Something horrible happened in South Carolina the other day. Someone walked into a church, sat down and listened to a bible study for a half hour, then pulled out a gun and murdered 9 people. Two thoughts keep rolling around in my head. One, it makes me sick that there’s so much evil in the world. We like to sometimes pretend that it’s not there, but evil has a way of making itself known in the worst possible ways. The second thought is much simpler, much more basic. WTF?
In trying to answer that question, I’m going to work out that confusion into something you can hopefully learn about hate.
I work in special education. Starting in 2009, I noticed a disturbing trend of increasing violence. There had always been a certain amount of property destruction and occasional arguments boiling over into fisticuffs, but starting that year, things started getting real. Some examples? I had my car door dented with an angry Nike, size 12. A kid blasted his fist through a window during a fight, severing an artery in his forearm and leaving a trail of blood running down the street that still stains the sidewalk like a drip painting. Another student threw a coffee pot at another student in the midst of an argument. Hot coffee gave a kid second degree burns while I had a cut on my leg from exploding glass.
This is just anecdotal data, but taking a look at the big picture, there is a disturbing rise in brutal, seemingly random acts of violence. Charleston. Ferguson. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. On and on it goes. What accounted for this rise? I have a theory.
Ever since the dawn of the comments section, the internet has been a cesspool of negativity and conversations that busily degrade into the vilest exchanges of racism, bigotry and bullying. It’s despicable.
It’s no coincidence that just when I started to see a rise in violence at work, people also started having the internet on hand at all times via cellphones. Being connected at all times is a good thing in theory, but perhaps only in theory.
The true irony of the internet age is that it’s designed as a tool of connection. We implement it as such because we are creatures of connection. We need it. We crave it. At its best, the internet facilitates connection in real and tangible ways that demonstrate the real and true power of collaboration. At its worst, the negativity grabs hold of people and turns them into monsters.
There is a very real, very tangible disconnect that the internet cannot get around. We are designed as social beings, and across the digital span, we can only share ideas through our words. The old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” might have been true in the past, but in a forum where we only have words to work with, words can do plenty of damage.
Face to face, a rude comment would get a hurt look. Empathy kicks in and at least makes you feel slightly off for saying what you just said. The digital void has a weird way of masking empathy, though. It’s easy to be rude to someone when they can’t see their face because those indicators you are being rude aren’t so easy to detect through a static profile pic.
That’s what happens, Blue. That void makes it easy to disconnect, and when it does, hate becomes so much easier than love.
It doesn’t help that media outlets, in their persistent pursuit of clicks, routinely utilize negativity and sow discord in order to gain attention. It works, unfortunately, and should it be any surprise that if the media is the model for how to generate discussion then social media will soon follow?
I don’t know if what happened in Charleston had anything to do with this. I don’t know if the deranged young man who murdered 9 people in cold blood was ever cyber bullied, but based on the fact that this was a hate crime, I’m guessing he experienced some hate come his way at some earlier juncture.
All I know is that it’s far easier to passively hate than to actively love.
That does not mean it is better.