Tag Archives: internet

Our Heroes Are Garbage People And We Are Too

I have a problem with heroes, and I bet you do too. Whether or not you pay attention to someone’s Twitter, Facebook, or their interviews, someone you like is invariably saying shitty things about you.

I used to be able to willfully ignore my heroes missteps, but they continued talking trash, especially on topics they know very little about. When I came out as transgender, it got worse. As much as I looked up to these people or enjoyed their work, they constantly insulted and offended me and individuals like me. It was completely disheartening. My so called heroes began to show their true selves, and their true selves were trash.

Maybe It’s Just Me

When I was younger, I often believed that my getting offended at individuals dehumanizing me was the result of my own sensitivity. I believed myself to be weak because I couldn’t roll with the punches. I know now that this was simply not the case, and the individuals I looked up to simply reframed the controversy to make it about me and individuals like myself. Framing in communication is an important tool, it allows us to utilize rhetoric without changing the facts, to promote certain interpretations of events and discourage others. In essence, it’s a means of steering the conversation towards one conclusion.

What often happens when someone in a position of relative power is attacked is that they will shift the blame and communicatively construct a reality where the victim is at fault. “I was making a joke.” “You’re just being overly sensitive.” “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” While the facts remain that someone made a mistake or used language that was harmful to an individual or group, the conversation shifts to be about the victim. Often time the victim’s only action is to point out that the individual made a mistake; sometimes the victim has had no action. If the internal logic is consistent, someone could basically reframe any issue and convince people that they’re right and the victims are wrong. “You are reacting to something I said so you’re the one at fault.”

Whether intentional or not, this often results in a skewed reality where an influential person has changed the conversation and minds of several of their followers. It often incites a hate mob, specially targeted at the victims of the initial comment. Furthermore, it promotes the internalization of oppression. When reality is skewed to be against a victim, they may begin to believe that they are actually at fault. If our understandings of reality shape what we believe, and reality is skewed against us, we take in, rationalize, and internalize that reality. The reality where victims are just weaklings becomes our own. This just leads to the further marginalization of people, simply because someone in a position of power can’t accept their mistake or understand the gravity of the situation.

What needs to be understood by individuals in power is that power dynamics play an important role. Being in a position of power shouldn’t make an individual infallible, and while everyone is entitled to an opinion, when all eyes are on you your opinion can have serious repercussions for marginalized individuals.

The Problem with Celebrity

Whether an individual is respected or seen as intelligent is irrelevant. If you’re asking an individual to opine on a random topic out of their breadth of expertise, you’re rolling dice as to whether or not your hero will let you down. This is especially the case when it’s a hotly debated topic and there’s no care and dedication into understanding the problem. Privilege, widely held social beliefs, age, and trust in meritocracy only compound these issues further. So while an individual may be regarded as the pinnacle of their field of expertise, ignorance, privilege, and other social factors, may cause them to share uneducated or harmful opinions.

This is emblematic of a society that values celebrity the way western society does. We still expect that everyone that has elevated in society based on their talent will somehow be a renaissance person. We give individuals a soapbox and a loud speaker, and expect them to tell us how to think, feel, or act, because they’re someone in society. It’s also a society that places the value of personal opinion higher than expertise, that gains enjoyment from shock value, where any mainstream opinion that condemns a minority is lauded by the individuals that do not match that identifier. This is not to excuse who share their terrible, harmful, and often times violent opinions, but the construction of society plays a major role as to how they were given a voice and why they haven’t been driven out yet.

This problem does not solely lie on expertise, however, ignorance and an inability to process new information also contribute to dangerous opinions. Similar to taking a driving test or getting a degree, we often falsely elevate individuals based on solitary achievements and not continued work or relevance. When you’ve made it, you’ve made it, or so they say. Individuals that were once considered groundbreaking, revolutionary, or relevant, are falsely raised above others and given an important voice in a community. Often their contributions are hailed as being so pivotal in the cultural zeitgeist that society begins to see them as infallible leaders. As time goes on and as society becomes less interested in the zeitgeist they stood for, their opinions begin to clash harder and harder especially if their opinions come from a time society has moved past. A once revolutionary, cutting edge, iconoclast can be reduced to just another member of the establishment and no longer concerned with the revolution.

Conclusion

We’re all just living garbage. Every single one of us is guilty of holding a contrarian opinion, having shitty personality traits, and being genuinely ignorant in many ways. However, when we elevate some trash above the rest of the pile because of their accomplishments, we risk creating a monster that can have very real, adverse effects, especially on marginalized individuals. When we give an individual a soap box on which to espouse nonsense and we enforce the lie that this individual is a person of real leadership in the community, we set a dangerous precedent that often reinforces taboo, prejudices, and flagrant ignorance.

Individuals we elevate above us have too great a power to influence discussion and place the blame for their shitty comments directly on their victims. They use reframing as a tactic to skew reality and convince other individuals that their victims are simply weak or too sensitive. They punch down at individuals that they hold in contempt and incite hate mobs to further destroy their victim’s lives and safety.

Furthermore, culture of celebrity treats the opinions of individuals with social power as infallible. We still wrongly believe than any individual who has shown mastery or expertise in one field, is magically endowed with expertise in other fields. We are also constantly disappointed by this fact as if we could not see that an evolutionary biologist might not have the firmest grasps on world affairs, or that an actress and comedienne may not have any understanding of medicine. We wish, that despite creating the exact situation we dread, that somehow this would not happen, that individuals we choose to elevate may meet our lofty expectation of omnipotence as if they were a deity. At least that way the idolatry would make sense.

Never meet your heroes. In fact, its best not to have heroes at all.

Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Identity

I spent many years in academia and schooling, maybe a few too many. Over the course of my education, I had far too much time to over-think sociological and philosophical topics. Because of this I wrote several essays trying to solve nearly impossible problems. In my head, problems relating to mundane social interaction, international relations, and social power dynamics, were all easily solved in under 10 pages. I thought every problem had an easy solution that millions of people, most more experienced than me, were simply ignorant to.

In one of my undergrad essays, for a course on Political Cosmopolitanism, my thesis claimed that anonymous communication was a relevant force in the internet age for removing one’s identity and equalizing the power gap between all participants of a conversation. The essay used examples from Reddit and 4chan, and discussed how anonymity reduced every social actor in a conversation down to one “meaningless” mass of non-identity. A user could be talking to anyone, and they needed to adjust the way they communicated accordingly. This was a superficial argument, it did nothing to address social power, privilege, and identity politics. I lacked the necessary research and experience to know why I was wrong, and my naivety still haunts me.

As an effort to redeem myself, I would like to use this week’s article to argue with my stance from 3 years ago, and once again explore the concepts of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

“The Great Equalizer”

When discussing anonymity, I am referring to sections of the internet where “real names” are avoided, whether it be a choice to allow users to post without an identity or a choice of their own screen name. For a long time, these two were the de-facto naming policies of websites.

Both anonymity and pseudonymity allow a user to define themselves by their words and their actions rather than by their perceived identity. The assumption is that without clear attachment to a physical body and a name, an individual will be more free to speak their mind since an unpopular opinion carries no social consequences.

With anonymity, there is no permanence to an individual, hence a user could be talking to anyone. Users will adjust their attitude and speech accordingly, and because nobody knows the identity of other users it is difficult to be prejudiced another individual based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, national identity, etc. In theory, that is how it is supposed to work.

With pseudonymity, individuals can be identified and given prominence but they are not identified by their actual body. They could simply create a mask to hide themselves in plain view. It is not necessarily a perfect system but it is seen as a happy compromise between strict naming policies and anonymity.

It is a great equalizer because no “real identity” is known. Online representation can never be concrete, because every user knows that others can chose their personas freely – and simply reset their presence as needed. Words are ultimately what defines an individual – whether it be for a moment via anonymity or, with pseudonymity, a presence that emerges more than once. These systems provide a theoretical meritocracy and utopia for those who believe in this system – a libertarian sandbox where everyone is supposedly as equal as anyone else.

“The Unintentional Oppressor”

In my youth, I thought these were positive qualities. If you were a marginalized individual, or did not hold a mainstream opinion, you could speak your mind freely with little fear that someone will find and use those words against your “real identity.” I was not wrong in thinking that these these systems has positive attributes, but I erred when seeing the notion of “free speech” as a positive in and of itself. At its best, free speech is an inconsequential concept, while at its worst a dangerous one. The most obvious problem is that anonymous users have a penchant for abusing their anonymity. Whether found through stalking, death threats, trolling, and hate speech, if someone’s “real identity” is found out, anonymous users will show no remorse. If someone is not part of the homogeneous white mass, if they do not look like the others users, they will be told how “wrong” they are, repeatedly, and in a handful of violent ways. Having a system where everyone can “speak their mind” never becomes inclusive, and is nothing but a reinforcement of the status quo where those willing to abuse those privileges will be given the power to do so with the tacit approval of the majority.

Despite the claim that nobody has a “real identity,” most users assume that any other user falls into a status quo. The common belief is that every others user automatically falls into the demographic that holds the most power: cis, white, heterosexual, and male. This presumption must persist for the system to work, because any identity that exists outside of it changes the dynamics of conversation. When it is assumed that everyone shares an equivalent identity, it is more easy to believe that the power dynamics present in society have been erased. This is not egalitarianism, because it assumes everyone belongs to the same privileged group. No other types of people exist until they make themselves known. For example: there are no girls on the internet until there is a girl on the internet.

Therein lies the ultimate problem: these systems would only ever work if the users actually respected the ideals that came with anonymity and pseudonymity. When an individual exposes their real identity, especially one that does not fit within the status quo, users often try to violate that individual’s privacy. One needs to look no further than victims of the online hate campaign, GamerGate. If one user suspects another of being a girl, they might hound them relentlessly and try to force them to confirm that they are not part of the status quo. The user in question may be demanded for pictures proving that they are a girl, subject to random skype calls, or messaged direct sexual harassment. The phrase “tits or GTFO” is not limited to 4chan – it is the common internet experience on women everywhere. Anonymous users often feel entitled to proof without giving any context or concrete reason for why they cannot believe another human being at face value. (p.12) It is either “prove you are who you say you are,” or be seen as a liar. For one to confirm they hold the identity they say they do, they need to sacrifice their anonymity and pseudonymity – which makes them even more vulnerable to harassment.

When one is exposed as not being a cisgender heterosexual white male, they become an easier target for online attacks; which are a frightening prospect. Since the system is based on the premise that every user belongs to the same demographic, they often defend the abusers, deny the abuse, and then blame the victim when they are exposed. Abusers try to argue that individuals who are not anonymous are public figures, while being protected by their peers fighting for an irrelevant ideal. Anything goes, and nobody is responsible.

Towards a workable future.

While these systems are incredibly far from perfect, they are not without redemption. It will require effort on the part of developers and moderators to make better. For example, a system could track users on the back-end while allowing anonymity and pseudonymity to remain as a staple of user to user interaction. Much of the problem with current moderation policy is the misguided belief that these anonymous social interactions are self-regulating. This claim has been proven false, time and time again, and one needs to look no further than 4chan and Reddit to recognize it. Whether or not the users like it, moderation needs to be active, hate speech rules need to be enforced, and criminal activity and threats need to be taken seriously. If moderators kept at it, they could create safer and more inviting message boards.

There will be a backlash at first, but the era of the “community driven and abused” internet needs to end before message board administration commit to more drastic to more draconian policies that are even more harmful to marginalized individuals. I know users will scream out “1984! Big Brother!,” but if 4chan and Reddit continue to gain a harmful reputation as safe-havens for terrorists, racists, and misogynists, more extreme options such as “real name” policies will continue to gain clout. Communities have proven unable to govern themselves, so moderators need to step up and enforce those communities – or slowly watch the notion of anonymity disappear entirely in favour of “real name” policies.