Saturday, June 01, 2013

Hating the Haters is... So Cool!

Was somebody on the Internet mean to Stephen Marche?
The Internet has reached peak hate. It had to. At every other moment in history when there has been an explosion of text — whether through social change, like the birth of a religious movement, or technological change, like the advent of print — a period of nasty struggle ensued before the forces of civility reined it in. In the past few months alone, we've seen the catfishing of Manti Te'o, a professional tennis player quit because of trolling, and a rash of teenage suicides from cyberbullying alongside the by-now-standard Twitter hatestorms of various strengths and durations. The sheer bulk of the rage at the moment can seem overwhelming. But the fact that we recognize it and have acknowledged its unacceptability is a sign of the ancient process reasserting itself yet again. The Internet is in the process of being civilized.
Peak hate? Is that like "peak oil" - you think you've reached it, and then somebody finds a new source or finds a way to dig a deeper well?
Hate is a source of acknowledged pleasure. Hate-watching. Hate-listening. Hate-reading. These are all things that you, your friends, and your neighbors, not monsters, likely do. We deliberately expose ourselves to objects of contempt to stoke inner outrage in order to enjoy the release of fury. It's not just online, though the Internet is the most obvious theater of cruelty.
The Internet is "the most obvious theater of cruelty"? Seriously? I guess, perhaps, if the most dangerous thing you do is interview models and send tweets from your home office. But... seriously?

Marche then proceeds to imply that every mean thing said on the Internet is a form of cyberbullying, admits that he takes personal thrill in it, and suggests that we're headed down a road toward having anonymity legislated out of the Internet. He's a reporter, but I think he missed some foundational lessons on the First Amendment. Also, I don't think it's helpful to define bullying so broadly to encompass every mean thing posted on the Internet. Marche should take personal note here, given that when he argues that "Twitter and Web comments are really just new expressions of that oldest of monsters: the crowd", that "these hatestorms" against individuals on the Internet are a form of bullying, and "bullies and their victims both have a higher rate of mental illness for decades afterward", it's difficult to avoid the fact that he's describing his own conduct. I'll grant, he uses the term "we" a lot, but that seems largely to be a matter of projection.
Wildness is always followed by civilization, the root of civilization is civility, and the rules of civility have not meaningfully changed in two thousand years. Cicero outlined them in "On Duties": Speak clearly. Don't speak too much. Make sure everybody has a chance. Don't interrupt. Alternate topics so that everybody can talk about something of interest to them. Don't criticize people behind their backs. Don't be angry or lazy. These are the rules. You already know them. They've always been the rules. People are just going to start following them again.
Except the thing is, it's not as if human nature has changed over the past 2,000 years, and Marche himself admits that what he's describing is simply a manifestation of human nature, at times magnified by technology. Were Marche to look at the past 2,000 years of human history, he would quickly find that Cicero's rules are most often honored in the breach. That's not going to change, and the Internet is not going to be tamed by (imagined) legislation that requires you sign your real name to everything you post. If Marche wants to transform himself into a champion of online civility, a role model for us all, that would be great. If he thinks he can change others, or transform human nature through legislation, though, he has quite a bit to learn about the limits of his capacity.

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