Internet Nastiness: Crying to Be Heard

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There has been a lot of complaining in recent years about the lack of civility in social discourse.  The breakdown of common courtesy and mutual respect in town hall meetings, Congress, and other venues threatens (some believe) the very foundations of our society.

In his article this week, Jason Blake talks about how the internet seems to be encouraging people to be “mean.”  I find it enlightening that he finds connections between the current phenomenon and the “angry young men” novels and films of the British 1960’s.  Also insightful is his quoting of Saul Bellow since the author structures his 1964 novel Herzog around his protagonist’s series of angry letters addressed to whoever happens to irritate him from one day to the next—divorce lawyers, psychiatrists, the President of the United States, Friedrich Nietzsche.  Herzog sends none of these letters (after all, some of his targets are dead) but still manages to get into a fair amount of trouble.  Think what could have happened to him if all he had to do was click “submit response.”

Jason also mentions Margaret Atwood, which I think is particularly appropriate because Atwood broke new ground (in novels like Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride) in depicting mean girls.  Many feminists who had embraced Atwood  complained about this development in her fiction because they didn’t like how Atwood seemed to be bashing her own gender.  But Atwood’s point is that we can’t just be sentimental but need to face up to this dark side of ourselves.  Jason (who like Atwood and Bellow is Canadian) makes a similar point about internet venting.

By Jason Blake, University of Ljubljana, Department of English

The adjective “mean” is a playground word, a steal-the-small-kid’s-shovel, knock-her-off-the-swings word. Webster’s main entries humble, dull, contemptible, base, stingy, and ashamed are plain wrong most of the time. Growing up in Toronto, I saw those other meanings regularly in poetry and prose, but I only heard them from people with funny Scottish accents. Today I still have to resist the urge to correct when a Slovene says, “he’s mean” instead of “he’s cheap.”

Webster’s synonym for “mean” (listed in the fine print below the numbered entries and real definitions) doesn’t do it justice either. “Below the standards of human decency and dignity” could apply to war crimes and other grown-up atrocities. “Mean” behavior should be childish, petulant, and nasty. And there’s meanness aplenty on the internet.

It is most obviously seen in the “Post Your Comment” sections that follow online newspaper articles. Rather than a forum for debate, these are too often snake-pits of enmity. As historian Brendan Edwards wrote recently, “the common practice of respected news media now allowing space for anonymous reader commentary” has not added flavor or depth to debates about immigration and diversity and so on; this space is too often “a venue for critics to spout hatred.” I am surprised daily by benign newspaper articles that give rise to such hatred. No topic is safe, it seems.

It’s hard not to get depressed about the general tone of many comments. With user-oriented web 2.0 we’ve missed a turn somehow. On the whole discussions have not become more open and fairer, just uglier. The un-moderated, free-for-all forums on mainstream media are too often a cesspool of extremist views, and plain nastiness.

To be sure, we all feel childishly mean at times – meanness is as human an instinct as love and laughter, melancholy and moodiness. Acting like a grown-up means controlling your emotions, hedging your desire to strike out at someone who has rattled or annoyed you. Letting irksome things ride instead of throwing a punch is wise because it prevents escalation and will ideally lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the bigness and anonymity of the internet does not promote reconciliation because it’s entirely impersonal.

And it’s all so marvelously fast! In the old days, we might have sat down to write an angry letter to our local newspaper, but usually the anger fizzled out in the time it took to find an envelope and a stamp. Letters selected for publication tended to be level-headed to the point of boredom. Today our raging fingers can instantly toss off an electronic insult without fear of repercussions or censor. Replace a vowel with an ampersand or other ersatz-letter, and you can even sneak in four-letter-words.

Most internet meanness is modified moaning, poisonous complaining. As Saul Bellow has written, “Complaining is one of the great secular arts and always has been. People break from a clinch and go off to different sides of the ring, each making his case, calling in the neighbors, crying out to heaven – he was right or she was right.” If you write “I hope this guy burns in h3ll” as a response to an editorial, it is not far from crying out vaguely to heaven and hoping for a receptive ear. But it’s better because there is the immediate gratification of seeing your words in print. It’s easy to believe that your voice, one of a million comments published on that day, is being heard by thousands.

Margaret Atwood’s 1994 sketch “Unpopular Gals” is narrated by a type that rarely had a voice in literature. The unpopular gal is a fairy tale villain, albeit one who speaks in a late-20th century idiom: “I haven’t even been given a name; I was just the ugly sister; put the stress on ugly.” In the fairy tale world, we know she’s an archetype, bad news.

But Atwood, whistling a Blakeian tune, shows that even scaly villains are born innocent. Her narrator is not a nasty gal who happens to be ugly; she is nasty because she’s been declared ugly. Society has treated her as badly as it often treats those with a different complexion –“not like [the cutie half-sister], the one who merely had to sit there to be adored.”

The stepsister’s eventual response is to do mean things: “You wonder why I stabbed the blue eyes of my dolls with pins and pulled their hair out until they were bald? Life isn’t fair. Why should I be?” Sometimes people are made victims, which is great for fairy tale plots and action. “I stir things up,” writes Atwood, “I get things moving. ‘Go play in the traffic,’ I say to them. ‘Put on this paper dress and look for strawberries in the snow.’ It’s perverse, but it works.” All it takes is a very naïve listener.

Mean-spirited internet comment-posters also stir things up and perhaps the naïve listener is the one who actually reads and gives thought to their nastiness. I’m not talking about the left-wing or right-wing political rants that follow any article (not matter how seemingly apolitical), and I’m not talking about religious or secular zealots, or soap-boxers who sound off virulently on a pet topic. I’m talking about those who publicly hope for a politician’s death, or who attack complete strangers that have lost their home to flooding or mortgage foreclosure.

Anonymity is at once the boon and the bane of the internet. If people “hide behind a name” – as the prejudicial phrase runs – so be it; that’s a basic right. Some people genuinely fear governmental wrath if they use their real name. We all have our irrational fears, and it would be a shame if these voices were silenced. At the same time, it’s much easier to be mean and nasty when your user name is “gun racks ‘r us” or “born to be alive.”

The solution for cleaning things up is simple: insist that everyone uses his or her real name and visceral attacks on complete strangers will be reduced to a trickle. This definitely results in a more huggly snuggly atmosphere.

But it also makes for Potemkin villages. As fatuous and mean as many comments are, they are also real. We can dismiss the many spiteful comments, even bury them through careful moderation or the demand for birth certificate credentials, but that does not do away with the widespread underlying resentment. This is what spooks me about internet comments: obviously masses sit reading in daily discontent, ready to spew hatred and meanness. Are these primarily the voices that have been silenced for centuries and that we have never wanted to hear? Or is there just that much hatred out there? Or is it half-hatred, rendered meaningless by the possibilities of web 2.0?

The rage fuelling nasty internet comments evokes that of the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain. Allan Sillitoe, John Osborne and others looked with ire on British society’s shortcomings and articulated this ire in works like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But unlike these writers, those who post mean and nasty comments are not aiming at a specific audience, and neither are they creating anything. They are merely crying out to electronic heaven. The comments may be rubbish, but the crying is often real; even if we don’t want to hear it.

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