The irony of my coming across this opinion piece by Stephen Marche, The Epidemic of Facelessness in the New York Times Sunday Review, so soon after I stopped being anonymous here, is not lost on me. In it, Marche decries the endless sewer of hate speech that thrives online, which he attributes to the very anonymity so many desire, and to be fair, may need. And yet, he has some damning points to make about our brave new world of social media, when he argues that outrage and venom have come to dominate so much of our online discourse, where it does not stay contained but spills over into the "real" world.
A PART-TIME delivery driver named Peter Nunn was recently sentenced to 18 weeks in a British prison for tweeting and retweeting violent messages to Stella Creasy, a member of Parliament. [...]
When the police come to the doors of the young men and women who send notes telling strangers that they want to rape them, they and their parents are almost always shocked, genuinely surprised that anyone would take what they said seriously, that anyone would take anything said online seriously. There is a vast dissonance between virtual communication and an actual police officer at the door. It is a dissonance we are all running up against more and more, the dissonance between the world of faces and the world without faces. And the world without faces is coming to dominate. [...]
The Gyges effect, the well-noted disinhibition created by communications over the distances of the Internet, in which all speech and image are muted and at arm’s reach, produces an inevitable reaction — the desire for impact at any cost, the desire to reach through the screen, to make somebody feel something, anything. A simple comment can so easily be ignored. Rape threat? Not so much. Or, as Mr. Nunn so succinctly put it on Twitter: “If you can’t threaten to rape a celebrity, what is the point in having them?”
Anonymity protects our privacy from strangers, but it also encourages so many, under the cloak of their secret identities, to abandon all compassion, all empathy, all fellow feeling for other people and unleash their worst, most base emotions upon people they do not know, and have usually never met face to face. Sadly, this phenomenon seems an inevitable result of online interactions, because of the beast we call homo sapiens.
Inability to see a face is, in the most direct way, inability to recognize shared humanity with another. In a metastudy of antisocial populations, the inability to sense the emotions on other people’s faces was a key correlation. There is “a consistent, robust link between antisocial behavior and impaired recognition of fearful facial affect. Relative to comparison groups, antisocial populations showed significant impairments in recognizing fearful, sad and surprised expressions.”
To be sure, the problems of envy, of bigotry, prejudice, fear of the "other" and all such related evils existed long before the internet came along. However, our instant communications technology acts as an accelerant for spreading the flames of hate faster and farther than ever before. It is no surprise that we have seen an explosion of sites devoted to generating outrage and encouraging the demonization of almost any group of people one can name for any reason one can think up. The internet has become a recruiting tool for terrorists of all stripes, including by way of triggering episodes of stochastic terrorism, as we have seen most recently in any number of violent acts committed by isolated individuals around the world.
For all its benefits, for all the joy we take from our use of this technology, we cannot ignore its dark underbelly. Ask all the teenagers who have been bullied online, leading to a rash of suicides in the worst case scenario, and a lifetime of painful memories and mental scars in the best. We could encourage people to ignore the hate so many spew forth, i.e., adopt the eponymous advice to "not feed the trolls," but is that really our best answer? Marche does not believe it is, and I agree with him.
In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires discipline, even imagination. Social media seems so easy; the whole point of its pleasure is its sense of casual familiarity. But we need a new art of conversation for the new conversations we are having — and the first rule of that art must be to remember that we are talking to human beings: “Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” But also: “Don’t listen to what people wouldn’t say to your face.”
The neurological research demonstrates that empathy, far from being an artificial construct of civilization, is integral to our biology. And when biological intersubjectivity disappears, when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted.
Easier said than done, obviously. However I am reminded of a recent diary on Daily Kos, An amazing woman fields a troll on MLK Day and it was nothing short of inspirational, about one young woman who confronted an abusive and race-baiting "troll" on twitter using the tactic of compassion. By persisting in engaging him with respect and empathy, she finally broke through his mask of hate. By the end of their exchange, he had stopped using hate speech, had stopped objectifying her, i.e., making her a target for his verbal violence, and engaged her as another human being. So, it can be done. We just have to have the willingness to take that step.
Indeed, for the sake of our society, we must make the attempt. We will never eradicate all hate from the online world, but we can make an impact. I truly believe that. I count as a success stopping even one person from continuing to use social media as a way to deny and degrade the humanity of the people he or she chooses to verbally assault, but I suspect we can do better than that, don't you?