It’s getting ugly out there. Just go to the comments section of any news story online, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. People are just angry, and it doesn’t take much to start a fight. A lot of times, it seems to come out of nowhere. I just read a tragic story the other day about a New York couple who were killed in a hit-and-run accident on their way to the hospital, to deliver their first child. Scroll down to the comments section, and…. there it is. Somebody blaming Obama for the accident. Then just as quickly, somebody else blaming the Republicans. Then somebody else talking about how it was God’s way of punishing those who don’t follow Him (the couple was Haredi, which is a conservative sect of Judaism). Seriously? Whether it’s the election, gun control, gay marriage, abortion, or the legalization of marijuana, it’s easy to see that we’re as divided a nation as we’ve ever been.
Or are we?
We’ve always been divided. Heck, our country was founded on division. Many early colonists to America were escaping what they saw as religious persecution by the Church of England. They wanted the right to practice Christianity free of interference. They wanted to “purify” the church, and hence, were called Puritans. But once settled in Plymouth, there were those within this sect who believed that the Puritans weren’t separated enough from the Church of England, and they split off to form the Providence Settlement. Eventually, members of the Providence sect became dissatisfied and moved on to form their own group. And so on, and so on…
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is the penultimate example of our inherent separatist nature and also how it can go horribly wrong if unchallenged. In the book, a group of British private school students find themselves marooned on an island with no adult supervision. Initially, they work together to establish some sort of structure in order to survive. But after the initial crisis passes, the boys become restless and begin to develop paranoid fantasies about a mythical “beast” that prowls the island. This beast, and the disagreements about how to best handle the threat, eventually results in the boys splintering into two separate groups. One group, the “Hunters,” sets off to hunt the beast, and they begin to color their faces with charcoal and carry sharp wooden spears. Animosity grows as the boys take sides, and the hunters’ camouflage makes them unrecognizable from the students they had been. Eventually the hunters turn their aggression on the remaining boys, with disastrous consequences.
What Golding touched on in 1954 was a basic human instinct to seek the company of those who think, feel, and behave as we do. This is our collective identity; that which identifies “Us” and distinguishes us from “Them.” Thousands of years ago, this type of distinction was necessary for survival. I had to be able to tell, quickly, if you were part of my tribe (safe), or part of their tribe (threat). Nowadays? Not so much. A collective identity can provide a healthy source of comfort or harmless pride so long as we keep our feet grounded in reality. But when we let our group mentality blind us to individual differences, we can get caught up in all the nasty ism’s: Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, and Bipartisanism. The goal is to recognize this intrinsic drive to separate and then to challenge ourselves not to fall prey to it.
Are we divided as a country? Absolutely. But we’re certainly no more divided now than when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr took (literal) shots at each other over political and personal differences. I think the difference is that in the past, we pretty much stuck with our own. Democrats stuck with Democrats, and Republicans stuck with Republicans. When we did run across one another, we had the good manners not to engage in political discourse, or at least to keep any such discourse civil.
But now, we’re too busy. Job, school, soccer practice, scout meeting… we don’t have time for conversation. And so we tweet. We update our Facebook status. We “like,” re-tweet, and comment. Each of us has his or her own public forum on the internet, and I can easily identify the other Us’s by who likes and who comments on my updates. What happens when the We encounter the Them? Those good manners we used to have in face-to-face discussion have flown the coop. The internet serves the same role as charcoal on a schoolboy’s face; it makes us feel safe and anonymous, but it doesn’t really hide who we are. I will say things to you online that I would never say to your face. What are you going to do, drive over to my house and fight me? Nyah-nyah-nah-nyah-nyah. There’s a term for this, by the way: Trolling. By definition, a Troll is an intentionally inflammatory posting online that is designed to incite anger in others. Consider the story of the Haredi couple above as a great example.
The problem is that most of us are trolling our friends, co-workers, and classmates. That anonymity and distance evaporate when we’re back in face-to-face contact. And the things we say to each other online have serious repercussions in the real world. How many of you have witnessed age-old friendships dissolve overnight as a result of a Facebook fight? It’s not just politics. People argue about the stupidest stuff you can imagine. I’ve seen friendships end over Lebron vs. Kobe, New vs. Old Country Music, and (true story) whether or not Gigli is the worst movie of all time.
Why do we argue about this stuff? Because we’re bored. When are we online? When we’re bored. Arguing with someone is a sure-fire way to get rid of that boredom. Even though we’re not in any real danger, an argument still activates our fight/flight response and gets the brain humming. For some, that stimulation can be intoxicating. And just like with any other form of intoxication, there’s a hangover effect. With trolling, that hangover is a loss of friends. So if you find yourself wanting to take a shot at somebody online, it’s a sign that you’re trying to inject a little excitement into your day. Get up. Out of the chair. Walk the dog. Go for a run. Do some jumping jacks. Exercise will release some of that adrenaline and help you make better decisions. If you’re still ticked off in ten minutes, you’ll have a clearer mindset to say what you want to say without being a Troll. At least we’re not shooting each other over this stuff.
By the way, if Hamilton and Burr had been Facebook users, I imagine the duel would have gone something like this...
t is. I
W. Walker Peacock, Psy.D.