April 7, 2021

The High Price of Calling Others Names on Social Media

don't act like sheep

I remember when I first realized that something was wrong, but I'm a bit vague about some of the details. It was several years ago. I am not sure about the specific platform. I believe it was Facebook, but it could have been YouTube or Reddit. I was reading through some exchanges when the following comment caught my eye:

Go kill yourself!
The person who said this repeated it several times with slight variations (e.g., "You are too stupid to live," "You should do all of us a favor and kill yourself today"). What initially looked like a minor political disagreement had quickly devolved into this crap. I realize this sort of thing is commonplace today, but it was the first time I had seen it.

I found myself wondering about the person who was on the receiving end of this. How old were they? Was it possible that they were a child? Was it possible that they were depressed or suffering from some other mental health ailment that might have left them vulnerable to this sort of thing? How could the aggressor behave like this without considering the consequences?

Our social media discourse seems far worse today. While I do not see blatant attempts at encouraging someone to kill themselves more than a few times a month, I see other disturbing examples at least several times a week. These include efforts to get people fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and incitement for unspecified mob justice. I recently saw someone on Twitter post a picture of their target accompanied by some information about their likely location and the all-too-common plea: "You know what to do, Twitter." It wasn't that long ago that public shaming seemed sufficient, but that doesn't go far enough for some. The target needs to be demonstrably harmed.

Some desperately want to blame Trump and those who voted for him for this state of affairs. While I agree that his presidency didn't help matters, most of the instances of this behavior I have seen have come from those on the left. When questioned, they indicate that they feel justified in acting this way because the "other side" is doing it and they must meet fire with fire. Even if they are correct that their political opponents are doing it, I am unimpressed with this justification.

I saw an article recently in a source I am not sure is reputable claiming that at least one study in the social sciences has documented a steep decline in empathy among college participants over the last several years. When I have time, I plan to track down the original study and see if there is anything to it. I am inclined to believe this reporting because it fits with my personal observations; however, I know that is risky, and so I plan to be more rigorous than usual in evaluating the claims before I accept them. This is a key aspect of what it means to be a skeptic (i.e., I am going to be extra skeptical when evaluating claims that seem to fit with my preconceived notions).

If we temporarily assume that there really has been a measured decline in empathy that coincides with the degradation of our social media communication, I think that is cause for some concern. A dramatic example of what this lack of empathy looks like happened during a recent conversation in which I asked whether the person doing the name-calling was bothered by the possibility that the target of their colorful insults could be a child. The response, best I can remember it, was something like this:

Fuck no! If some parent is going to let their brat play with the big boys, then that's on them. I'm not holding back for anyone.
So basically, it would be the parents' fault for allowing their child access to social media and not the fault of the person doing the name-calling, making the threats, sharing pornographic images, and whatever else. There's no interest in putting oneself in the shoes of those parents or their child.

I wish this kind of thing was much less common than it is. It looks like many people have convinced themselves that other people no longer matter, that they can (and should) be as cruel as they'd like and that even pausing to consider how someone else might be impacted by one's words is unnecessary. After all, it is their fault if they let my words hurt them. It doesn't matter if the target is a child or someone with mental health problems. It is still their fault.

It also appears that relatively few people are giving any thought to whether their behavior is effective at accomplishing anything more than angering others. Do atheists really think, for example, that calling religious believers "religitards" is going to do anything more than strengthen their anti-atheist beliefs? If these atheists have ever been insulted by religious believers, they should know what effect these insults have. Do liberals think that all the childish insults they direct at Trump supporters are going to change any minds or embolden "their side" in a manner that will achieve political goals? All they are doing is strengthening the resolve of their opponents and confirming the negative stereotypes about them.

I recognize that calling people names on social media may feel good. It seems to have that in common with prayer. But unlike prayer, it would be a mistake to say that it accomplishes nothing. It does damage in a way that prayer doesn't. It fuels polarization, tribalism, and conflict. It creates enemies, and it strengthens the resolve of those who were already enemies. I would not be surprised to find that is also chips away at some of the human characteristics that some of us used to value, characteristics like empathy.

I will conclude by repeating something I think is important:

We can be outspoken and assertive in standing up for ourselves without calling people names, inciting mob violence against them, or pushing them toward suicide. We can be loud and proud activists while retaining our basic humanity and our empathy for others. Being an effective atheist or secular activist does not require us to hate others.