Frankly, given that the Internet merely represents the virtualisation of public space, I expect it to be a vulgar, graffiti-laden shambles, and I am both grateful and surprised whenever I encounter on-line discourse that, tonally and thematically, rises above what one finds scrawled on the walls of public urinals and parking garages. As to my own on-line conduct, I follow as faithfully as possible the precept that a gentleman never offends anybody unintentionally.
The problem is that civility is dialogical: one cannot be civil alone. Civility is a contextual process that requires a willing partner. Once engaged in debate with one of the myriad sputtering maniacs who loiter on the 'net, the "civil" speaker will find that his composure merely acts as an amplifying resonator for his antagonist's shrieking ululations. This can be diverting, but it can never be civil--any more than warfare can ever be civil.
Even in those few cases where on-line civility reigns, it is usually a mongrel thing--a gauche admixture of awkwardly executed "tolerance", a sloppy application of someone's vague notion of netiquette and a fumbling adherence to rhetorical courtesies that have never been (and never will be) codified. Given the odds against, on-line civility really shouldn't occur at all.
Incivility will always be the Internet norm. The challenge is to be civilly uncivil--that is, to retain the form of civility while in full process of being bloody offensive to someone on whom genuine civility would be wasted.
This alternative to actual civility, when performed dexterously, can (I firmly believe) provide a replica that is indistinguishable from the real thing and will afford one the satisfaction of knowing that, despite having argued in vain, one at least offered one's benighted antagonist a style to which to aspire.
As an example of such a style, I give you a sample from the writing of the brilliant prose master, Max Beerbohm. Here, he imagines himself composing a letter to a politician who has just suffered defeat at the polls (the poor chap's a Tory, of course). This is taken from Beerbohm's And Even Now. Enjoy.
DEAR MR. POBSBY-BURFORD:
Though I am myself an ardent Tory, I cannot but rejoice in the crushing defeat you have just suffered in West Odgetown. There are moments when political conviction is overborne by personal sentiment; and this is one of them.
The great bulk of the newspaper-reading public will be puzzled by your extinction in the midst of our party's triumph. But then, the great mass of the newspaper-reading public has not met you. I have. You will probably not remember me. You are the sort of man who would not remember anybody who might not be of some definite use to him. Such, at least, was one of the impressions you made on me when I met you last summer at a dinner given by our friends the Pelhams.
Among the other things in you that struck me were the blatant pomposity of your manner, your appalling flow of cheap platitudes, and your hoggish lack of ideas. It is such men as you that lower the tone of public life. And I am sure that in writing to you thus I am but expressing what is felt, without distinction of party, by all who sat with you in the late Parliament.
The one person in whose behalf I regret your withdrawal into private life is your wife, whom I had the pleasure of taking in to the aforesaid dinner. It was evident to me that she was a woman whose spirit was well-nigh broken by her conjunction with you. Such remnants of cheerfulness as were in her I attributed to the Parliamentary duties which kept you out of her sight for so very many hours daily. I do not like to think of the fate to which the free and independent electors of West Odgetown have just condemned her. Only, remember this: chattel of yours though she is, and timid and humble, she despises you in her heart.
I am, dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,
Yours very truly, etc., etc.