Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I Don't Get Internet Hate

This started off as a casual Facebook conversation. In the course of reading the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, I came across this article:
What struck me as I read down the piece was not the apparently ironic coincidence between an announcement that a faculty member was leaving for another institution and that same person's having become the subject of some Twitter controversy. Instead, to me the heart of the article isn't the news story at all - it's the flow of tweets and internet conversations, from all sides, about this person. Some examples:

What strikes me here is the level of anger and hatred being casually slung around by people who do not know Prof. Robinson at all. This is vitriol for the sake of vitriol, some of which (particularly the call to pull all tax dollars from public institutions - because you disagree with one professor?) have a very burn-the-house-down-around-your-own-ears feel to them.

As a scholar of conflict, I understand intellectually much of what's going on here. I see the flag-waving by members of particular tribes. I understand that words and ideas take on symbolic weight that can be tied to a person's self-identity. I get that some folks may feel comforted or empowered by being able to lash out, in a safe and protected online fashion, at bogeymen images onto which they can project their fears. I know that this is not about who said what, it's about who is Us and who is Them. And I know that there are plenty of unscrupulous people who amass money or power (or both) by whipping up precisely these sentiments. The National Review and a great many other publications (on the Left and the Right) make a lot of money stirring this pot.

I just don't get it.

I don't understand, in my heart and my gut, how people can travel through life filled with so much fear, so much hatred, so much anger that words on a screen from someone they've never met and never will - someone whose impact on the larger world is really very small - can trigger this kind of outpouring of bile. I've no doubt that Prof. Robinson received far worse than this in her inbox - the usual collection of death threats, rape threats, threats to kill her children (if she has any), often delivered with graphic glee. But even the relatively tame stuff above I don't get.

People will say: well, that's just the way the internet is. It's inhabited, in part if not in whole, by trolls and monsters and people who do such things. Better get used to it, or get out. That's the Way Things Are.

And still I don't get it.

This is, I suppose, a far better indication of the brokenness of the world - the sinful nature of humanity, to borrow the theological term - than many I could think of. Politicians and pundits and (some) preachers pound their pulpits and point to Them as the embodiment of Sin, the reason why everything is screwed up, the Anti-Christs who threaten to drag us into 1000 years of darkness. I think it's much simpler than 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.

So yes, I understand. I just don't get it. And I hope I never do.

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