Monday, July 6, 2015

Hate: On the Internet and in the Real World

I wrote late week about hate on the internet. I suggested in that post that:
The brokenness of humanity is simply that so many of us hate each other, for no particular reason, and some of us actively and deliberately contribute to that hatred.
One of my friends pointed out that the anonymity of the internet gives some people license to say things that they would never say in the physical presence of their target. Hatred is made safer by distance because there's little risk to me, especially when I can hide behind an invented electronic identity.

But I was reminded over the weekend that fear, anger, and hatred are not confined to the internet - although social media is a great way to amplify them. To my surprise and disappointment, the following showing up on my Facebook feed:

 The original poster attached a comment to this set of photos praising the fellow on the left for having "earned his hippie-stomping badge". The pictures and the comment were then passed around FB to general approval from those inclined to identify with a certain kind of tribe.

I get that flag-burning is controversial and makes some people angry. I also get that it is legally protected speech, one of the freedoms that nearly all Americans say they cherish about the American governmental system. English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it perhaps most succinctly: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

That particular expression of value seems to be lost both on the fellow committing assault in the picture above and on the legions of fans he has apparently generated on Facebook. The "hippie" (the bearded fellow on the right) engaged in an act of speech, and the fellow on the left assaulted him for it. Would this have been different had the "hippie" called the older gentleman names? "Old fart"? "Gay"? "Bastard"?

We teach our children not to lash out physically when they're taunted, teased, or verbally abused. Bullies sometimes abuse this teaching by creating a climate of fear, but that's not what's going on here. The guy committing the assault has nothing to fear. He can go buy another flag and display it proudly as he likes.

The exchange pictured here doesn't bother me that much - this is a garden-variety instance of "adults" acting like children, or worse. What bothers me more is the extent to which this behavior is apparently widely approved of, at least by the simplistic measure of "likes" and "shares". Some of the people doing that approving, at least, should know better. A few of them (known to me personally) do know better, because they belong to another tribe (a church) that does not condone this kind of violent response. But it's so easy to click that "like" button ...

This, I think, is one of the more insidious dangers of social network platforms. They do not create the tribes we attach ourselves to, and things that happen in the real world still matter more to those tribes and their boundaries than what happens online. But they make it so easy to be drawn into tribal us-and-them hatred, a little bit at a time.

This is in line with another piece I wrote last week about the "funhouse mirror" effects of the internet. It distorts what we see. Worse, we invite that distortion because it makes us feel good. That fleeting feeling of empowerment, however small, is addictive. But by feeding that addiction we are also fueling our divisions. I hope (possibly in vain) that we can, a few at a time, find a better way.

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