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We are cruel. We always have been. The Internet did not make us so

Not that it asked me and not that it needs me and not that I expect it to do anything but mock me for my efforts, but I'm going to defend the Internet.

Lately, humanity has been flattering itself that it was better and kinder before the Internet – as though we never slipped anonymous notes through locker doors in high-school hallways that were echo chambers in themselves, as if we never wrote on actual walls.

To hear us now, you'd think no one ever ever crank-called late at night, dialled up even before dial-up to offer abuse, stared into other people's windows through our own twitching curtains.

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We were never bitches before BBS. We never took our children to public hangings. The way it's told now, we never publicly shamed anyone, put them in the stocks, or hurled rotten vegetables at them in the street. We never quietly dropped anyone off the guest list at a time when, new social spheres being difficult to access, a true precipice might well lie below.

We bemoan how the Internet has changed us. As though no priest in a small town ever gave a pointed sermon to his parish, reducing some poor sinner to incriminating tears, believing that doing so kept everyone else in line.

Well, even if a priest did do that now and then, even if the odd scarlet letter was stitched onto a dress, life was different for the shamed back then, many will say. There's just no escaping such humiliation in the modern world, they worry.

Yet escape wasn't easy historically, either. Sure, not everyone on the planet knew when you'd transgressed in the olden days, but everyone you knew and likely ever hoped to know sure did. The world wasn't the "global village" it is now, but it wasn't exactly easy to move around it. In fact, I imagine one had a reasonable expectation of occupying (hiding in) about the same percentage of that big, big world in the past as one does in our tiny world now.

Yes, once there was no Internet offering up some version of your past to the curious – and we've always been curious – but it's not as though the town four towns over from any sinner didn't harbour grave suspicions about strangers; and long before Google, people just made stuff up. There was a time of letters of introduction – these, children, were not unlike retweets – and absent those letters, and not known to be of long-standing good standing in a community, the assumption was you'd turned up elsewhere because you'd done something wrong.

Ships were once, in part, crewed via the crimes and humiliations of these would-be escapees – but then, the pay and conditions aboard those vessels reflected that fact – offering a different experience from a fresh start.

I'll grant you there's something about vicious messages coming into your home, popping up on your computer screen as you're curled up on your own couch, that is quite new and extremely unsettling. We've been talking about that a lot lately in large part because Monica Lewinsky gave a TED Talk in which she – arguably opportunistically, to give her story new relevance – described herself as the "patient zero" of online bullying.

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"Why Monica?" I have to ask, since the admittedly nasty treatment she was subjected to predated social media. Why her and not Paul Reubens, or Fatty Arbuckle?

"I lost almost everything, and I almost lost my life," she says in that talk, before comparing what happened to her to what happened to Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam to view him kissing another man, and encouraged others to watch Mr. Clementi's next date.

I never judged Ms. Lewinsky's affair with her president, which was private and should have remained private and was at any rate none of my business, but I judge that bit of public appropriation of Tyler Clementi's death rather harshly. Like most victims of harassment, Mr. Clementi never had the option of doing an interview with Barbara Walters to try to set the record straight, as Ms. Lewinsky did. He'll never give a TED Talk. And no part of the tragedy of his death is that it could have been Monica Lewinsky's. His pain was such that he lived for only two days following his humiliation.

Sadly, he didn't find the support that would have been there for him – on the Internet, in those messages that also come into your home as you are curled up on your own couch. Ms. Lewinsky, too, and quite rightly, would have had legions of online supporters during her trying time, denouncing her detractors.

When I look online, I see so much praise, encouragement, fundraising by those moved by a small story, selfless promotion of good work – and a forum that facilitates quick redemption, as well as too-hasty takedowns. Much of the goodness and wit I see come from anonymous accounts – although these have long been considered to be the problem on Twitter.

Are we cruel? Absolutely, but we've always been that way, and we're cruel everywhere. It's just that now everyone sees that reality – one frequently denied in the past. The misogyny and racism we see online is a documentary – it just lacks the charm of March of the Penguins.

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We didn't start the flame war. Scandalous satirical pamphlets were once cranked out by writers and sold at train stations, like so many primordial blog posts. Political cartoons have a long and vicious history. Incivility is our legacy, not our invention. It is part, but only part, of who we are. And have always been.

I receive my share of online abuse. I get anxious when someone takes the time to describe which particular weapon should be used on which specific part of my body. None of that is acceptable. Although to be clear, I'd take 10 times that online abuse to protect a 14-year-old less equipped to handle it from even one subtweet. It's toward the kids that our corrective energy should go. If I had my way, no one over 25 would ever describe themselves as "bullied" again.

The flip side of this nastiness is that I'm also hugely supported and educated and amused by people online and people I've met there. If we're going to give the Internet credit for inventing cruelty, we're going to have to give it credit for inventing compassion as well.

So let's not do either of these things, because we'll look ridiculous.

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