When socializing online was new (at least to me), a friend and I used to play word games. We lived a couple of hours apart, so it was a chance to hang out, but there were these other entities apparently also playing, which was nice, which made the games more fun. But these bots were largely our pawns. Sometimes we enjoyed the competition they provided us with, sometimes she enjoyed riling them up. She was a friend of mine, a good person, so it meant little to me that she talked smack to bots. One night the two of us were playing alone in a game and teasing each other for our high level of nerdiness, when one of these bots joined our game. “Look!” I said to my friend, “A nerd has joined us!”
This mad typist started attacking me: “Oh, real nice, call someone a nerd for wanting to join a game!” He kept yelling at me, probably in caps, though I forget, and I wrote back, but I was continuing the joke with my friend, still calling us nerds. He left the game and a short while later popped back in to yell at me some more. I told this story at my writing group, and my writing friend stopped me and said, “I think you were in the wrong.”
Recently I watched a documentary, The Act of Killing, which followed, years later, a few members of a group of “gangsters” who executed a million Chinese immigrants in Indonesia in the 1960s. At times these men, reflecting on the atrocities they committed, resembled old college buddies reminiscing. They staged reenactments of how these killings were conducted, often bragging about innovations they made or ideas they borrowed from American gangster movies. As the movie progressed, the killers began to differentiate, some seemed unremorseful, others divulged having nightmares due to what they’d done. What struck me was the number of layers they’d created to rationalize what they were doing. Reenacting these killings, in which the killers often played both sides, killer and victim, peeled away these layers and, at least for one of them, got them to acknowledge what they’d done.
My friend’s response to my story got me to peel back another layer and get to what actually happened in my internet altercation. A person, likely a young kid, had perhaps his deepest insecurity alighted by my thoughtless joke. At the very least, I caused him ten minutes’ of torment. I’m not torturing myself over it, to be honest I hadn’t thought about it in a long while, but I thought of it when I was trying to find a scrap of humanity in these psychopathic killers.
Life is full of opportunities to learn from our mistakes but often it’s painful to make that effort. To avoid that pain, I put it on him. He was being too sensitive. Hey, life is tough, pal, better you learn that from me than that I exert the effort required to improve my behavior. Like the killers in the movie, who were given permission by their larger social structure to carry out these executions, I was allowed, by my friend, to brush off this non-entity with jokes.
It’s common knowledge that you can’t get far on an online discussion board without uncovering racism and hate, but is that evidence of how everyone really feels, or is something else going on? I think socializing online started out feeling like realizing you’re in a dream. No one else is real, and you can break any social convention you can think of and see what reactions you get. (I wouldn’t admit to this, if I thought it wasn’t common, but when I realize I’m dreaming I’ll sometimes randomly attack people, just to see what happens.) But we seem to be learning. Real people are at computers. We can attack them but they will hurt from it. The vast majority of humans, with their layers peeled away, do not want to hurt fellow humans. Is it naive that I believe that with all the cruelty in the world? I don’t think so. I think that cruelty is due to the ability of humans to rationalize and create layers to keep from facing their cruelty. That’s what humans are terrifyingly capable of doing well.
A few weeks, I think it was, after that online incident, I got a call from that same friend. She said, “You know how we would mess with people while we played online games? We can’t do that anymore. Someone did it to me, and it made me feel bad.” I thought that was lovely. She could have toughened up with another layer and waded back in, but instead, she did the harder thing. She decided to change.