things and very little encouragement to think before doing it. The exhibition of bile and stupidity that we see online is evidence that we could all benefit from a quieter and more reflective response to the horrible things the world throws at us.