Daniel Henninger lends his normally rational, free-market voice to the matter of blogger civility in today’s Opinion Journal — and opts for the communal approach. Henninger wants a code of conduct imposed on the blogosphere, even voluntarily, to reverse the tide of uncivility in modern discourse:
And so it came to pass in the year 2007 that a little platoon came forth to say unto the world: Enough is enough.
Two leading citizens of the Web, Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales, have proposed a “Bloggers Code of Conduct.” The reason for this code is the phenomenon of people posting extremely nasty verbal comments about other people on Web sites devoted to political and social commentary. For Mr. O’Reilly, a publisher and activist for open Web standards, the last blogospheric straw involved a friend whose suggestion that it was OK to delete offensive comments from Web sites earned her a backlash of vitriol on several sites, with one posting a photo of her alongside a drawing of a noose.
It is appropriate that this line should be drawn in the ether of the World Wide Web, whose controlling ethos up to now has been that speech and expression should remain free, unfettered and–the totemic word that ends all argument–“democratic.” As it developed, too many of the Web’s democrats, for reasons that have provided much new work for clinical psychologists, tend to write in a vocabulary of rage and aggression.
Henninger is wrong. It is convenient that the line should be drawn in the blogosphere. Otherwise, people might be tempted to draw lines in the press. Would Henninger agree to a speech code for his newspaper in order to restore civility, if tempers flare and people acted less than politely on the opinion pages? How about on television, where Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly acted mightily uncivil last week? Keith Olbermann on MS-NBC’s Countdown? Jack Cafferty on CNN?
Speech codes don’t work, especially voluntary speech codes. Henninger asserts in his conclusion that “an angry battalion of bloggers counterattacked, crying “censorship”.” Some might, but the rest of us were more amused than angry, and we cried “pointless”. The bloggers causing the problem wouldn’t sign onto the speech codes, and the ones that would don’t cause the problem. After the adoption of this speech code, we will still have buttheads in the blogosphere who pull the same juvenile stunts, use the same juvenile name-calling as a substitute for argument, and refuse to take control over their comments section, as always.
Why not let the market work instead? Discerning readers stay away from the dish-throwers. Advertisers will avoid abusive sites. That approach seemed to work well with Don Imus, whose latest reprehensible bout with uncivility has drawn rather serious financial consequences. The broadcast industry didn’t need the National Seal of Civility for those consequences to arise. Isn’t that what the Invisible Hand of the marketplace is supposed to do?
Let the readers decide what they support. Genuine threats should be referred to law enforcement. Insults and infantile tantrums are best ignored, not used to tar the entire blogosphere. Most of us don’t need Henninger and other self-appointed nannies to demand our civility.
In an increasingly statist world, we have plenty of voices advocating top-down solutions for pseudo-ills of society that remove individual choice and responsibility. Guilds and unions don’t solve problems based on immaturity. I would expect the arguments presented here from the New York Times, but not from a Wall Street Journal publication.