Thursday, September 18, 2014

About all this rage

I encountered my first serious online troll / bully in an most astonishing place. It was the late 1990's and I was working for Amoco, BP Amoco, or BP. Take your pick, and there's a joke about all that I could tell you. In a fit of naive optimism they set up chat boards. They thought it would encourage communication between disparate parts of the BP empire.

Communication isn't the word I'd use. Picture this. We all have to log into our computers to get at this on line chat board. You could choose the name that would be visible to other people, but the admins knew who you really were. There were some work related stuff that was pretty good. There was some non-work related stuff that was interesting.

Then there was user S&W45. I kid you not. This person spat vitriol, hatred, foul language, stupidity, and all sorts of general nastiness everywhere. Sometimes on topic, but mostly off. What we saw was what the moderators let through so I can only imagine what got censored. Once they got tuned into that user they moderated more, which inspired even more ranting. It was probably a contributor to getting the whole thing shut down. I'd like to think it got his employment shut down while they were at it, but I have no way of knowing. It's like he (assuming it was a he) thought he was truly anonymous.

Of course, previous to that, the internet was pretty primitive. There were a few trolls, but either I didn't go where they were, or they weren't as bad then.

I was, for my sins, the chief administrator of of a non-profit group for a while. This group had it's share of (shall we say) socially challenged people. They were utterly baffled at how I could disagree with someone and not be angry at them. How I could listen to various points of view, restate them accurately, then proceed to provide counter arguments, without descending into yelling, or putting up with other people yelling. People don't yell in meetings I chair. Not more than once.

Now you see it everywhere. Edit wars on Wikipedia. Comments on newspaper articles, youtube videos, and well, just about anything on the web that allows comments. Especially anything to do with politics. Even more especially anything from the USA in general. It's like they don't think you're serious unless you're screaming and look like you're about to blow a gasket.

But where did it come from? Why? Is it because they think they're anonymous, and can say what they want without being called on it? Do they have all this rage bottled up and this is the only outlet? Whatever happened to going to the gym and beating on a punching bag?

Don't get me wrong. I don't mind someone being excited, even passionate about their position on something. Just as long as they realize that other people can be just as passionate about their position, and that both people can come by that honestly. It's hard to ask that someone take your passion seriously, especially when there is no rationality supporting it, when you don't take their passion seriously.

I love the English language. It's my mother tongue, and I like to think I've got a good grip on it, both verbally and in writing. I shake my head at the crudity of the expressions of hatred. Poor spelling, poor grammar, and extraordinarily bad usage of language. Not only are they saying stupid, hateful things, their very means of expressing it are barbarous.

Even though I'm not religious I recognize that the language in the King James bible is magnificent. It is a very great pity that some people who profess to believe what the bible says find it necessary to express their opinions of those that believe differently in such cant terms.

There are people that say that we should require a real identity to publish on the internet. If people knew they could be connected in real life to comments made on line, they would be politer. I thought that too, for a while. Then I realized there were any number of reasons why someone might want to publish anonymously. The main one being they were saying something that the powers that be disagreed with. Some of these powers that be are quite willing to "disappear" someone.

Whatever happened to "I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it"? One of the favourite tactics of the political bully (hello Mr. Harper) is to try to muzzle people and organizations that disagree. It's often said that the proper response to intolerant speech is more speech not less. I thought that too, and mostly still do.

The problem is that the people who spout the vile hatred live in an echo chamber. They only listen to people that hold like opinions. Anything else gets the barrage of contempt, and sometimes even death threats.

So if requiring a real ID doesn't work, and if the reasoned responses don't get read, what do we do? Aggressive moderation seems to be the key, but who has the time, or the stomach for the work? Where exactly is the line that triggers moderation? Suppose someone wrote an eloquent, carefully argued article saying that people who preach extremist positions should be deported. The article makes clear that it applies to any religious group. Should that be moderated? Probably not, but it depends. What if it's only religion x, and none other? Is that hatred and should be moderated? I'd say probably, but again, it depends. Consider a screed saying that all adherents of religion x should be deported because they are !@#$, @#%^, and &*(%!. Most people wouldn't have much difficulty in saying that should be moderated.

Does the eloquence of the language make a differences? How about the inclusion of swear words? How about racial epitaphs? Would we, should we, trust a computer intelligence to do that moderation? How would we trust a group of humans to moderate sensitive topics, since there would always be someone to claim that someone hadn't in fact gone over the line, or someone else had?

One can understand to a point, passionate disagreement on topics such as abortion, the death penalty, going to war,  and other big issues. But the outbursts can happen over the smallest of things. Things that most people would say are trivial, except to someone for which it isn't, for whatever reason. That other people continue to think it's trivial just sets them off even more.

Frankly, some days I'd like to give the whole world a valium. A couple giant valium pills forcibly administered in Washington DC, a few locations in what is called the middle-east, maybe North Korea, and it probably wouldn't hurt to do one in Moscow too. Unfortunately this isn't terribly practical. Sigh.

In the real world, I think the only solution is to keep pushing back. We've pushed back on smoking inside. We've pushed back on drinking and driving. We've pushed back on wearing seat belts. Not to say there isn't further progress possible, but big changes have happened.

We've started to push back on bullying, and that's a bigger one that people think. It isn't just kids in school. It's abuse of authority in general. The strong bullying the weak. It's going to take a lot to stop it. But as that Australian general said, "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept" and that applies to public opinions.

I don't mind an opinion of ignorance. I don't mind a forcible opinion. I don't even mind if it's expressed bluntly. What I mind is when differing opinions aren't recognized or respected. I mind when there is a threat implicit in the opinion, when the opinion is an explicit threat. I mind when the opinion is expressed with hateful language.

At the root, I think the issue is fear. Our politicians and news media keep telling us all the things we should be afraid of, and virtually all of it is lies. They're trying to hide the real issues. Climate change is one example. They don't dare do anything real about it for fear of pissing off the corporations that support them. Many of them don't understand the science, so they set off a fog of fear and confusion about the issue. And since they're at it, they do other issues to. Anything to get people worked up and afraid.

All we can do is not buy into it. Start holding our politicians to a higher standard. Starting calling them and other people on the stupid things they say. In other words, behave like grown ups and encourage other's to do the same. I keep coming back to this, "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept".

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