Sunday, February 15, 2015


Has social media produced an epidemic of uncontrollable verbal abuse?

By offering the possibility to act anonymously social media has unleashed an army of trolls who threaten, harass, bully abuse and intimidate whom they wish, when they wish, with impunity.

Stephen Marche posits correctly that the internet has allowed people to be faceless, to hide their identity behind an empty mask. A certain number of people have taken advantage of said anonymity, the better to hurt other people and not be held responsible for their actions.

We might ask whether this facelessness allows people to get in touch with their repressed psychopathic tendencies or whether we have been taught that the best way to manifest our total liberation from social constraints is to act like a psychopath.

Doubtless, both are true.

We know that “face” is fundamentally important to Chinese thought. We know it because I wrote a book about “Saving Face” and because I also wrote about the topic in my new book “The Last Psychoanalyst.”

If we did not appreciate the importance of face, in the literal and the figurative senses of the word, Marche has happily summarized some of the most recent research into the experience of face. He emphasizes its importance in the West.

He explains that it forms the basis for our legal system:

The challenge of our moment is that the face has been at the root of justice and ethics for 2,000 years. The right to face an accuser is one of the very first principles of the law, described in the “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but reaching back through English common law to ancient Rome. In Roman courts no man could be sentenced to death without first seeing his accuser. The precondition of any trial, of any attempt to reconcile competing claims, is that the victim and the accused look each other in the face.

While Marche suggests that seeing someone’s face involves something like shared humanity, I believe it more accurate to say that anonymity allows people to avoid responsibility for their actions.

If you do not show your face or name yourself you can pretend that your actions have no author or agent.

In Marche’s words:

Inability to see a face is, in the most direct way, inability to recognize shared humanity with another. In a metastudy of antisocial populations, the inability to sense the emotions on other people’s faces was a key correlation. There is “a consistent, robust link between antisocial behavior and impaired recognition of fearful facial affect. Relative to comparison groups, antisocial populations showed significant impairments in recognizing fearful, sad and surprised expressions.” A recent study in the Journal of Vision showed that babies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months recognized human faces at the same level as grown adults, an ability which they did not possess for other objects.

While Americans are diving head first into their minds, the better to suss out what they really, really feel, Asians are more concerned with how they look to others, their reputations and their good character.

Is that the reason why the world is increasingly turning toward China?

I agree with Marche’s analysis of facelessness, but I would add that the worst problems arise when the trolls do not even bother to hide their identity. Then they make their shamelessness, if I may, a badge of pride.

It will already have crossed your mind that we did not need social media, Twitter and the rest, to send anonymous communications, to refuse to take responsibility for our actions, or better, to avoid facing our interlocutors.

Doesn’t writing provide the opportunity to remain anonymous? Most literally, writing allows you to hide your face from your reader. If you type out a message and do not sign it you are faceless. In pre-typewriter days,  you would have used block printing. And one recalls kidnappers sending ransom notes made up of a collage of words cut out of magazines and pasted onto a piece of paper.

Even when writing is not used to hide one’s identity, it is always used to hide one’s face.

Whereas the speech act, almost by definition requires one’s presence, or at least the presence of one’s voice, writing offers a greater opportunity to hide one’s identity.

Obviously, people can use telephones to send anonymous messages. They can even disguise their voices. And yet, if we maintain a larger historical perspective, the written word has consistently offered the best opportunity to hide one’s face and even to hide one’s identity.

But does this mean that writing has always been the royal road to avoiding moral responsibility?

Many of these issues have been raised in the practice that is called deconstruction. It was promoted and promulgated by Jacques Derrida. As the man who most clearly championed writing over speech, Derrida saw Western civilization as a vast conspiracy to suppress writing in favor of speech.

Why have people wanted to suppress writing? Its champions believe that writing allows human beings to express their animal instincts, their true impulses… what have you. Surely, facelessness promotes these forms of psychopathy.

Whether Derrida was right or wrong, his thinking is consistent with the fact that when people can write anonymously they tend to behave more like psychopaths. Or is it that psychopaths find that they can first gain access to their psychopathy by not looking their victims in the face?

It is probably not an accident that the concept of deconstruction originated in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “destruktion.” With his concept Heidegger wanted to dismantle the pernicious influences that had damaged and corrupted the purity of Aryan culture.

I need not tell you that Heidegger, true-believing member of the Nazi party and noteworthy anti-Semite was happy to cheer on the SA and the SS while they deconstructed Jewish homes, businesses and cultural centers in Germany in the 1930s.

Deconstruction is philosophy-speak for pogrom.

You will note that Heidegger’s acolytes continue to insist that he need not feel responsible for having been a Nazi and that his political beliefs have no connection with the purity of his philosophy.

As it happened, Nazi war criminals were not faceless. They were proud of what they were doing.

When people must hide behind facelessness, they might be on the path to psychopathy, but, all told, it’s better to be faceless than to be proud of committing horrific acts.


Anonymous said...

Trolls are easily identified and easily ignored.

Those who get worked up over them are really looking for an excuse to censor the internet.

Ares Olympus said...

Stephen Marche writes near the end: "The neurological research demonstrates that empathy, far from being an artificial construct of civilization, is integral to our biology. And when biological intersubjectivity disappears, when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted."

Facebook at least would claim to require people to use their real names, and gives a face to connect to. And further than blogs, we now have "video blogs" where you can see the person, and in addition to written comments, people will cross video blog discussions, so there is plenty of opportunity to show your identity and face if you choose.

But whether writing, or audio, or video, the commonality in all of these communications is they contain a record that can't be simply erased. So if you do a video blog being an idiot, even if you delete it the next day, if you're someone important someone might have already copied it, and your embarressment can be mocked for weeks or years.

So all that concerns me more than worrying about anonymous trolls. I wonder how young people handle that pressure of display?

And worse than "facelessness" is "digital manipulation", not only do we have effectively permanent records of our utterances, but they can be manipulated, so you can think you know what you're hearing or seeing on YouTube or TV, but someone can be saying the exact opposite of what it appears, like this video shows: TV tricks of the trade -- Quotes and cutaways

There are so many levels to our new communication possibilities, its hard to say what is most dangerous. We have more chances to be manipulated by propaganda, but chances to connect directly to people who you are supposed to hate for being the wrong sort in the older isolated world of direct exposure.

And I suppose this is where the "myth" of humanity arises. We are not limited to the "tribes" of our birth, and "monoculture" means we can move hundreds of miles, get a new job, new friends or whatever relations and believe everything that we were before is erased.

Of course, now with google, unless you change your name, your past can follow you were ever you go.

And with the NSA and commercial databases, we may literally be "fully exposed" to anyone with the right connections, down to the GPS in our phones, and every financial transaction collected and analyzed by someone, whether to sell us something or to connect us to a crime.

So maybe we shouldn't worry about the faceless trolls making our online lives miserable, but the hidden recorders of all our activities?

Or maybe once enough anonymous death threats are traced and prosecuted, we'll discover a need for a new "social face" in places where the digital evidence of our bad behavior will outlive our great grandchildren?

So many ways to see things, if you're looking for something threatening.

Ares Olympus said...

I found this new interview online today, with Annie Fox, seemed related, talking in part about the challenges of kids learning hwo to relate with online communication being so dominant these days. How do you teach kids to be "good people"? with Annie Fox

At least it seems more productive to talk about what kids need to become mature adults, versus paying too much attention to those just acting out online.

She talks about her new book for girls, and older one for all kids:
On developing the concept for her book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People (17:30)

I help adults help kids develop a moral compass. What is that about? That's about doing the right thing. So I thought, “Okay, I want to write a book about what that process might be like for parents at any point in the parenting journey.”
So I came up with this idea of “I want to help parents teach kids to be good people.” But first, I got stuck on that word "good" because everybody has their own definition of what goodness is. What is that? Is there some universal truth about that? Is there a universal understanding of what it means?

On the concept of social courage, from her book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People (19:00)

Another thing that was resonant was what I call "social courage." Standing up and doing the right thing despite the fact that other people will watch you and might judge you harshly. That sense of knowing "this is what's right and to hell with other people's opinions at this moment." This is the right and proper thing to do and it really all comes from that sense of wanting to be helpful.

Her definition of a good person (19:37)

Ultimately, a good person is someone who actively looks for opportunities to ease the suffering of other people.

Yes, its a progressive liberal feel-good definition, but once you add in "social courage" it seems to go deeper. There are intractable problems in human relations, but maybe they're only intractable because we have to risk something to gain something, so "moral courage" simply means knowing what you want, and what the costs are, and why you're willing to pay those costs.

Good lessons I think.