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  • The Internet as Terminator

    There is No Technological Fix for Prejudice

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    After the Holocaust, after the struggles of the American civil rights movement, after apartheid -- and in the midst of the Bosnian and Rwandan tragedies -- we finally hear the good news. There is a cure for prejudice. It's wonderfully simple: put people on the Internet, and their prejudices will simply disappear.

    This gospel may be the single, most universally preached sermon on the Internet today. The "liberating power of anonymity," so the doctrine runs, will triumph over prejudice. Unable to observe your age, race, gender, or physical handicap across the Net, I will not be unreasonably bothered by such irrelevant traits. I am freed to honor your real self.

    The doctrine is false. Crushingly, self-evidently, dangerously false. I do not conquer my prejudices against foreigners by putting all foreignness out of sight. The things I prefer to keep out of sight are, in fact, the things that will subsequently rule me most effectively from my subconscious.

    The roots of prejudice lie in the human being and cannot be eradicated with a trick of technology. Certainly we cannot be more fully human toward each other by being less human, less there, less in view.

    Moreover, we discriminate against each other quite as easily on the basis of belief and other intangibles as on the basis of appearance. As long as anything of the person remains, there's something to discriminate against. If prejudice easily "disappears" across the Net, it is because the person himself easily disappears.

    But getting rid of the other person in this way begins to sound suspiciously like "termination with extreme prejudice."

    The difficult truth of the matter is that we cannot overcome prejudice except by overcoming prejudice. Putting temptation out of sight may be the most prejudicial action of all. If I would accept the other person, I must accept him in all his particularity.

    I rise above the external, not by ignoring it, but by reading it. This is true in all things. The color and shapes of ink upon the book's page fall from consciousness only when I grasp their meaning as text. The outer forms then express a world of inner significances.

    In the same way, a friend's face leads me on an inward journey toward his true self. How else can I know him, except through some sort of physical expression? But I must learn to look through this surface, and with its indispensable help discover the one who is expressing himself.

    In other words, I transcend his external features if, accepting them, I make a revelation of them. Only when I grasp the inner life of a revelation does its outer husk drop away. I cannot ignore the ink on the page if I would read the words -- and yet, when I do read, it is no longer the ink I am aware of, but the thoughts and feelings expressed.

    When, on the other hand, I ignore the outer traits instead of reading them, I also ignore the person. But this is an insult. Moreover, the utter blank that results from my refusal to read cannot be sustained. I end up projecting my own subconscious upon it.

    The Jews of the Third Reich knew what it was to carry the hidden qualities of others. It