So here’s a question for you to ponder: Are people who vent their spleens on the Internet when they are (or believe they are) anonymous truly nasty people who manage to hide their true natures in real life in order to get along, or are they actually nice people who for some reason find that anonymity (real or perceived) brings out their hidden demons?

So here’s a question for you to ponder: Are people who vent their spleens on the Internet when they are (or believe they are) anonymous truly nasty people who manage to hide their true natures in real life in order to get along, or are they actually nice people who for some reason find that anonymity (real or perceived) brings out their hidden demons?


Perhaps this is just a modern way of asking if man is basically good or evil.


If I were to talk to an acquaintance about a political issue, and he or she disagreed, we probably could manage to have a respectful discussion. If things got heated, we’d probably agree to disagree and change the subject or go our separate ways.


Most people realize that two perfectly nice, thoughtful, smart people can nevertheless disagree about politics, philosophy, religion, music, art and every other subject.


Move that same discussion to the Internet, however, and all of a sudden you find people not saying, “I have to disagree with you on that,” but instead, “You’re a complete idiot who ought to be shot.”


If you recognize yourself as an Internet nasty, you need to ask yourself: “Which is the real me?”


One of my family members — a very young curmudgeon — told me he believes that people who behave badly on the Internet are doing no more than showing their real selves. No matter how nice someone appears when they’re standing in front of you, he says, if they’re horrible people on the Internet, they’re horrible people.


So I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and it tends to explain a lot.


In this business, we see the very worst. Journalists spend a lot of time writing and reading about people who appeared perfectly normal to their friends and neighbors but who — seemingly out of the blue — have committed horrific crimes. People who have murdered their spouses, molested children, tortured animals. Those around them are always surprised.


I remember the professor in my very first journalism class instructing us to always talk to the neighbors around crime scenes. He said something like, “That’s where you get the quote that says, ‘But he always seemed like such a nice person.’”


Indeed, we hardly ever get a quote from a neighbor saying, “Yeah, I knew it was just a matter of time before that guy went off the deep end and started shooting.”


I’ve always wondered how to explain some of humanity’s most deeply shameful history, times when seemingly ordinary people have shed their decency and committed evil acts.


I’m thinking about ordinary Germans who went along with Hitler’s extermination of Jews and others the Nazis dehumanized and sought to destroy. I’m thinking about ordinary Southerners a generation or two ago who joined lynch mobs and hanged innocent black men. I’m thinking of Rwanda, where in 1994 Hutus quite suddenly began slaughtering their Tutsi neighbors, even hacking up Tutsi children and babies. I’m thinking of what’s going on in the Sudan right now.


The question I have is, how many of those oh-so-seemingly-nice people we meet every day have the capacity, given the right set of circumstances, to commit such acts?


And do they realize they have this capacity for evil hidden in their breasts, or would they be as surprised as anybody to find themselves running amok with a machete?


My not-very-original theory is that we are who we are not when people are watching and judging, but when nobody is looking.


Seen in that light, it’s not so surprising that all over the world, all over history, a sadly high percentage of people have demonstrated their capacity to drop their public smiles and show their shadowy side.


But now we have something we didn’t have in 1940s Germany. We have the Internet, and there we can find a disturbing amount of darkness. Given the right set of circumstances, many of the anonymous haters posting on websites would, I believe, be the first ones to pick up their weapons.


That’s something to think about the next time you’re on the Internet and feel like aiming a nasty missive at a person who, for all you know, could be someone you’re on very good terms with in real life.


Michelle Teheux may be reached at mteheux@pekintimes.com.


The views in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.