Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner is gone from Congress, so perhaps we'll stop hearing so much about his Internet habits. But his distribution of a lewd photo and online sex talk with women other than his wife does leave behind ethical issues for the rest of us to ponder.
They start with this question: To what degree is a sin still a sin?
Jesus said to look at a woman with lust was like committing adultery. Applying that standard to the Internet, what happens online "counts" as much as what happens physically between two people. Or, as my young daughter said, just because you're on the Internet, you don't have the right to blackmail someone.
But sexual ethics and blackmail are hardly the only ways the World Wide Web is forcing a rethinking of ethical issues. The next biggest challenge comes from the Internet's highly individualized nature. Social networking is, by nature, hyper-democratic. People tweet. They Facebook. They blog. In each case, the individual is supreme.
There's much to like about that democratization, especially when individuals take down unjust, tyrannical regimes. But society also is atomizing because of the Internet.
That's not all good, especially when you get into questions about what's ethical. If the only standards are the ones we define for ourselves, we risk having no community mores. And that opens the door to social chaos.
William Lawrence, the dean and professor of American Church History at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology, seized on this point during a recent discussion of the Weiner case on The Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog. Lawrence wrote:
"Precisely because these new forms of social media are so highly atomized and individualized, we run the risk that every writer and every reader is the creator of her or his own ethical standards. When that happens, social media are not managing to connect us as a society. Instead, they are managing to disconnect us from one another.
"It is not simply that new ethical standards need to be written in our age. It is also that we need to determine how to establish ethical standards that apply to more persons than solely the individuals who write them."
Absolutely. And there is no wand to wave here. Making sure that tweeting, Facebooking and blogging does not dumb down shared standards requires a renewal of an old-fashioned virtue: restraint.
Nearly all the Texas Faith panelists who responded to a question about how the Internet has forced us to rethink ethics pointed to the speed at which we can get ourselves in trouble in cyberspace. In olden days, which means before the 'Net arrived, people actually wrote letters. They also had time to find a stamp, lick an envelope, go to the post office -- each of which gave the sender time to think whether he or she actually wanted to send the letter, particularly an angry or Weiner-like missive.
Not so much today. You write. You send. All in a flash.
The good news is that we're not automatons. We're human beings with free will to make choices. Making the right calls on the Internet starts with thinking before we send.
Here's one more point to consider: The Internet keeps alive our "sins" long after they are over. Cynthia Rigby, the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, describes the new reality this way:
"One of the ways the Internet forces us to rethink ethical standards is by defying the limits of space and time.
"The limits of space once ensured that not everyone would find out, that even widespread gossip, spreading out from a central leaking point, would eventually come up against a perimeter.
"The limits of time once promised that memories of indiscretions would fade, their perceived insidiousness diminish.
"The Internet scoffs at such limits."
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; email: wmckenziedallasnews.com
(c) 2011, The Dallas Morning News.
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