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First published by Big Questions Online on August 30, 2010. Reprinted with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.

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The Online State of Nature 

Why has Internet discourse devolved into a "war of every man against every man"?

Alan Jacobs

Sometimes our behavior in the “real world” can illuminate the puzzles of online experience. Consider this little contretemps: John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York, recently said that it is time for people to stop attacking Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the Church of England:

It deeply saddens me that there is not only a general disregard for the truth, but a rapacious appetite for “carelessness” compounded by spin, propaganda, and the resort to misleading opinions paraded as fact, regarding a remarkable, gifted, and much-maligned Christian leader. . . . I say, enough is enough. May we all possess a high regard for the truth. 

Sentamu’s frustration emerges from several years of the “Anglican wars,” an ongoing conflict that is highly illustrative for people who want to understand why we all cannot get along, especially online. (For those of you who couldn't pick an Anglican bishop out of a police line-up in Guangzhou, please bear with me. What I have to say is also relevant to you also.)

A couple of years ago, I was visiting an Anglican blog, as was then my habit, and came across an article in which a theological conservative — that is, someone on “my side” of the Anglican debate, if (God help us) we must speak in such terms — was accusing Archbishop Williams of something like complete epistemological skepticism, effective unbelief. I have heard many of my fellow conservatives speak of Williams in this way. I thought that if they were to read what he writes, or listen to what he preaches — this magnificent sermon, for instance — they would no longer speak of him so dismissively. I wrote a comment on this post, challenging the critique of Williams and linking to sermons, talks, and essays that demonstrated beyond any doubt that the charge of skepticism was false.

None of this convinced the author of the article or other commenters. The general conviction was that Williams had not acted decisively for conservative causes, especially regarding sexuality, and thereforethat anything he said or wrote that savored of theological orthodoxy amounted to protective coloration at best and outright deceit at worst. In their minds, he was the enemy of orthodoxy and therefore their enemy, and could be granted the benefit of no doubt. (Never mind that on liberal Anglican blogs he was simultaneously being condemned for having sold out to the forces of right-wing reaction. And never mind what Jesus said about loving your enemies, even assuming that Williams really is an “enemy.”) They believed that Williams was wrong and had to be resisted by all available means, tarred by any brush at hand. My response to this attitude is summed up perfectly in Archbishop Sentamu’s lament about a “general disregard for the truth.”

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point, I said to myself, “All right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball” — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately. I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all Anglican-related blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day. I don't think I’ve ever made a better decision.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice.

Someone might object: well, of course — those are political accomplishments, and politics is, or ought to be, largely about the pursuit of justice. That’s right, as far as it goes, but it overlooks the key variable that has changed in the late modern world: the dramatic increase in the information available to us about political action. We simply know more about politics, in all of its dimensions, than our ancestors ever could have.

In the 18th century, when modern political journalism was just beginning, Samuel Johnson wrote: “How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Johnson wrote as someone who, as a young man, had observed and commented extensively on debates in Parliament. But few of us would agree with him today. We expect our laws and kings — that is, our politicians and the state — to try to cure or avert a great many of the hardships that “human hearts endure.”

And so, as we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone iswrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

No wonder that Archbishop Sentamu cries out, “May we all possess a high regard for the truth.” And no wonder that he cries in vain.


Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College. He writes the Text Patterns blog.

Alan Jacobs, "The Online State of Nature," Big Questions Online, August 30, 2010.