September 20, 2010

Why we fight online

Some time ago Tricycle published an article that caused more grief than we could have imagined. The premise was that online discourse is afflicted with the "disinhibition effect," which enables people to say things and do things they would not ordinarily say or do in face-to-face encounters. The author took Buddhist bloggers in particular to task, raising a firestorm of protest that included accusations of shoddy reporting and poor editorial choices on my part. I wonder, then, how the Anglicans will respond to Alan Jacobs's "The Online State of Nature" over at The Big Questions Online. Jacobs makes it pretty clear that Anglicans can be every bit as scrappy online as we can, maybe even more so. And he has an explanation for why the discourse takes such a hostile turn. Here's a bit:

I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues....

We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

It's worth a read, whether you agree or not, it's a thoughtful opinion piece. The story has a happy ending: Jacobs gives up Anglican blogs altogether. But mainly, I liked the cartoon.

Cartoon: xkcd.com (they're pretty funny)

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Louise's picture

What about the popular Buddhist sites where the author is routinely aggressive, both in the article & with responses to comments? What influence & impact do you think this has on readers? Are they linking just to read the article over & over or are they fascinated with the comments/replies to comments?

I see a whole lot of damage done on many levels when this occurs & unfortunately, it occurs with alarming frequency.

What do you think?

NellaLou's picture

@15. James Shaheen

You've made many interesting points. One I want to take up:

"But I think online culture will evolve to check itself"

Having been involved in online culture since, well, the beginning with the old bulletin board systems and Lynx text browsers there has been quite an evolution in online behavior. There used to be large documents and even books about Netiquette, that being a prescription for proper on-line behavior. And the vast majority followed it. One doesn't even encounter that term any more although a few remnants still exist such as DONT TYPE IN ALL CAPS because that's shouting as well as things like the ASCII emoticons.

From that perspective some might say on-line interaction has devolved in numerous ways. My perspective is that it has become democratized and in that democratization away from the technological elites (though there is less of a global democratization to be acknowledged in that) diversity of opinion as well as manner of interaction has broadened greatly.

The very extreme ends may eventually be checked due to social pressure (such as shutting down the adult section of Craig's list) but in general I think this is only the beginning of that flourishing of diversity. One person's sense of civility will not be the same as anothers. We are being increasingly exposed to "the other" and that other will not be familiar to us in terms of approach. This will be uncomfortable and we have to decide how to deal with that discomfort.

To take up 16. Dennis Hunter's very good point, I'd rather see and feel and even respond to someone's on-line invective and pain wrought raving than to read about their shooting spree or suicide in the newspaper or worse to silence them because of my discomfort. By bringing that on-line, there is more of a chance, however slim it might be, for them to make contact with something or someone that can assist them in overcoming that, whether it's a friend, stranger, the police or whatever. Ending the sense of social isolation, however bumpy that road may seem right now, will make for a more tolerant and compassionate place to be in the future. I mention that because I've come across blogs in which people have ranted their angry suicidal thoughts and such. I and others left comments there. I don't know if it helped or not but in one case I recall the post was taken down and the blog continues in a somewhat different tone.

Point of contact is what humans seek on-line and in person. People trapped in the sense of aloneness, expressing their pain, anger and frustration, expressing their suffering is not something that can be easily dismissed. If we choose to take it seriously in ourselves, and anyone involved in the Buddhist endeavor has done that, then perhaps we can extend that compassion to others.

It may not be the ranters and trolls who get checked but our attitudes towards them. If we seek only to shut down that which is disagreeable to us it will not invoke the kinds of change we might like to see such as more deeply considered commentary, more empathic communication and more caring relations either on-line or in person.

The Buddhist community on-line has a role to play in this should people so choose. To if not embrace, but at least tolerate some of the more contentious conversations assists in shaping the resolutions to on-line difficulties. By tolerance I am not suggesting a mushy anything goes kind of passivism but an actual engagement with aversive elements. It is a real test of equanimity and not always possible to resolve, sometimes one does have to walk away, but the other options tend to build more walls than they take down.

And I agree-Buddhism can help with all of this.

universal law's picture

@NellaLou re: When news consists of images of celebrities “going commando”...
I work occasionally at the elementary my child attends and watch kids starting at age 4 or 5 (mostly boys) "going commando". Certainly much of it is picked up from our media-saturated social environment (24/7 news of violence from around the world, video games, gun toting young guys and gals compliments of Hellywood, etc.). But caregivers and parents can still influence their direction. With patience, time and effort, compassion can still be encouraged to develop in these young, potential buddhas!

Dennis Hunter's picture

I've been quietly following this discussion and enjoying it. As a Buddhist blogger, I've incurred the wrath of a few readers. I've also observed, and occasionally participated in, some pretty heated discussions on other people's sites. Recently, I've been kind of blown away by the amount of bitter invective and finger-pointing I've seen from certain folks (both bloggers and readers).

But as heated as it sometimes gets on Buddhist blogs, I think I would have to agree with whoever commented above that, compared to more mainstream, non-Buddhist blogs, we're keeping it pretty civil. I think most of the comments on a Tricycle article, for example, are different from the frequently rude, acidic, and immature comments I see on sites like Huffington Post.

I would add to this discussion another point, which is that the heatedness of online debate goes both ways. In this discussion, we can't merely examine what people post (anonymously or not) -- we also have to look at how we react to it.

Someone can post something that makes them sound like a real A-hole, and we can blame it on the medium for letting them get away with it. But our reaction to what they post is also conditioned by the medium. We can't see that person or know what they are going through, so we have little context for judging the subtext of their comments. Quite often, if you dig a little deeper and read between the lines, you might find that the person who just seems like an A-hole is really someone who's in a lot of emotional pain and is probably not dealing with it very well. More than once, I've come to the conclusion that someone's angry rant online was really just a projection of deeper issues that they weren't necessarily seeing clearly. In fact, the stronger the invective, the more I look for (and see) the signs of that underlying emotional pain.

Failing to see or appreciate another person's pain is something that also happens a lot in "real life," but because we never actually see each other online, it may be more pronounced here.

James Shaheen's picture

I'm sure I'm more civil in encounters with people I know I'll see again than with those I won't, unless I'm being mindful. Add to that anonymity—and I agree with your take on anonymous slights, Nella Lou—and you can end up with pretty toxic exchanges. Sure, there's nastiness out there, but In my experience it gets far nastier online—and more quickly—than it does in my local coffee shop. You can easily feel you have no stake in maintaining a civil relationship with someone you'll never see again, especially online, when you never have to see them to begin with.

In a somewhat related vein, a few years ago I interviewed journalist and author Robert Wright, and here's what he had to say about modern encounters:

Q: It is common for Western Buddhists to emphasize the recognition of interconnectedness. Directionality, as you describe it, seems to include a gradual awakening to this fact.

A: Herbert Spencer said something like, “No man can be perfectly happy until all are happy.” That’s kind of the logic that a non-zero-sum relationship drives you to. The philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book called The Expanding Circle. It’s about how, over time, we begin to realize we’re all in the same boat. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Greek members of one city-state considered members of another literally subhuman. But eventually they reached a point where they decided, No, all Greeks are human, it’s just the Persians, you know, who aren’t human. Singer points out that over time our moral considerations have become more inclusive: the circle has expanded until most of us would say that people everywhere are human beings, regardless of race, creed, or color, and that they deserve equal rights, consideration, and so on.

Q: Why is this conclusion the necessary outcome?

A: In many ways, we seem to be more at odds with one another than ever. My own answer gets back to this very trend I’m talking about: that as history goes on, we find ourselves in an ever-closer interdependent relationship with people globally. Even if only selfishly, you have to concede their basic humanity. If you’re doing business with people in Japan, if they’re making your minivan, you can’t very well bomb them back into the Stone Age. I think that’s one reason why this cosmopolitan ethos is most pronounced in nations that are most embedded in a globally interdependent economy, and it’s interesting that in this way the logic of history adds a kind of pragmatic force to the moral arguments. It’s in our interest to treat one another well.

Q: And yet people do give in to anger, destroying themselves or others; and globalization, for all its implications of interconnectedness, means that there are now global threats.

A: Sure. Our minds were designed to navigate the social environment of a hunter-gatherer village. That’s the context in which human evolution took place. In an environment like that, often it was in your enlightened self-interest to express rage, because it taught people to respect your sphere. Murder happened, though not very easily, and could be “adaptive” in a biological sense. But there were two features that applied then that don’t now. One was that everybody you dealt with, you could expect to deal with again. You may have noticed that often when you’re driving along in your car and somebody cuts you off, you feel rage. Unless you’re a particularly good Buddhist, you may briefly want some harm to befall that person. Right?

Q: Right.

A: Now examine the logic of that outside of a hunter-gatherer environment. That person’s never going to deal with you again, so why should you teach them a lesson? What’s the good of teaching that person that you’re not to be trifled with? In a contemporary context, it’s a completely irrational reaction; it was designed for an environment in which you didn’t have these anonymous encounters. That’s one thing that’s changed since evolution.

By Wright's logic, online encounters that degenerate into a lot recrimination, then, seem even more senseless than becoming enraged with someone who cuts you off in a car. That's why I found the cartoon so funny (and who isn't attached to being right?).

Robert Wright's argument that self-interest makes us more civil makes sense to me. Staying socially viable or getting invited to dinner again, for two examples, are both good incentives for behaving. Online those incentives do not exist, and bad behavior has no consequences unless you consider things like the value kindness or fairness or your emotional health, and you may. It's just that practical incentives help, especially after a long day.

Yes, there are people who misbehave in face-to-face encounters. It's not surprising that they also do online. What changes, though, is that people who otherwise might restrain themselves find themselves saying things that the people they know would consider out of character. Here, I'm talking about the average, fairly well-adjusted person, not the person who is ordinarily belligerent. And true, no one's going to shoot me online but so much less the incentive to behave!

I would say that what's different about online encounters is that anonymity is so much easier than in day-to-day life and can be far more complete. But I think online culture will evolve to check itself, which falls in line with Robert Wright's notion of cultural evolution (he considers religion—more specifically Buddhism—at least in part an adaptive response to living in a much bigger and more anonymous world; selfish incentives and rational thinking alone won't do.) Well, maybe a stretch, but Buddhism can help in this case and I'm sure it does.

(Btw, here's the interview).

NellaLou's picture

Hey Phil

"but I don’t really think that’s pertinent....None of that has much to do with discussions."

There are bar fights and riots in the U.S. too-Los Angeles, the Battle in Seattle, Stonewall, etc. They may not be routine or as you say conventional but they are certainly pertinent.

And it's hard to know when such things may occur. People stand on street corners shouting at passersby. Others freak out on airplanes and abuse the passengers. People jump in front of the subway. Celebrities punch photographers. A man stands alone and faces down a tank. Students walk into schools with guns and kill their classmates. A spouse hits a partner. Vancouver Canada, where I stay sometimes, had a riot over a hockey game.

They are discussions of a sort. A meta-social discussion in some instances. They are communications of messages, intentions, feelings, the human condition just as words are. The production of words is an action. And these action-actions (as opposed to word-actions) are attempts to both reconcile the individual in the world and to connect with the world just as much as comments on a blog. They say "Here's your feedback." "Here's my response." whether they are directed at individuals, groups, societies or humanity in general. Muggings and some wars are utilitarian-quests for some kind of property. Other wars are communications as well.

We wouldn't have news channels if these things were not pertinent somehow.

Social communication ritual tends to be rather shallow often and it likely breaks down a lot more than we realize because we like to fill in those gaps with wishful recollection when it happens. On the Internet we can keep re-reading the bare script. Imagine if we could get a transcript of our daily interactions and re-read it. We'd probably find quite a few break downs, mis-communications and the bringing up of discussions from years back. A continuation of points of contention. However they are well embedded in a lot of distracting matter so we don't notice that in the same way as we do on the Internet. By example how many relationships break down because people keep having the "same old discussion" more times than they can bear because someone wants the last word?

Mostly what I see on the Internet is exactly what I've observed in real life. A transcript if you will.

Nathan's picture

NL "People throw things in person, from situations I’ve seen. And sometimes it escalates to assault and homicide if one looks at such statistics." Yes. This is what I meant by discussions breaking down quicker in person. If something escalates online, it continues to be words bashing into each other. In person, if the words aren't enough for someone who is overheated, they can certainly go for physical damage.

Philip Ryan's picture

Hi NellaLou,

Many good points!

Taking a parking space is—or at least can be—anonymous. You can be very angry at another driver, then realize it's your friend and wave to them happily. Bar fights, riots? Well, I've only seen one bar fight up close and I was on the edge of a Maoist riot in Kathmandu (I didn't behave with much personal bravery in either, in case you're wondering) but I don't really think that's pertinent. There's also muggings and wars. None of that has much to do with discussions. I'm thinking of much more conventional social interactions. Obviously there are physical situations in which we can get provoked or act with our natural competitive aggression, but unless one person is behind bars or pinned under a bus, the other person can't just hurl invective til the cows come home, or always have the last word, which is a common way of satisfying a certain ego-itch. I think online discussions are something new, not quite talking, not quite writing, that we haven't quite put in a box yet (which is a good thing.) I guess we disagree on how much inhibition and formality there is in real-world interactions vs. online. Social life is highly ritualized. I think people feel empowered to "cut loose" online in a very different way than they do in life.

Coming out of left field in order to make a point is fine but should be the exception rather than the rule if it's to remain an effective strategy. Certainly being heard is an important part of it—as you say, this has a soothing effect. This is another difference from the "real world"—more analogous to yelling out in a crowd than talking face to face with someone, though we all know that face to face some people just can't or won't or don't listen! "Pollution" is a hard word but in certain cases, you know it when you see it. If there's a point and the comment acts as a kyosaku, great! But often comments can just consist of anger and abuse, and even if intended as a "teaching moment," actually benefit no one.

- Phil

NellaLou's picture

@5.Philip Ryan
"I don’t actually think people behave like that. In physical proximity to one another, I believe we’re subtly programmed to try and get along."
I know people behave like that. Ever been in or seen a bar fight or a riot? Proximity goes both ways. And in a crowd we are all anonymous until we are identified as a perpetrator in the news. Social distance or personal space can be quite an issue for many people. What is the reaction if someone beats you to a parking spot or restaurant table? We are also programmed for competition and aggression. The old reptilian limbic system hasn't vanished in the human species-ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

@6.James Shaheen
Anonymity is generally cowardly (except in certain journalistic or criminal situations). If one can't own their own words, however they may be construed, don't write or say them. But anonymity is available in person as well, as I mentioned above.
There is overt nastiness and then there are more subtle and I'd say equally damaging "unsubstantiated, full of bile, or unnecessarily personal or full of misleading innuendo" forms . Let's call that genteel nastiness. The one who sips tea, pinky in the air, while they dictate their vile cleverness to some underling. And then there's the whole passive-aggressive form which is far more common.

@7.Steve Har
I too am annoyed by these researchers who generalize their theories and purport to speak for the entire human race. They are all too often bound by their own unrecognized biases of culture, gender, race, class and so forth. Just because some "authority" says something doesn't make it true.

@8.Nathan
"Perhaps one difference is that in person discussions might break down quicker because of physical proximity, or there might be efforts to backtrack or down play differences after initial conflicts."
People throw things in person, from situations I've seen. And sometimes it escalates to assault and homicide if one looks at such statistics. Thank goodness for the Internet in some situations. Compared to real life the Internet is fairly tame.

@9.universal law
Your point about American culture is well stated. As someone who lives outside of that, though not outside it's influence, that's pretty much how it looks. On "disinhibition effect". That seems to be an increasing trend not only on-line but personally as well and not only confined to the U.S. When news consists of images of celebrities "going commando" there's not much inhibition left.

@10. Philip Ryan
One can raise or lower the level of discourse in any venue depending upon the choice of words or actions. Most people will change their tone if they feel they have been heard, no matter how outrageous they may seem initially. If not then they are more interested in producing a monologue rather than having a dialogue. Sometimes though the "out in left field" commentary is what is required to initiate the discourse, so I take issue with the idea of "pollution".

Philip Ryan's picture

I think it has to do with the venue. I think certain places (I'm still thinking here of Friedersdorf's example of Mark Levin's Facebook page where a culture of sarcasm and cruelty prevails. Everyone who runs a website can help guide the discourse, but opinions differ, as James discusses above, about what to do with problem comments. Debate should always be encouraged, but off-topic rants and ad hominem attacks should not be allowed to pollute the discourse. Luckily, if you look around the web in general and then at the small Buddhist corner of the web, you'll see we're not doing so badly. Thoughtful discussions guided by wisdom and compassion.

universal law's picture

It's the state of American culture at the moment. Once upon a time we were the Developing and the Old World's models of how to be as modern human beings. We were John Wayne, Pres. and Jackie Kennedy, the Super Bowl. We were the future after the devastation of WWII. We created the atomic bomb, for goodness' sake! But somewhere along the line, we fumbled big time and have yet to recover. A certain kind of social disease took hold. The darkness of our innate greed, belligerence, and ignorance became larger and stronger than our bodhisattva nature. We began turning into Ugly Americans.
Fast forward to one of the contemporary symptoms of this malaise: “disinhibition effect”, exacerbated by the isolationism of on-line technology. Seems about time for a major paradigm shift, don't you think?

Nathan's picture

I've have been in enough difficult discussions with family and even strangers to know that the kind of stuff that happens online can also happen in regular life. Perhaps one difference is that in person discussions might break down quicker because of physical proximity, or there might be efforts to backtrack or down play differences after initial conflicts. In other words, maybe it's easier to go on and on making blunt, nasty comments online because the other person isn't in the same room. Even as I say this, I think of any protest-counter protest that's gone on in the U.S. in recent years. Humility and civility are rarely found, and these people are often close enough to each other to spit in each others' faces.

steve har's picture

Dan Gutwein - September 20, 2010 re: We allow ourselves to be authoritarian:

Wondering who this magisterial "We" is that commissions itself to be authoritarian?

You speaking for
-yourself?
-a specific "authoritarian" zeitgeist [trendy vampire-like ghost]
-some specific & particular sub-group of "authoritarians" say
-Hanah Arendt or Theodor Adorno?

I'm not a subscriber of your "We" category or, the assertion of devilishness that goes along with it.

I'd prefer to claim freedom and possibility rather than curse devilishness.

Wishing you would speak more concretely for yourself, & opine less in some set of irresponsible unowned & abstractions let loose terrorize and bedevil on my computer screen and yours.

James Shaheen's picture

@ Nella Lou - That's no doubt true but I would guess it's the exception, at least for those who remain anonymous. I wouldn't mind if their comments didn't bring discussion to a halt, or make it difficult to have any conversation at all.

One successful blogger simply removes nasty comments and we've discussed that here. But what's a "nasty comment?" I'd say one that's unsubstantiated, full of bile, or unnecessarily personal or full of misleading innuendo. People generally get points for cleverness or good writing, though.

One of our editors pointed out—as we did to the New York Times reporter who wrote the story on Zen Studies Society—that had it not been for the discussions online, the story would never have broken. That's true. But the effective comments were not those written anonymously. Except in rare cases, anonymity may shield the writer but it also diminishes credibility so much that it's hard to take the comment seriously. People who write anonymously can hold themselves to such a low standard that it's really no standard at all.

Philip Ryan's picture

Conor Friedersdorf wrote recently: "The whole enterprise was grounded in the assumption that Internet commenters aren't always being real. That is to say, if you read an Internet comments section, and see content that seems like it couldn't have been written by a reasonable person, what's happening is often that whoever wrote the remark wasn't intending to stand behind the literal meaning expressed, so much as engaging in a sort of game where what you do is produce zingers or blow off steam."

Producing zingers and blowing off steam: I think this is accurate in many cases, and have regrettably indulged in it myself. If you read comments at political sites, you'll see such vitriol that if these people were all in a room together there would be blood on the floor. I don't actually think people behave like that. In physical proximity to one another, I believe we're subtly programmed to try and get along.

NellaLou's picture

And some of us would say in person exactly what we say in print. Only louder.

Khrystene's picture

You and me both Nile. :)

Nile's picture

Guilty as charged. But learning to be more thoughtful and mindful. Slowly but surely.

Dan Gutwein's picture

We allow ourselves to be authoritarian because we don't have to literally "see" the tension and pain it may be causing to those who read our comments. We don't have the natural feedback of vision to help us temper our remarks, and so we blunder on.