I ka ‘ōlelo no ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make.
In words there is life, in words there is death.
(‘Ōlelo No’eau- Hawaiian proverb)
Last night I watched the final episode of Black Mirror, a British Netflix series that’s been out for a while. The episode is titled “Hated in the Nation”. It features (SPOILER ALERT- watch it before reading further!) a population of artificially intelligent robot bees that get hacked and turned into weapons of mass murder. That premise in and of itself was terrifying, considering the “brightest of humanity’s” worrisome tendency to expose the environment and public to not-thoroughly-vetted technologies vulnerable to mutations, hacks and other unforeseen and unintended applications. However what I found most disturbing about the episode was that it masterfully mirrored the sobering reality of contemporary online hatred.
“Hated in the Nation” painted a portrait of contemporary hate, included reasonable justifications for that hate, and then took it a step further than our familiar reality by enacting consequence-based mass murders targeting those haters. It challenged morality in a new arena. I found myself considering what the actual ramifications and justifications of expressing hate toward a stranger might be in “real” life, especially when compounded by legions of people.
Hate is a funny thing. Socially, it is frowned upon, unless the social collective agrees on its justification, in which case hate not only becomes acceptable, but encouraged- and even celebrated. It happens in all sects of human interaction, but the most apparent expression of hate occurs in the political sphere: most Republicans hated President Obama; most Democrats hate President Trump. We hate what challenges our identity, values, beliefs and dreams. We hate what hurts us. We hate what scares us. This isn’t to say without “good reason”; it’s only to say, we hate, as a species, when it feels right to do so.
Online hatred behaves similar to a wildfire: its origin is hard to determine, and once it has momentum it is largely at the whim of certain environmental conditions. The tinder is people’s pent up emotions; the wind is the byproduct of a vacuum of empathy. Hate trends: this decentralized yet engineer-able mechanism fueled solely by subjective and questionably-informed reactions on a mass scale builds upon itself by riding algorithms designed to fuel compounding attention. The internet is a modern day Roman Coliseum, and we are the roaring crowd, confidently perched above the arena of public opinion, thumbs cocked and ready to turn downward at the first passing display of disagreeability.
Unlike a Roman Coliseum, however, this interaction happens safely tucked behind a touch-sensitive perimeter of glass. Our fingers easily articulate the kind of sentiment our mouths would otherwise not were we in the physical presence of other humans. Tonality, facial expression and body language are all absent. This inorganic communication has the power to violate like a speaker turned up to full volume while muted, then suddenly, un-muted: shock at the obscene loudness, and confusion at its suddenness in a way we can’t fully understand. How can we? We’re not “there” to witness the visceral reaction of our target. Words on a screen elicit a physiological response, but the author of hateful speech isn’t able to witness that response. Instead, we experience silence, and possibly (or not) a delayed retort, also as written words on a screen. This is not organic communication. Just as the advent of the written word radically changed societies in ways we still don’t fully recognize or understand (read “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess”), web-based communication is radically changing us all over again in ways we yet fail to comprehend- or even acknowledge.
We are all, as a species, novices at this relatively new form of “speaking”. Our emotions are now amplified through microphones, singing to an empty hall without monitors for us to hear ourselves. We’ve gotten closer, for sure, but also much more isolated. The brain can’t quite put a finger on it: everyone is here but no one is here.
Unfortunately, the online climate is all too often a place where one (thinks they) can speak without regard for consequence. It feels good, for a moment, to put someone in their place. It feels empowering to condemn another for what we interpret to be unacceptable behavior. It feels exciting to say what we really feel, without fear of retribution.
But there are consequences. Even though those consequences may occur beyond our awareness. What we say matters. Our words can dignify or destroy others. Their process is often invisible to us- but it is all too real to them.
Your words matter to the target who reads hurtful attacks on his/her person. They matter to the online “bystander” who scrolls and pauses for a moment to whiff the foul stench of hate. They matter because they are felt. We each have the ability to incite feelings in others with our words. When we join together, our collective words become powerful- capable of real-world consequences. We ban together to condemn. And we are good at it.
After the condemnation of one individual, we move on to new targets. We serve as roving judge and jury while harboring a self-view of innocence. Innocence and anonymity; bedfellows in a dark attic. What is this joy that comes of others falling? Does their dehumanization benefit us? Is there a way to condemn actions, behaviors and words, without condemning people themselves? Is it a sign of weakness, complicity, or discerning intelligence and maturity to communicate utter disgust for a person’s choices without dehumanizing them? How does meeting hate with hate pan out? Is punishment an end unto itself, or should retribution till the soil for rehabilitation? Can we take this collective power and do more than shame others? And by shaming others, are we healing ourselves?
In the coming decades we will all witness the line between “virtual” and “reality” blurred. The idea of “real” is a concept based on extreme bias born of the nature of sensory data and how we interpret such in relation to our physiology. As technology ferries us into an experiential reality increasingly augmented by machines capable of stimulating sensation, the “real” will matter less and less. What will matter- in what could be called a “post-matter” society- is our experience: actual, augmented or virtual. The chemical response is the same regardless of the stimuli. But beyond that, the social gravity associated with experiences of all kinds will, as it already does, demonstrate indifference: what happens virtually has real-life consequence.
So we have a new toy. Be careful- it’s sharp.