Every once in a while, if you’re even a bit like me, you see something on social media that you feel is so utterly stupid, misinformed or biased that you want to just reach down the line and strangle the person who posted it with optic fibre. Been there? Well, I know I’ve surely been in that dark place of emotional venom and outrage, especially in the context of politics.
And, every once in a while, you might post something that’s totally immoderate in response to some perceived piece of digital idiocy. Something ranging from passive-aggressive to something downright bombastic or even cruel. In my truly weaker moments, I again know I have and I ain’t proud of it. Pointless and petty.
Over the last four years, I’ve noted the ascending milestones of online outrage — including those I may have perpetuated or participated in — between friends and acquaintances. I’ve lost count of how many otherwise reasonable people have, at a minimum, “unfriended” or “blocked” each other, or, sadly, entered into substantive conflicts and estrangements. Some even take pride in the “list” of people they’ve been blocked by, as if that somehow validates the strength with which they hold their PoV.
I know of childhood friends who have fallen out so thoroughly and irrevocably through their keyboards – and felt so intimidated – that they’ve had to take the APVOs (Apprehended Personal Violence Orders) or their equivalent against each other in real life. Australian officials take pride in us having recently enacted the toughest penalties in the world — $111,000 -– for individual instances of online bullying, threating, intimidating, or abusing.
Over the most recent days and in the wake of the US Capitol riot, we especially see some troubling things –- both in terms of tone and content –- in our feeds. While there may or may not be “good people on both sides”, there’s certainly appears to be no political monopoly on cyber-savagery.
Wherever we look, digital disputes are morphing to human heartache. It’s not the first time it’s been asked, but it’s still very contemporary: what the hell is going on?
Many have commented on the toxicity of social media and its sources, including how anonymity accentuates it. Many have also commented on what appears to be our “new normal” of hyper-partisan heckling and hatred. Some have commented on how “alt-truth” leaders and media sources may be contributing to, at least, our desensitisation to consequences and, at most, our personal weaponization.
It’s just logical that a lack of concern for consequences at the top of society permits moral impunity throughout society, especially online where the impacts seem abstract. Behaviour not tolerated in toddlers has become acceptable in adults in their digital sandboxes.
Others have noted the organised role of serious dark forces –- powerful political regimes -– in creating conflict and polarisation that erodes the civic centre of liberal democracies. Investigators have in fact revealed that it’s completely plausible that some smelly incel in a professional troll factory in Novosibrsk, dealing in disinformation and distraction, may well have contributed to the last Internet shouting match you had about American politics or pandemic management.
Perhaps, it’s counterintuitive, but, the RAND think tank has established that violence and conflict – the physical kind – have actually decreased over the last two decades, particularly between states. Crime rates have also been falling in most liberal democracies. So, it’s plausible that at the state actor, societal and personal levels we are migrating our conflict capability into the Cloud.
American psychologist and academic Joshua Gibbs points to the phenomenon of online “moral grandstanding” whereby people use Internet exchanges about politics, beliefs and values not as an exchange of idea, but to promote themselves or seek status. He finds that many moral grandstanders –- who for example make seemingly self-assured proclamations of the rightness of their views about say climate change or Trump — actually have weaker self-concepts. His research found that they are more likely to generally have discord throughout their lives, be it on Facebook or at the supermarket queue.
It’s no surprise that whole areas of research and reflection are rapidly emerging about online and other forms of contemporary conflict. The recent best-seller by moral psychologist and behavioural researcher, Jonathan Haidt, looked at the threshold question of ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’. Haidt writes: ‘People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.’
I would go further. Frankly, not only do we find somewhat understandable personal aggrandisement or benign blindness to others on Internet exchanges, we are also confronted with the more shocking truth: most of us have experienced forms of online brutality and barbarism. It’s clearly shameful, but potentially also shame-based.
Much of the really so-bad-its-surprising behaviour on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere – not even including material that is purely the stuff of agents provocateurs, conspiracists and extremist ideologues – might even come from some vestigial part of who we are. A “fight or flight” remnant of ourselves that is hard-wired to responding to perceived risk and threat at what some call a “reptilian” level.
Partly as a response to the bowl of electronic vomit before us, the concept of “digital detox” has entered popular culture and the personal practice of many. But are there other alternatives to the blunt and somewhat unrealistic act of pulling the plug from the Matrix?
Some speak of “conscientious computing” whereby we are implored to take a more curated and selective approach to our online worlds, as opposed to ceaseless scrolling and at least some implicit hunt for controversy. The problem with that approach is it’s a neutral technique rather than an ethos of behaviour.
Maybe, if lack of self-worth and automatic defensiveness are root causes of online conflict over politics and social issues, it’s wise to address that specific aspect. If someone is being boastful or obnoxious or loose with the truth, they may actually be trying to reinforce some crumbling façade of their own existential structure, or respond to something they interpret as an attack on themselves and their values. The idea that we can rhetorically back someone in such a state into a corner and then get them to “see the facts” or somehow concede is absurd, and speaks more to our own ego needs.
The alternative concept of active compassion applies. As extrapolated from British psychologist Paul Gilbert, it’s taken in stages: a) me being aware that something is going on, such as an online battle that I may be party to; b) me recognising that it’s a pretty universal for humans, including those in the conflict, to want status and respect and some self-explanation for a confusing world; and; c) me then acting with kindness, or what former Republican Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, called a ‘servant’s heart’ in a video recently. That’s expressed by not insisting on my being “right” and somebody else “wrong”. Acknowledgement of an opposing view is not acceptance of that view.
Somebody clearly smarter than me once said to me: ‘Those who are hardest to love are those who need it the most.’ That ain’t an easy maxim to adhere to – and very much ain’t easy for me. Doing the right thing generally isn’t. But in the context of the keyboard combat we encounter every day, if we don’t do rise above sooner than later, we may end up in a permanent abyss of antagonism.
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