Friday, March 20, 2015

Gyges' Ring is Real

Have you heard of Gyges' Ring? Plato spoke about it in his book The Republic. Here is how Plato relates the discovery of this ring:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
This isn't exactly the 'One Ring' from Lord of the Rings. It doesn't make you tired. There's no dark lord out to ruin you if you over-use it or anything like that. No horsemen are coming to get you if you have it. Nothing like that. It's a symbol of absolute freedom from responsibility for one's actions. Gyges' ring is Plato's own way of asking what a good person is like. Plato says that a just person is someone who would live their life the same whether they are wearing the ring or not. Such a person, says Socrates in Plato's dialogue, would be the kind of person who isn't a slave to their appetites.

Anyone who is reading this blog has probably been into the darkest, deepest, most horrifying depths of the internet. That place where the trolls come out to play and the monsters are real. That place where people actually behave like the disgusting monsters that they are on the inside. I'm speaking, of course, of the comments section on YouTube. Abandon hope all ye who read such a comments section - or nearly any comments section on any website, for that matter. It isn't just that people are irrational and mean, but they are frankly boorish, rude, uncaring, and cruel. It turns out that an anonymous citizenry really is as terrifyingly evil and irresponsible as we might fear.

A month ago, This American Life did a story about internet trolls, and one of the interesting things they talked about was a woman who was so tormented by trolls that someone actually found a picture of her father, started a Twitter feed in his name and with his picture and started tweeting cruel messages to her about what a failure and disappointment she was to him. Predictably she was totally aghast and heartbroken and brought to tears by this anonymous person's "joke." Anonymity allowed him to behave in a way that I trust he never would have behaved in the physical real world.

I am here to tell you (and you probably already know this) that Gyges' ring is real. And everyone with an internet connection has it. We now live in a society of where nearly everyone can behave as they want with virtual anonymity. Remarkably, the troll who tormented this woman I just spoke about on Twitter actually had a conscience and ended up apologizing over the phone to the woman with tears. He realized he had crossed a line and behaved like a ghoul. He took off the ring and realized that, at least in some sense, there is an obligation for all of us to treat one another with respect and kindness, whether we get caught or not.

How do you behave on the internet? How do you talk to other people online? How long do you pause before you push the "submit" button on a comment or before you push "return" after writing a Facebook comment? How big is the disconnect between the things you are willing to say to people face to face and the things you are willing to type to them? One definition of the word integrity points to the principle of undivided wholeness; I would suggest that having integrity with regard to the internet means that the person you behave as when you're wearing Gyges' ring ought to be the same person you are when you aren't wearing it.

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