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Something that's been bothering me more than usual lately is just how vituperative...people are to each other online.

The internet lets us reach out to people who are farther away, but it has also made it much too easy to act without thinking. From behind their keyboards, others mock, ridicule, and disdain others, thinking that said others will never see what they've written. Or, worse, hoping that they will.

If you put it out on the internet, anyone can see it. Everyone can see it. It doesn't matter if you have to use a password to get into part of a site—other people can get passwords, too. It doesn't matter if you use an avatar or a screenname—your IP address and the other little crumbs you leave behind can identify you.

It's hard not to get caught up in the flaming when someone you like or care about shoves a flamethrower into your hands and points at the target, shouting the whole time that the other person is trying to burn her to a crisp. It can even be hard not to get caught up in the competitiveness of an argument. But that doesn't make any of it all right.

Three things have brought this to the forefront for me.

1. Britney Spears. Yes, I know. Not her again. But I think she's really put a fine point on what being held up as an object of public ridicule can do to someone. Do I think she's ill? Who wouldn't be after everything that's happened to her? The more trouble she's had, the more she's been pushed, because it makes a better spectacle. We've gone from being entertained by nice family sitcoms to destroying celebrities so we can watch them go down in flames.

2. "Comments" on several news boards. I can't even get my news without comments, and few of them are productive or part of a cerebral debate. Archeologists recently found two adult skeletons embracing, which is apparently unprecedented, but commenters lambasted the scientists for "disturbing" them (they're bones, folks--the people are gone), went on about how sweet it was (both of them were murdered), and ranted about science's cold cruelty in general. (I went back to link to them, and apparently Yahoo decided the same thing: "As they were set up, the Yahoo! News message boards allowed a small number of vocal users to dominate the discussion." So they took them down while they retool. I used a CNN link instead.) I'm as much of a romantic as the next person, but we might be able to learn things to help us go forward in important ways. Archeologists aren't going to want to pull them apart either, they'll want to maintain the integrity of the find. But they do want to learn from them. Listen, if my bones could teach someone things 5000 years from now, I'd want them moved as much as necessary!)

3. Lori Perkins. Lori Perkins is a literary agent. Like several other agents, she blogs; her blog is called—surprise—Agent in the Middle. I found a similar sentiment on her blog; essentially she got overwhelmed with submissions and sent polite rejection letters suggesting that those who really felt her agency was a good match (some people just send letters to everyone without even bothering to see what an agency represents) to please requery in a few months. The internet just burst into flames about her. "It was," she writes, "surreal. (if you do a google search on me, you can still find these diatribes). I really felt like I couldn't win for loosing [sic], and that's also why I keep my rejection letter short and sweet."

So here are three things that keep going around in my brain to go with the three things above.

1. "Judge people by their actions... What people say about themselves does not matter; people will say anything. Look at what they have done; deeds do not lie. You must also apply this logic to yourself. In looking back at a defeat, you must identify the things you could have done differently... You are responsible for the good and bad in your life... People who accuse you of being unfair, for example, who try to make you feel guilty, who talk about justice and morality, are trying to gain an advantage [for themselves]." - Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War xix (hardcover)

2. Make a tree good, and then its fruit will be good. Or make a tree rotten, and then its fruit will be rotten. A person can recognize a tree by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. Good people do the good things that are in them. But evil people do the evil things that are in them. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. -Matt 12:33-38

3. Freud said, "Opposition [disagreement] is not necessarily enmity [hostility]; it is merely misused and made an occasion for enmity..." Research shows that people who feel small and inadequate find reasons to disdain and abuse others to try to make themselves feel better; people who are strong and secure don't need to. And who really wants to hang out with someone who's nasty all the time?—having other people dislike you can't make you feel better about yourself. It's a lot more fun to hang out with someone who's kind and has a sense of humor about the potholes in the road of life.

And for those who think others won't know about their enemity and vituperation, Freud adds, "He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. [Even] if his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore."


  1. Ripley said...
    Here, here! I'm sick of it, quite frankly... and I am continuously surprised that the verbal hatred is found almost everywhere on the Internet.

    For some time I wondered if it were even possible to carry on a respectable discussion from other Internet users and I'll admit that my "surfing" has been tailored toward less risk of controversial sites.

    What constitutes controversial to me? Good question. I have basically limited my communiqu├ęs to scholarly sites and honestly, that's sad. Academics aren't the only ones on the web that have something worthwhile to say however, I have found that the risk of venom is much less likely to occur. I'm just sorry there aren't more scholars blogging or frequenting bulletin boards.

    I crave substantial connections with others in the form of verbal or written sharing but alas, it has proven difficult.

    Sometimes I cruise for silly things just because they can be fun, right? So anyway... I cruise over to because someone mentioned it to me and my friend was right; it's cute. I then checked out their forum and within 3 minutes of reading posts I was shocked yet again. The name calling, cursing, berating, and just downright nastiness was unbelievable!!!
    Needless to say I lost interest quickly.

    I will make one declaration...
    Intellectually I can understand how people can take advantage of anonymity to vent their darker side HOWEVER, I never could and don't. Dare I say my conscience won't allow it? Even when someone has blasted me for an unpopular opinion and just begging for rebuttal, I always take a deep breath and then be as diplomatic as possible even when I would rather bite back.

    So then my question is...
    Why is it so easy for so many?
    Katinka said...
    Excellent point...I'm not sure why it's still considered "safe" or acceptable to blast someone online. This presents some interesting legal ramifications, particularly since many high profile individuals have opened themselves up to the world of blogging. (Of course, perhaps this also explains many bloggers mass exodus to Facebook)

    I sympathise with your experience too, Ripley...there needs to be more opportunity to discuss and debate controversial topics without it degenerating into name calling and mud slinging.

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