Merchants of Hate

Posted by Ron Rosenbaum via Michael Campbell

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In the 20th century, the West faced threats from despotism, Fascism, communism and terrorism. While we continue to mobilize against all of these scourges, more subtle threats have slipped past our intellectual defences. In an ongoing series adapted from a newly published book, New Threats to Freedom, we examine the phenomenon from the perspective of nine different writers.
“These are the bastards trying to choke the breath out of American debate. These are the perverts gang-raping the Goddess of Liberty. These are the traitors who claim that anyone who doesn’t think like they do isn’t a True American.”

–Anonymous comment posted on liberal blog Daily Kos, Sept. 5, 2009

“[Obama] surrounds himself with the Jews he wants dead, the whites he wants enslaved, and the Billionaires whose money he covets. What is it about Black Liberation Theology and Black Nationalism you don’t get? It is payback time baby, and the nation will die. He HATES us.”

–Comment posted on conservative blog The American Thinker

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you truth.” So said Oscar Wilde. The problem with applying this insight to the culture of the Internet is not that the mask reveals the truth, but that the truth revealed by the anonymous “screen name” is a deeply disturbing vision of the face beneath the mask: a face frequently twisted with self-righteous hatred, fear and paranoia.

Few would disagree that the tone and content of political argument on the Web has become more toxic and divisive in the past decade. By threatening to drive out dissent and alienate ordinary citizens with its vitriolic personal attacks, it is shutting down the free interchange of ideas and arguments that is the hallmark of a democratic polity.

However agitated our debates may have been in the past, something has changed for the worse. The online conversation in particular has become a vicious internecine civil war, noxious and polarizing. And I think I know why: The snake in the garden is the cyber-disinhibition — the loss of restraint, the rhetorical race to the bottom — that is both enabled and encouraged by the use of anonymous screen names.

The original promise of the Web was that it would permit the flowering of a true intellectual democracy. The Web, especially that part of it known as the blogosphere, would give voice to the voiceless, providing a platform and an audience previously monopolized by self-proclaimed elite professionals. The Web would be the triumph of the amateur, of the lionized but seldom-heard-from ordinary citizen. From their unfiltered dialogue an inspiring exchange of ideas would ineluctably arise that would fulfill the Jeffersonian ideal of citizen democracy.

The blogosphere has certainly changed the character of political conversation, but in problematic ways. First, it has put the neighbourly conversation that once took place over a picket fence or at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall dance on a vast and impersonal stage, before an audience that eggs on the most extreme ranters — those who seemingly have the leisure to spend their entire day haranguing the ether and harassing anyone who disagrees. Second, it provides a mask of anonymity that may have initially been intended to free blog commenters from the threat of exposure, but that now effectively immunizes them not just from exposure but from accountability, responsibility and shame.

No one who has a glancing acquaintance with online “commenter culture” would disagree that political conversation has become a fever swamp of juvenile vituperation and personal abuse. Political discourse on the Web has become an ideological gang war wherein howling digital lynch mobs hound and repress the idiosyncratic views that once were the hallmark of democratic conversation — all of them ruled by the “Prime Directive” of the Web, namely, that any person who disagrees with you is not just wrong or misinformed but a repulsive and evil subhuman who deserves virtual lynching and slanderous obloquy.

I recently came upon a prime example of this dehumanizing tendency in a contribution to the Huffington Post by a Hollywood actor whose name was not familiar to me, although he seemed to assume both that he was famous and that he had a wickedly funny wit. He could not have embodied the Prime Directive more effectively, as attested by the flock of anonymous commenters who paid slavish tribute to him.

The poster proposed what he believed to be a hilarious experiment: transforming himself into a right-wing opponent of Obama’s health-care proposals in order to understand how these alien life forms think. In defter hands this kind of imaginative exercise might have imparted some actual understanding and insight into the minds of his political adversaries. What he did instead was to describe in laborious, leaden, ham-handed terms the various tools he would need for this undertaking, which included:

– a rubber sledge hammer (for bashing myself in the temples to effect the signature glassy-eyes and hanging lower lip);

– an assortment of stick-on Hitler mustaches (to deface pictures of President Obama or to use as replacement beards for my Robert Bork action figure);

– penis reducer;

– a “God, guns and guts made America free” bib;

– a Bible for Dummies (big print);

– a Chia(r) Neil Cavuto;

– and a winking Sarah Palin endless video loop.

This rhetorical act of dehumanization perfectly embodies the Prime Directive that political opponents must be not just misguided but ugly — physically, morally and mentally. The poster is apparently blind to the possibility that the opposition might consist of humans like himself who happen to have different views on health care. To the contrary, they must be malevolent and evil people who want the uninsured to die agonizing, untreated deaths. In short, he has become the mirror image of what he claims to despise — hanging lip, glassy eyes and all.

Of course, this is not limited to the left. As a regular reader of right-wing comment threads (human nature is my beat), I came across this gem from a deranged conservative posted a day later:

“There is nothing about Obama that points to anything other than a power-driven narcissist intent on destroying what remains of what America once was and replacing it with a Marxist state in which he serves as president-for-life. Obama sees himself as Castro with cool or Saddam with nice shades. He is surrounded by a team of fellow travelers from Billy Ayers and J. Wright behind the scenes through the Emanuel Brothers, Himmler (Rahm) and Mengele (Zeke) front and centre. Now that they have the levers of power, their true intentions are completely unveiled.”

This comment illustrates one of the most disturbing aspects of commenter culture: the revival of Nazis and Hitler in the form of ostensible anti-Nazi comments. “Godwin’s Law” has ruled the Web from the beginning: all argument will eventually (and often quickly) descend to Hitler analogies.

For readers familiar with comment threads on political blogs and the anonymous abusers that drive them, what I am saying will not necessarily come as a surprise. Others may have merely glanced at some repellant comment threads and wisely chosen not to return, hoping perhaps that what they’ve seen is not representative.

Why has ordinary cyber-disinhibition — the harshness lent to email messages by the disjuncture of time and space, not being face-to-face with your interlocutor and the inexpressiveness of cold, pixelled print — become cyber-derangement? Even those who know each other well can suffer from cyber-disinhibition; it is the exacerbation of abusiveness unleashed by the mask of anonymity that hides the link between one’s identity and one’s obscene online savagery in the slandering of strangers that has led to cyber-derangement. It is the rageaholics’ cyber-porn.

There seems to be something very basic about the effect of these degrees of cyber-separation. But you can’t blame the Web entirely: There is alas what seems like a kind of disease of human nature operative here. It’s as if our worst instincts, like the shingles virus, could lie fallow for decades and then suddenly erupt in angry rashes.

Don’t ask me for the alternative, by the way. There may be none. Not any legal remedies I’d support as a civil libertarian. But it’s not about what’s legal or illegal; it’s about civilization versus savagery, and the weapon used to combat it should not be the whip of the law but the lash of shame that such people should be made to feel. That is how civilized societies decide what is normal and acceptable behaviour.

The writer Dan Gillmor suggests we look upon any anonymousscreennameabove an abusive comment as proclaiming, in capital letters, “I AM A CONTEMPTIBLE COWARD.” There is indeed an element of cowardice in hurling insults and then diving behind a rock to hide. Don’t such anonymous abusers feel in their heart of hearts that they wouldn’t put their real name on their repellant comments out of shame at being revealed as the source of such ugliness?

As the Web has grown into a key power centre during the past decade, all the more reason for concern about the vicious digital mobs who police and purge their own ranks of “unacceptable” views — and threaten to impose an unhealthy uniformity on left and right alike.

The resulting mob mentality was evident to me during the summer of 2009 as I watched footage of the howling, thuggish crowds at the health-care “town halls,” some of whose members came carrying guns. This was the ugliness of commenter culture spilling off the screens and out into the streets — the dehumanizing hatred for those they disagreed with politically, bred in the mushroom cellars of the blog comment sections. Anyone who questioned the appropriateness, the judgment or the motives involved in bringing a visible weapon to a “town hall” was berated by commenters with assertions about the right to carry arms — regardless of whether doing so in such circumstances was either stupid or meant to intimidate.

Indeed, there has been a definite rise in references to guns and violence in the right-wing comment sections. I would not be surprised if the next political assassin turns out to have left a trail of vicious comments once his screen name is revealed. Either that or an unstable “lurker” will be incited to real violence by the verbal violence of commenter culture. There’s a world of Travis Bickles out there, and they’re not driving cabs. They’re reading blogs.