Rehumanization: Exactly What the World Needs Now

If I were the betting sort, I’d lay odds that each and every one of us who has spent more than a few minutes on the interweb has – at least once – wanted to rip some stranger we’ve encountered in cyberspace a new one. Perhaps they said something to you that has pushed your Big Red Button. Perhaps they’ve said something inappropriate to someone else, and your inner White Knight wants to rush in to the rescue. Perhaps they just irriate the living daylights out of you.

For some years now, I’ve been asking myself why we (myself included) sometimes feel – or in some cases, act on – the desire to say something to someone online that we would never ever say in person. What is it about the interweb that provides sufficient distance, physically and/or emotionally, to permit such behavior? 

Then it dawned on me . . . for at least some of us, because our direct interface is a machine and not a living, breathing human being, we may not always fully connect a human being with the words we read online.

What Occassions This Line of Thinking

Well, a week or two ago, Havi over at The Fluent Self posted a strongly-worded (for her) post about some negative emails she’d gotten that really hurt her and came close to pushing her over the edge. In fact, she’s sworn off email for the whole of 2009. Not necessarily because of the negative emails, but no doubt they contributed to the decision.

Some time before that, Naomi at IttyBiz turned off comments on her blog because of hateful comments she was receiving. Now Namoi is the hard-drinking, potty-talking, self-proclaimed Whore of marketing, so for comments to be so bad that she turned them off . . . well, that says something.

Then today, Jonathan Fields posted on Twitter something from TechCrunch. It seems that Michael Arrington – TechCrunch’s Main Man – was walking through a crowd at a big geekfest in Germany, and someone – he didn’t actually see who – walked right up to him and spat in his face. Seriously. 

Spat. In. His. Face.

Here’s a very brief excerpt; please read the whole thing:

In the past I’ve been grabbed, pulled, shoved and otherwise abused at events, but never spat on. I think this is where I’m going to draw a line.

As a result of this and a death threat last summer, Michael – quite understandably – doesn’t necessarily like his job so much any more. As a result, he’s taking a sabbatical from TechCrunch for most of February.

I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout Dehumanization

Dehumanization is the process by which one group asserts the inherent inferority of another group, simply because they are part of that group. Racism, sexism, etc. are parts of the process of dehumanization.

The military has long used dehumanization of the enemy du jour in order to empower soldiers to kill. There is some necessity in that process, because it is wholly natural for human beings to not want to kill other human beings. It’s much easier to pull a trigger when the person in your sites is not actually a “real” person.

An Example

A couple of years ago, I met a young man who had been a Marine. He had spent some time in the really difficult parts of Iraq. I asked him about his time there, the places he’d been and the people he’d met. 

He mostly talked about the killing. And in every instance, he sounded – to my ears – like he was very nearly bragging.

Now keep in mind, this guy seemed quite nice and as regular a guy as you can imagine. He was not like the stereotype of the returned Vietnam veteran who has lost the ability to reacclaimate to a non-combat society.

My Marine talked about his experiences in rather graphic detail. And I let him talk. He seemed to need to talk. And that was okay as far as I was concerned.

But when he finished, I asked him about the people he’d met when he wasn’t actively involved in combat situations. What he said left me temporarily dumbfounded.

“People? There are no people over there. Just Hajjis. None of those are people. Not like us.”

Now as I’ve said before, I’ve spent some real time in that part of the world. And some of that time has been in the more dangerous parts of the region. I have never been a solider in combat, but I know that even the ones who shot weapons in my general direction are still human beings. This young ex-Marine did not have the same understanding.

What Makes Me Different?

Honestly, I puzzled for a long time over what makes me still see them as human, when this young man could not. I’m still not sure I have an actual answer to that question, but I think I may have part of an answer.

I’ve never been in a position of needing to take a human life. For this, I am eternally grateful, and I pray I will never be in that situation. But because I’ve not been in that situation, I’ve never had to justify to my own sense of morality such an act.

(There is no judgment in this; just an attempt at understanding.)

Therefore, since I’ve never been in the position of needing to take a human life, I can still see as human those who might have tried to kill me. Okay, that makes some sense. Not a complete answer, but at least part of one.

But What Does This Have To Do With Online Vs RL Violence?

Likely since the first BB was created on a rudimentary interweb, there have been those who choose to write rubbish to others that they would never say in person. And in recent years, there have been several examples of individuals using the interweb to engage in inexcusable nastiness.

It’s true that no one did any lasting physical damage to either Havi or Michael in the examples above (though the assault on Michael was a violent one). But why does it even need to happen?

The Point

It doesn’t need to happen. Plain and simple. But in order for it to not happen, we have to make some collective and individual choices.

Collectively, we need to resist with every fiber of our being the “me too” syndrome. When someone steps out and says some strongly-worded statement that you may emotionally agree with and you’re about to jump into the fray to add your own two cents, stop.

Stop to ask yourself whether your desire to jump in is emotionally-driven. Why does this matter? It matters because most riots are driven by emotion, not rational thought. Many individuals who get caught up in rioting behavior have no idea why they’re rioting, they’re just enjoying breaking stuff and acting all crazy. 

They turn off their internal filters and just go with the flow. It’s much easier to do this online, because after all, we’re only talking about little dots on a screen, aren’t we?

The short answer to that particular question is a resounding “NO!”

On an individual level, when we react to something we read online, consider the ramifications of your quip before you post it. One of the hardest lessons for anyone to really learn on the interweb is that your words on the screen are little dots devoid of contextualization.

Just because you think you’re being wittily sarcastic, that doesn’t mean anyone else will get it (unless Naomi has temporarily opened comments, then it’s a legitimate free-for-all).

And the fact that you disagree with someone on a strongly visceral level does not give you the right to try to eviscerate them with your words in retort.

Disagree all you want, but do so with respect for the fact that you are in fact not the undisputed Ruler of the Universe and not everyone under Heaven and on Earth agrees with everything you think, say, write, or think about writing.

In other words, you’re not nearly so important as you think you are.

And by no means should you ever carry this rubbish over into the real world under any circumstances.

I personally don’t like everything I read on TechCrunch, and I do sometimes personally find the staff a bit full of themselves. But you know what I do when I get annoyed? 

I close the tab and move on to something else.

Not that hard. It’s why the designers put the little X on both browser tabs and the program itself.

As dorky as it might sound, there is still room for the Golden Rule in this world’s realm. And if you despise yourself so very much that you’d do to others the sort of rubbish that the spitting man did to Michael, then I truly pity you. (And that’s not a good thing.)

This has ended up far longer (and probably preachier) than I wanted it to be. I’m just so amazed that we do this crap to one another. That we live in a world where others gawk at these sorts of spectacles and then just resume conversations as though nothing has happened.


4 Responses to Rehumanization: Exactly What the World Needs Now
  1. Diana Maus
    January 29, 2009 | 14:44

    Hmm. Obviously a good point to make. So why am I feeling squeamish? Because I always want to join a good rant. But then I have anger issues. Do most people? Maybe we’re a young species, still unable to keep our animal nature at bay? Or maybe when you’ve been hit and couldn’t fight back, you walk around with a bat in your hand.

    Diana Maus’s last blog post..Love: Virginia…So This is Their Mother

  2. christy
    January 30, 2009 | 14:02

    Sorry for causing squeamishness. Wasn’t my intent. Honest.

    I think it’s about choices. I enjoy a good rant, but it’s about the how and the why.

    Disagreeing with someone can be very liberating. Defending your viewpoint vigorously can be animating. But doing any of that stuff with malice is just not something I can do or agree with.

    Having been hit and unable to fight back in the past, I cannot carry a bat with me, because I just can’t bring myself to do that same thing to someone else, causing them to feel as awful as I did.

    But maybe that’s just me.

  3. Diana Maus
    February 2, 2009 | 00:12

    Oh, I forgot I wrote that. I think you are in a nicer place than I am, because sometimes I still want to just hold the bat. It’s called identifying with the aggressor. It’s really hard to get rid of….

    I feel like you do about not hurting my children the way I was hurt, and being kind to older folks, children and people in wheelchairs or sad people, things I have developed compassion for. There’s just this one little area I still have rage about. And those people still get to me.

    Diana Maus’s last blog post..Rewinding Rabbit

  4. […] I read Twitching Grey Matter’s interesting post, Rehumanization: Exactly What the World Needs Now, about how we talk to each other (sometimes nastily) online in ways we wouldn’t talk to each […]

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