I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
The Two Personas
Padraig O’Malley, who was a facilitator during the Northern Ireland peace process, came up with the idea of the two personas—which has become central to our work here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative.
According to O’Malley, each human being is a blend of the ideological persona and the human persona. As the names suggest, the ideological persona refers to beliefs that people adhere to, from political, theological, nutritional, spiritual ideologies and beyond, and the human persona refers to aspects that are co-human, from basic human needs all the way up the Maslow hierarchy. You can read more about this idea in a previous column on the topic. O’Malley has explained that the only way to dehumanize another person is to paint him or her as an ideologue only and refuse to see co-human elements.
On the Internet, this is especially easy to do. Most of what we see in the digital space are each other’s ideologies. We are attracted by people who mirror our chosen worldviews while we are repelled by those who oppose them. In essence, we are in each other’s minds all the time but not in each other’s lives. As a result, we write things on the Internet that we would probably not say in person and react to the ideological persona while not taking the human persona into account.
Yet, human beings are not one-dimensional. I have met many quality people that hold ideas that I disagree with ideologically over the years. Conversely, I’ve met quite a few unpleasant people who shared my ideology.
On the Internet we only see part of the complexity that being human is and judge people on that alone, which is unfair, to say the least. This reduction of people to mere ideologues is one of the main avenues towards dehumanization. People we disagree with become the other.
Road Rage and Internet Rage
People also appear to be quicker to get enraged by what they see on the Internet than by what they register during direct human contact. Why is that?
In a 2001 four-part BBC documentary about the human face. John Cleese made some very interesting observations about road rage that are relevant to this topic. He explained that when human beings bump into each other while walking down the street, there is a micro facial exchange that happens and it quickly diffuses any reactions because it equals saying sorry. Most accidental bumps while walking down the street are resolved immediately. Road rage, on the other hand, is fairly common and not so easily resolved. Cleese, along with the research team behind the show, suggested that people are quicker to get enraged on the road because there are no facial exchanges that happen similar to the ones that occur when people are walking down the street. Ergo, without the micro facial expressions there is no way to say sorry, no way to diffuse the initial anger.
The Internet is much the same. There is no human interaction, no facial expression to diffuse the situation, no tone of voice to interpret, no body language to react to, only words, shared memes, cartoons, and articles. Therefore, Internet rage is similar to road rage because it is triggered by lack of human interaction. Unfortunately, this fury, which has mostly been reserved for loners sitting in front of computers, has started to spill over into the public arena more and more because of repeated conditioning, making rage the default setting for some people.
Nuance is Lost
To top this off, people aren’t reacting to other people’s real thoughts and feelings most of the time, but rather to shared material that wasn’t even created by the person they are reacting to.
Even when people react to other people’s personalized writing, most of the thinking behind what can be shared on social media is more nuanced than what is actually shared. You would, for example, get more nuance about my views from a personal conversation than from reading one of my columns.
Respectful conversations bring nuance to light.
More Human Contact
Which brings me to possible solutions. In addition to remembering that there is a human being on the other side of each Internet interaction, I think the best remedy against dehumanization and rage is more human contact. Being face to face with people. And not only with friends. We need to be around both people we agree and disagree with if we want to buck this trend.
If we don’t make any changes to this Internet culture, then the inclination towards dehumanization and rage will likely continue and spill over into our streets at an ever-increased rate. There is a lot to disagree about and we must have those discussions, but allowing rage and dehumanization to fester is dangerous. We must train ourselves to disagree in a civil manner, even on the Internet.
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We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We provide people with access to strategies, methods, and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. We use the term interfaith broadly to mean 'a strong belief in someone or something' and focus on improving interrelations between people who have different worldviews. Our primary goals are to remind people of our shared humanity and to support new and ongoing efforts.
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Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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