In 1981, the German pop group Kraftwerk released the album Computer World in which the song “Computer Love” featured prominently. A lonely, haunting, wistful and solitary melody pervades the song, underscoring the somewhat PTSD lyrics:
Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous
They speak to the anomie, which Random House defines as “a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people,” with Greek and French origins as if tracing the path of democracy, of the modern time. People are isolated because there is no longer something shared in which we participate.
In former times, we had culture and under its wing, religion. Certain festivals marked the passage of the year, rites delineated the progress of lives, and regular events joined people together. At least there was one place where everyone met, at church, and communication was not so wordy because people shared similar points of reference, intent, and methods.
What defines the modern society is democracy, which starts — like a tear in silk — as the simple idea of one person, one vote. This expands because it needs to justify itself, both explaining how such an obviously silly idea could work, and to argue that it is good. Anyone with moderate experience knows that most people have trouble making decisions in the simpler parts of their lives, and that in groups, even smart people start to behave like a panicked flock. The mathematics of a crowd favors the ideas that transmit clearly and reflect a social safety, meaning that they offend No One, over complex ideas including those that challenge the status quo or its conventions.
Democracy justifies itself by arguing that these one-person-one-vote individuals are in fact each equally capable of making decisions. This was the basis of modern democracy which emerged from The Enlightenment™. As time goes on and it becomes clear that for many individuals, their “equal” decisions end in unequal or outright bad results, the hue and cry rises for a welfare state. Call it socialism, or socialism lite, the welfare state separates people from the consequences of their decision, much like voting in a herd bloc absolves every individual voter of accountability.
As part of this justification, all opinions must become personal. If you hold an idea, and it contradicts what someone else believes, that pokes through the curtain of justification that makes them seem equal. Like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the inherent and omnipresent inequality of people must be hidden, and to reveal the Emperor’s lack of clothing is to, in their view, assault them personally. An attack on an idea is perceived as an attack on that person and, since equality works by declaring all opinions are equally valid, it is seen as an attack on the validity of that person. Since “validity” is the insincere term we use to mean socially approval, or accepted into the peer group, invalidating them by accident functions as a sort of exile, and they respond by trying to destroy the critic (and they never, ever address the validity of his points).
This leads me to some observations on blogging. I will admit that this is a field in which I can never succeed because I lack the personal flair for drama and simplification that makes a popular blogger able to project a vivid world that is nonetheless easy because it has been distilled to a few elements. People do not like bloggers for their great variety of opinions but the lack of it: popular bloggers take a complex world, boil it down to a few tangible and appealing things, and then generate personal drama that makes repetition seem novel and unique. This dramaticism carries a high cost: early bloggers like Justin Hall and Jorn Barger both went through tough times, struggling both with collapsing lives and personal instability, as a result of their time in the spotlight. Perhaps converting a personal life into a public tableau — like reality television or what a stripper does on stage — is not the best idea after all.
In my view, the problem lies in the conversion of ideas into personal events. Much as democracy makes all ideas into personal validations and thus personal attacks when contradicted, making a personal life into a public spectacle means that failure to approve of that spectacle is seen as a personal attack, when really it is a criticism of the idea suggested by that personal drama. In this way, bloggers serve the democratic agenda of removing any focus on the bigger picture and shoehorning each of us into small atomized and isolated worlds where we do not affect each other, and thus nothing is ever decided beyond the realm of the personal where it does not threaten the power structure. Democracy neuters people by convincing them to take important ideas and make them into hobbies, collages, or personal rants, which removes those ideas from the public space. This means that the Narrative can “keep on keepin’ on” and is safe from criticism, mostly because if you criticize it, millions of people who feel suddenly invalidated will turn on you like a crowd of attacking monkeys.
And yet, the counter-attack never solves the nagging doubt. Our society exists as a public Narrative which is designed to conceal reality, but details keep peeking through the faÃ§ade and illuminating how little that narrative actually describes reality. When we say all people are equal, and then someone obviously more equal or radically less equal staggers across the stage, the camera averts its eye because that event has debunked the leading narrative. Similarly when someone points out that an idea is foolish, and this provokes ruffled feathers and angry counter-attacks, no one feels really complete about the issue. The bogeyman has been shouted down, the scapegoat banished, the talismans erected and the cargo cult prayers uttered, but the situation still feels unstable.
We can see this in progress with the recent train wreck between mommyblogger Elizabeth Harrell and her associated critics. She lives her life as if in a glass cube, she assures us, but she has a carefully-crafted Narrative of her own which only selectively admits the parts of her world that support her vision of herself. This became revealed when her marriage collapsed, her career took a dive and she moved to New York to marry a Mr. Nathoo and re-start herself. The positive, pro-self propaganda never stopped. Then trolls attacked, but they were attacking her as a means to attack the ideas that justified her decisions, because they saw those ideas as undermining society.
She fired back:
But since the divorce it’s turned into a different kind of trolling. It’s been far more personal. These trolls have an agenda. Just this weekend it happened again.
The general consensus among most of us bloggers is, “Ignore it. Don’t feed the trolls.” And that’s what I’ve done. This past year I’ve hit the delete button on all those “anonymous” comments coming from IP addresses in Houston (although don’t they know by now there’s no such thing as anonymity on the internet). Not only is what they say hateful, it’s misguided and misinformed, they don’t know me. They’re people operating off hearsay, a mob-bullying flying-monkey mentality, with an excessive amount of time to navel gaze, and some deep personal anger that would drive them to take the time to read the blog of someone they dislike for the simple joy of leaving jagged barbs behind their wake.
As an aside these jagged barbed comments usually contain terrible grammar. This always makes me smile.
Her response is 100% bog-standard mainstream media response to trolls, itself part of the Narrative: “Those are just dissatisfied people, losers if you will. They are angry because their life is not as refulgent with interest as yours. If they were happier, they would not post such things.”
Like all great lies this one has a grain of truth: on the internet, there are many angry people. Their lives seem to be miserable and consist of Ramen in the basement and dingy, sweaty pornography from distant shores. They will tear down anyone who they see is happy or successful, much like the crowds during the French Revolution executed aristocrats and Bolsheviks shot intellectuals over open mass graves. But it is too convenient to invalidate all of their criticism on this basis, or insist they are all the same type. Even more, no individual is uniform in behavior, so someone who is lashing out angrily in one moment may be saving orphans or designing nuclear reactors in another.
The problem here is that the streams are crossed: the idea that it is a sane lifestyle to abandon a marriage, move across the country to marry a man from a different background, religion and heritage and then self-praise about it is confused with the person who has done this. In the classic style of democracy, the personal becomes the political. That functions to make the political “off limits” to criticism.
This post does not exist to attack Elizabeth Harrell. Her struggles, and their origins in modern neurosis, will be familiar to readers here, who will be sympathetic. This is a message to the trolls: you are doing it wrong.
Attack the ideas, not the person.
An assault on the person plays into the Narrative by appearing to be a classic Simian behavior in which one monkey grows resentful of the other, and uses seemingly unrelated criticism to achieve social dominance over that other monkey. The assault also nicely fits into the backscatter of angry people furiously typing attacks on one another through the internet. It misses the point. Hit the ideas, and the point is made.
For example, our mystery troll could have typed the following:
This may seem old-fashioned, but in my experience, human nature has not changed one whit over the years. In fact, people are making the same mistakes in the same ways they did several thousand years ago, but now we have better cover-ups. Specifically people like to claim that their errors are victories, and then attack anyone who criticizes the thought process which led to the error as an attack on the person himself or herself.
It seems to me that if a marriage fails, it is because one or both people decided to make a bigger commitment to themselves than the marriage. It also seems to me that if you marry outside of your heritage, you have opted for an easier solution because you lack the confidence to find someone on your level. It also seems to me that children should not be made into reality television, personal lives should stay offline or at least separate from ideas so the person does not get touchy at criticism, and that we should be able to discuss these topics without someone being personally “offended” that I and others did not accept their bad behavior as equal and validate it with our approval.
Yes, no one will read through all that; I already said I am a failure at blogging, which apparently consists of Very. Simple. Sentences that feature a lot of huff and puff but focus on minimal concepts. I specialize in analysis, and hope to build wisdom, instead of trying to be interesting at the cost of all else, which is what most successful bloggers do. Where bloggers take complex ideas and reduce them to simple images, I pull apart simple images, reveal the complexity of the ideas behind it and then try to associate it with a number of core concepts necessary for human survival. The advantage of my approach is that it is not personal, nor does it fit within the Narrative and thus validate that narrative. While it will never be popular, is harder to read, and less spicy as a cognitive experience, it may provide a basis for understanding human civilization and how to live it.
But in a time of trolls, and when even the people counter-attacking the trolls use the same techniques as the trolls (the link is from Harrell’s post), it is important we regain basic civility. The personal is not the political; the political is the political, and if that overlaps with the personal, perhaps the personal should take advantage of that knowledge and quit hiding its head in the sand. Even more, just like it is cuck to attack a racial group when you want to attack diversity, and ultra-cuck to scapegoat an ethnic group when the real villain is liberal democracy, it is foolish to troll by attacking the person. Attack the ideas and win the debate, because not only is that the sensible behavior, but it leaves the personal-is-political types no option left but to angrily smash keyboards in return, appearing to most as merely discontented trolls and not intelligent, relevant social critics.