Photo by Martin Cogley
If given the choice, who would you rather be known as: a person respected for maintaining a certain level of honesty and integrity, or a person who gets made fun of for their tendency to embarrass themselves on the internet?
You really can't be both, which makes one wonder why so many artists, writers and critics are choosing the latter.
The culture surrounding internet commenting has created a new kind of cruelty powerful enough to shift previously-established scientific understanding on the nature of human kindness. Scientists have been warning us about the dangers of anonymity for years via accounts like the infamous Milgram Experiment. In today's world, where thanks to the internet, people can anonymously donate to crowdfunding campaigns or seek anonymous support after trauma, it's obvious that barrier can help as much as it hurts. However, many people—especially people in the arts—love receiving attention and feeling special. The allure of the spotlight is too much, and the surrender of one's privacy in favor of creating a verifiable online presence can lead to some particularly egregious uses of social media. Though the anonymity aspect might be gone, the barrier of impersonality, insofar as it absolves people of taking personal responsibility for their actions, is implied; these are the people who use the internet to interact with others in cruel ways, writing under their real names and sharing personal details about their lives, who still get a free pass because, of course,'it's just the internet.'
Once your actual IRL humanity becomes part of the discussion (say, when your friends are left to feign surprise after hurtful, disgusting things you thought you were saying in private come up as a public issue) the only argument you're left with is a terribly weak one: that you're not actually racist, transphobic, or advocating sexual assault. It was all because of the internet, a magical, consequence-free zone where you can say whatever you want under the pretense that it's somehow different, separate from, or otherwise not applicable to real life. You were just playing dress-up! These low level cruelties are a trickle of water coming down the wall—something to be caught and resolved before the whole goddamn ceiling caves in. Early cries for help, if they go unchecked or excused, can lead to incidents of immense consequence- just ask the cops who, despite knowing about a number of violent, misogynist videos uploaded to YouTube, let Elliot Rodger go just days before he went on a killing spree. Had the cops pushed, he wrote in his 142-page manifesto, they would have discovered a veritable armada in his bedroom, his preparations for the 'Day of Retribution' against women he perceived to have rejected him.
Image via Elliot Rodger's Facebook
So what can we do when the barrier thins? The gap between the internet and real life has become so small as to be legitimately frightening, when we know peoples' real identities and therefore, know who the potential perpetrators and victims could be. For instance, what's the appropriate community response when some of the most profoundly sexist and misogynist voices are those belonging to men who are known to have young daughters? It's terrifying to see these kinds of men writing to women (or at women, really) in impulsively angry, stalkerish, vaguely threatening tones; knowing those men share a house with young girls makes you want to shower in bleach. There's no barrier of impersonality between you and what lives in your house.
How do we protect young women, members of a generation who will never know a world without touch screens, from a world where they're set up from birth to someday be harassed and abused by men whose behavior model is their own father? What happens when you find out the person slandering you online is someone who lives in your city, who you see regularly, who can't look you in the eye? What if it's a former partner, friend, or employer? When do we start acknowledging that the internet is actually a component of real life, that online harassment might actually end in situations that have real-life consequences?
On the rare occasion that these topics come up, the answer becomes, as it so often does, that there's simply nothing you can do to protect yourself if you wind up on the wrong end of this kind of behavior (unless, of course, you're a cop). It's much easier to attack than defend, when we live in a world where defense comes with a huge amount of social stigma and the very real possibility of much worse harassment. We live in a society where cruelty is rewarded with attention: think of everyone from Glen Beck to Eminem who is in some way famous for being vicious. In this way, being mean is almost genius from a biological standpoint: being observant to negative stimuli is an evolutionary advantage that humans have adapted for survival, ergo, mean people will get more attention because it's in our genetic makeup to pay attention to threatening, predatory things. Often people will displace their sadness onto you and come up with loads of reasons why you deserve to be treated this way because, surprise, NOBODY LIKES TO FEEL BAD. The old adage holds especially true here: Hurt people hurt people.
Here's a totally and completely fictional example: say, for instance, that someone makes a brief second career out of writing mean-spirited things about you on a message board. When those hateful messages are screen capped and turned into a news item, and the person who wrote them ends up in the limelight for acting like an embarrassing jerk, their natural reaction, instead of apologizing and moving on, is to come up with justifications as to why you had it coming. Instead of being accountable for their choices in a way that could potentially inspire people to be better in their own lives, they can feel like they're actually serving some warped form of vigilante justice—like their anger served a purpose, like they did something that means something to someone. It's sometimes referred to as a "shame spiral": something happens that results in you getting hurt, and instead of opting for reasonable coping mechanisms to overcome your bad feelings, you spiral downward, indulging whatever habits (from food to drugs to hate-following people on Twitter) will distract you from the pain of being you in that moment. The research done by Dr. Brené Brown, giver of super-famous TED talks and author of many texts on vulnerability and shame, points to the idea that "shame [is] highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression," all crimes against the self that point back to being unwilling to deal with the reality of your own pain. It becomes a problem when you try to get rid of your pain by transferring it to someone else. Because, you know, it doesn't work that way.
Growing up, in part, means acknowledging your own role in maintaining your happiness and acknowledging the ways in which you are complicit in the unhappiness of other people. It's an extremely difficult lesson to learn, but a liberating one, because once you become truly accountable for your treatment of others, you start making better choices. So the next time you're still awake, high and in your underwear at four in the morning, thinking about how cool you'll feel when you call someone rude names on a message board, take a step away from your laptop, go make a cup of tea, and consider exactly what social and cultural conditions led you to the point where this is what you do for fun.
And lighten up. After all, it's just the internet.
Meredith Graves is looking back on 2014 on Twitter.