Detail shot from Hieronymus Bosch's painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Port Coquitlam, that beleaguered city located just outside of Vancouver, BC, is in the news for less than savory reasons once again. If you’re Canadian, or read this column, you’ll probably recall that in 2007 one of the worst serial killers in history, a demented pig farmer named Robert Pickton, confessed to the torture and murder of 49 women. Many of his victims were sex trade workers and aboriginals whose disappearances, due to their marginality, were egregiously and scandalously ignored for years by local media and law enforcement, even as he was reputedly selling sausages containing the remains of his victims to the rest of the community. Two years later it was reported that Port Coquitlam had the highest murder rate in Canada, 365 percent over the national average. (This report did not include the horrifying case of Robert Pickton and is partly a result of increased gang violence.) Now a young girl named Amanda Todd from that same locale has committed suicide after years of being bullied, first online and then in real time. The incident has created an international outcry and activated some particularly vicious trolling. This city is consistently referred to euphemistically in the Canadian press as a “bedroom community,” in which case it must be a bedroom in hell.
Port Coquitlam may be the modern incarnation of Dante’s Inferno, but sadly it seems to be humanity that is finally proving, courtesy of the internet, to be a grotesque and monstrous Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. The pressing question remains, has it always been this way or is there something unique about the contemporary world that seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody? Or does the internet merely magnify the most appalling aspects of humanity, and make them virulent?
Maybe it has something to do with the interconnectedness of everything now, the advent of the “global village” (a horrible concept if there ever was one), that has turned festering, isolated sores into a worldwide infection. Of course there have been wars and massacres and holocausts throughout history—madmen and mayhem and murder—but I’m talking about something a little less obvious, more insidious and widespread, a kind of general malaise, something toxic in the ether, spread by contagion. My guess is it has something to do with the apotheosis of Warholian superficialism and the ascendance of French poststructuralist philosophy and postmodernism in the 80s, with its sophistic analysis of signifiers, and the rise of the age of irony and ironic detachment in the 90s, with its concomitant lack of sincerity and tendency to say exactly the opposite of what one means. It is also a result of the ascendance of the importance of celebrity, which creates in everyone the not so grand delusion that they are a star, that they are important, that they need to become famous at any cost, and that their opinion matters. (That’s the misconception that those poor American fools, the undecided voters, are laboring under. As I tweeted during the last presidential debate, at this point undecided voters are just attention whores, and the difference between Romney and Obomney is pretty much based on whether you prefer a hate fuck or a love fuck. Either way, you’re screwed.) There’s no longer any pride or dignity in being a nobody, or an anonymous member of the unwashed masses or of the working classes, or someone who just lives his or her life without having to comment publicly on everything constantly in order to feel validated, Sad, sad, sad.
I know what you’re thinking, smartass, but there are distinctions to be made. Part of my livelihood has always been as a columnist (well before the advent of bloggers), and before that as a film critic (who studied film extensively in university) and as a zine editor and writer going right back to the 80s. Everyone may think he or she is a critic, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. That’s why, for example, when making a film about a particular subject, you hire an expert or professional as a consultant, as opposed to pulling some droog off the street who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in his face. Professional writers also tend to craft their arguments, agonize over them, and generally put a lot of thought into what they’re saying. The contemporary comments sections that litter the internet seem more like the unfiltered, knee-jerk spittle and vomit spewed forth by people who are no longer content to lead lives of quiet desperation. They feel the need to lead lives of public desperation. Everyone may be entitled to his or her opinion (or maybe not), but that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to share it, especially if it’s nasty, hurtful, or ill-informed.
On the other hand, film critics of today, who are supposed to have expertise, and who presumably get paid for their opinions (problematically, by the very media companies whose movies they’re reviewing), are so far off the mark so often that it makes you question whether professional opinions matter anymore. In politics, there’s no longer much of a distinction to be made between information and disinformation. Other professionals, like stand-up-comedians, for example, a particularly repulsive lot, are increasingly unfiltered, and probably among the worst offenders when it comes to snark, cynicism, and cruelty, eviscerating and humiliating their targets like seasoned assassins. Hilarious!
Here’s the thing. Moral relativity is the new order because everything is considered equal, or equally corrupt. There’s no difference between the left and the right (except on a few very broad social issues) because they’re both so far right of where center used to be that the distinction is moot. There’s no truth, no objective reality, and facts don’t matter. Republicans are pro-life (against abortion) and pro-death (for capital punishment) at the same time, and there’s no contradiction. Quantity is valued over quality, style over substance. It’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. Nothing is permitted; everything is true.
An interview in the Vancouver Sun with one anonymous troll named “Haunter” who was particularly callous and opportunistic in his online exploitation of the Todd suicide is especially illuminating. Above all else, he was clearly concerned with how many views and likes he got for trolling, and played the victim card when talking about the hateful comments and threats he himself received. He’s a sociopath-in-training who, if he plays his cards right, will grow up to be just like his most likely hero, Violentacrez, the king of the trolls (sorry Bret Easton Ellis) who was outed this week by Gawker scribe Adrien Chen. Violentacrez also played the victim card after his outing for having his sacred anonymity violated. These creepy trolls, who want to be anonymous and famous at the same time, have between them about as much empathy as an executioner. “I suppose it would be useless to appeal to your sense of decency,” says Carol Landis to her blackmailer before throwing a drink in his face in an old film noir I was watching the other night. I guess it was a quaint notion even back then.
The point is, everyone should probably just stop commenting so goddamn much about everything because it makes them feel like they have an “internet presence” or some kind of minor celebrity and get on with the business of living their lives. And if you’re being cyberbullied, please don’t bother committing suicide, just commit facebook suicide. These days it seems to amount to the same thing, except with the latter option you still get to live.
Freedom of speech is one thing, but don’t forget you always have the freedom not to speak, too. Call it the freedom of unspeech. I leave you with one aphorism that still holds true: when you have nothing to say, say nothing.
Previously - All Hail the Fifth Coming of the iPhone
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