Articles, Rants and Explorations


Current Jennilog for 8 / 16 / 2005: Civility and Schadenfreude

Civility and Schadenfreude

One of the things I have come to utterly despise on the internet is the presence of Schadenfreude. Defined as glee at the misery of others, it is a borrowed German word which I use here to describe what is the tip of a very poisonous iceberg, submerged in the sea of the internet.

The anonymity of the internet provides a test of almost spiritual potence; a test of the human psyche, if not soul. Utterly free of consequence, devoid of any fear of repercussion, hidden, under the potentiality of a false name and a false identity, the test asks "Are you kind and mature and loving, or are you cruel and childish and mean?"

Far too many people fail the test, by which I mean that instead of choosing wise and beneficial civility, they demonically sink to uncivil acts of social barbarity and even open Schadenfreude.  Of course, to be fair, many people act badly in real, nonelectronic life, but there is a far greater barrier in real life; someone may get hurt and angry and come kick your sorry ass for being a jerk.

On the internet, projecting your emotions and thoughts into the web, no one knows how to get to you. There are no constraints but your own.

This fact hurts a lot of people.

You might ask "how?" and I will answer. We humans are, like all primates, highly social animals. Indeed, our finely tuned drive to socialize is our single most powerful and survival oriented trait. Alone, we are weak, hairless apes; together, we are the most dangerously empowered creature to ever stalk the earth. Indeed we have the power to sterilize the earth itself. This power, all of it, originates from the basic need of primates to cling together, to share, to trust, and to value each other. Without it, we would have been food long ago, extinct.

It is odd to think that in the simple need to hug and hold derives every technological and intellectual power that the human race has ever, or will ever, achieve. We can do so much only because we need each other so much that we are willing and able to work together for a common goal, and to help our own commonality. It's a hell of a evolutionary advantage.

Now the downside of this drive to cling to each other is that the emotions of others matter a great deal to us. We are affected by the emotional states of those we interact with, by their expressed thoughts, feelings and states of being. It is part of the very nature of the need that made us what we are; to be social, to work together, there has to be a feedback loop where every individual animal in the group reacts to those around it. This is how we reach consensus. It is how we grow unity amongst diverse people; it is the basis of compromise, which is is what makes group function even possible.

This means that cruel words and cruel actions cause real harm, even if they are projected through abstract media.

What difference does online cruelty make?

Mean spirited mockery and insult can drive people from their potential. It can keep people from trying things, from doing things, from growing and achieving. The child in school who is mocked for asking questions (Hey! Einstein! What are you, the teacher's pet?) can be dissuaded from learning itself. Adults....are very often, perhaps even most often, just children with older and bigger bodies, and more inhibitions. Few people seem to ever actually mature as individuals. Children, by nature, are very vulnerable, especially to social pressure.

Which is why adults are so willing to follow fashion, trend, and social whim. All are just manifestations of that childlike vulnerability to social pressure. This isn't entirely a bad thing though...we need to be affected by each other, as previously stated.

But those to whom the anonymity of the internet is just a chance to let loose their inner demons, to persecute, insult, mock, crush and disparage, show the worst side of being childlike - being childish.

An emotionally mature individual understands that civilization is supported by civility, by kind words, by kind acts, by lifting people up. The old phrase "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" has a real value. It supports the very structure of civilization. Now this does not mean that one must refrain from pointing out grave mistakes or dangerous situations or destructive acts. What it does mean is that one needs to have enough awareness to understand what is actually dangerous or grave, and what is trivial and insignificant. Most of what people do in their lives, in their works, is pretty much trivial. And trivialities should not be criticized, because all it does is cause despair. It  just hurts people needlessly.

Far better is to encourage people. Really dealing with any person or group of people is like training a dog. Yes, one can train a dog with beatings and fear, but the dog will become ever more broken inside. Train a dog only with rewards and kindness, and that dog will not only learn faster, but they will become strong, loyal, and true.

When I deal with people, on the internet, or in real life, I do not criticize their trivialities. I encourage them to try. If I see that they could improve in something, and I actually know what will work better, I do not tell them how they are wrong, I offer them a better way, if they would like to hear it. And if they don't want to hear it, I let it slide. It isn't that important. What is important is lifting people up so that they have enough heart and enough spirit to bother to try things, to do things, and to feel powerful in their lives.  When that happens, I feel uplifted too, because I know I made a difference.

Some immature people, children especially, go through a phase where they think it is funny, and fun, to tear others down. They like to insult and emotionally wound, because they feel powerless and useless themselves, and destroying the emotions of others is, after all, a form of power. It is an abuse of power, it is abusive, but it is power nevertheless. For civilization to survive, it is expected that humans outgrow this phase, that they grow up and develop empathy, develop consideration for others, and most of all, develop a taste for the fun of helping others, rather than harming them. The fact that this happens at all is the only reason you are reading my rant right now.

Online, and sometimes in real life, I see people who have failed this growth. Anonymity has given such people a way to soak in infantile feelings of abusive power without fear of consequences. It happens in online games, in online chat, and on websites and forums. It is destructive, and therefore wrong. It is certainly narrow, intolerant, and cruel. Above all, it is an act of emotional immaturity, of a person so emotionally desperate, that their primary way to feel better is to make others feel bad. To be such a person is a very pitiable state. It is a sad, and broken state of being.

So, my statements made, I would remind one and all that the test of anonymity online is a test of character, and that we all can choose to define ourselves as being kind or cruel with every action we take. No one can be kind all of the time, but we can try to be so. We can choose to overlook trivialities that do not involve life or death, and we can be supportive of the dreams, the fantasies, the hopes, and the aspirations of others. We can offer helpful suggestions untainted by mean-spirited disparagement. Above all, we can define ourselves as the sort of person who lifts others up. And we can take pleasure, feel good, and feel powerful, for doing these things.

Because it is a very powerful thing indeed, to lift another person up. Destruction is childishly easy, but construction, assistance, kindness, is a real triumph. It also matters in large and small ways, because every life touches other lives, and by our actions in the small does the greatness of all civilization succeed or fail. Entire social movements, and technological advancements have occurred in history simply because one eccentric person was encouraged, rather than disparaged, at the right moment in their lives. That is how incredibly powerful a little kindness, a little civility can be.

A cruel person will not be dissuaded from cruelty by an act of cruelty, but they can be shown a path to growing up a bit with an act of civil kindness. Civility is the more powerful construct. It surpasses destructive actions, and can conquer them.

If you want real power in the world, be nice. Play nice. Talk nice. Act nice. Be civil. To do so gains constant rewards, and has no down side. If cruel things happen, they would have happened anyway, taking on a mantle of viciousness would not have prevented them. But kindness opens the door to kindness in return, and thus benefits accumulate and grow all around.

Pass the ethical test, the personality test, of online anonymity. Be civil, even if there is no consequence to acting in a cruel or mean manner. In this way you define yourself, and you affect the world around you, in countless powerful ways that support the very civilization you depend upon for your very existence.

To an truly intelligent person, the ultimate act of selfishness is altruism. To care about and care for, to support and be supportive of, other people. Even people you do not think, or cannot imagine, touch your life immediately or directly. We are all separated from any other person by a chain of people only around six deep. Every person has a greater impact than they imagine. This power is vastly greater the more people one can reach, and the internet makes us able to touch almost the entire bulk of technologically advanced humanity itself. That is a lot of influence.

Be intelligent online. Be nice.


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