Making Monsters – By Tauriq Moosa

Posted by on September 18, 2012 in Featured, Guest Post, Thoughts | 7 comments

Image: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster via Wikipedia.

Tauriq Moosa writes the Against the New Taboo Blog at Big Think, lives in South Africa and loves coffee. His Twitter handle is @tauriqmoosa.

How often do we watch an online argument quickly descend into name-calling, derision, mockery, or slander? Few communities are free from such responses. The Internet, far from threading together reasonable discussions and ideas instead often weaves a noose around dissent. It’s allowed us to create silos of dogma: where before we would’ve struggled to meet equally passionate people on many subjects, now passion is what we first feel, instead of a wider human connection. We are “so made” that we will search out and maintain connections with those who already agree with us; we will read websites that cater to our comforts; we will have the same talking-points which are essentially crooked stones we need to keep propping up, in order to maintain the silo’s walls; to stay safe, to not look too far out into the uncomfortable reality lurking beyond the warmth of doctrine.

From the light of our comforting fires, we cast everyone else into shadow, into dark, wavering forms – just waiting for us to doze off before flying in to usurp and undermine our hard-won values. So we must stay ever vigilant: any dissent is viewed as rabid opposition instead of genuine inquiry.

But there’s a problem: When we make monsters out of others, it is not only our target that loses her humanity, but ourselves as individuals, too. In order to morph someone into a caricature, into a non-person, into nothing but a Bull’s-eye for the arrows we launch from the moral high-ground, we need to ourselves erode what makes us normal, often pleasant, often good people.

Is it any wonder that anonymity has provided us with this: after all, dressing up in the robes of fake names means preventing anyone from discovering more about us; anonymity often does to the anonymous person what the trolls do to everyone else: remove any outline to illustrate that a whole person exists beneath or beyond. Because no one thinks of us as full persons, why ought we to do so for others? No ill effects, no sense of circumstances: just a name with sounds being emitted proclaiming our values.

To others, too, we strip away any hint of humanity so that they become a target, a monster, removed of any traits of being a person with actual feelings, actual values. Far easier to just grasp his skin and rip it off, than grab his hand to walk down uncomfortable paths. Far easier to shoot offensive bullets atop the silo walls, than to open the gates for newcomers, unless they dress, think, speak exactly like those within.

When we’re more interested in making monsters than making friends, it’s an indication we’ve given up the search for truth. Reality does not care about what’s comforting and voices that hurt us could contain a position we’d not considered, a viewpoint that undermines our convictions because those convictions could be wrong. To assume all outside our camp are just wrong – absolutely – is yet another way we make ourselves into monsters: those who often do the most damage are those who are perfectly certain. Do we wish to at all be aligned with a mindset that has harmed so many for so long? Denying our fallibility on almost everything is to deny a central property of being human. The dissenting view may be cutting but then so is wart removal: but it benefits us to have this ugly part removed, even if it’s been part of us for so long.

No matter how right you (think you) are, if you really value your ideas, you would want them presented as clearly as possible. To immediately caricature, name-call, or slander an interlocutor tells us that you are not interested in conveying these ideas that are meant to be “so important” to you: instead you’re using your defence of an important topic as a stick to beat down other voices.

The rest of us, who share your view, watch you transform what matters to us into a weapon, into an excuse for vitriol, and are dismayed that you’ve done more of a disservice to this important cause than our opponents. We can no longer and should no longer hold it with you.

This doesn’t undermine passion, anger, nor does it mean that name-calling and mockery are never to be used. These are important tools from a varied arsenal to help break barriers that our views become more widespread. Civility does not mean adhering to some ethic of “the privileged”: it means treating ideas first, since it is mainly only people’s ideas we are presented with in discussions.

This is why when encountering a stranger, we should err on the side of treating them with some measure of respect since we have no evidence that they’re evil as opposed to mistaken. Yes, we must identify bad people – but there is more chance of someone arriving from an environment that is itself sexist, misogynist, privileged than that they embody every aspect of those terms. We should be helping each other out of such places, since we will sometimes fall back on bad values and ideas this environment has inculcated into us – and we’ve most of us grown up in sexist societies, in emotions-first-reasons-second environments, in anti-science and anti-intellectual discussions. We are not robots, we are not perfect. It requires reminders to show that here lies a trace of homophobia, here’s a hint of misogyny, and so on. If we care about being better people, we must ourselves be able to have our failings pointed out – like the moral equivalent of a medical check-up.

But monsters can’t do this: either to have their failings pointed out or to be able to point failings out to others. When we’ve created a monster, anything it does, says, thinks is automatically bad, wrong, evil. This undermines reality since we’re no longer trying objectively to see whether, truly, what the person does, thinks, or says is true or good since its coming from him, the monster.

His pointing finger is a threat, not a potential indicator of a failing. And as monsters, by virtue of infallibility, we have indicated our abdication of being human – since a primary property is recognising that, yes, we can be wrong. There are enough monsters and monstrous events in the world without our passion making us into them, too. This doesn’t mean we stifle passion, merely direct it into more effective conduits, because we care more about our ideas and our values and a better world than trying to “one-up” a stranger; than trying to make a monster that needs to be strung up and hated by all.

PS: I realise I’ve been very broad with the use of “we”, “humanity”, “our” actions and “beliefs”, why people are anonymous, etc., but for the sake of brevity, I’ve had to remove nuance.

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7 Comments

  1. Very nice post. There’s little here to disagree with. And therein lies the problem hey.
     
    Want me to start a fight here so the controversy drives traffic to this post? ;)

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    •  @blamer I agree with Blamer.  There is little here to disagree with.  It is incredibly important that seek out views opposite our own.  The minute we think we have “it” all figured out…we are most likely incorrect.  Hearing opposing viewpoints is a key to furthering our own knowledge.  Doing so in a way that creates monsters does not further that end.

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  2. Excellent post. It’s well-written and the points you make are spot on.

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  3. The idea of the internet silo or the echo chamber is tempting, but there’s evidence it’s exaggerated.    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2012/01/online_echo_chambers_a_study_of_250_million_facebook_users_reveals_the_web_isn_t_as_polarized_as_we_thought_.html

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  4. Absolutely right.
     
    And don’t apologise for the broad use of “we”. No-one is exempt from our humanity, and this behaviour is hard wired.
     
    In fact, when things get a little heated, simply editing all the pronouns in a post to “we” can help to bring us back to a truer perspective.
     

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  5. I understand that people tend to do this, so I don’t try to go out of my way to surround myself with likeminded folks – there’s no learning, challenge, or understanding to be found there, only acceptance. That’s fine, and necessary sometimes, but I can’t imagine living life without being challenged to grow.
     
    I think this TED talk was an eye opener for me: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

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    •  @innovati Pariser’s filter bubble presentation is one of the first things I thought about while reading this great essay. Tauriq’s phrase “silos of dogma” is spot on. Internet-scale social networking can certainly reinforce existing prejudices, ideologies, etc.
       
      Tauriq’s point about anonymity is also very insightful. 
       
      “But there’s a problem: When we make monsters out of others, it is not only our target that loses her humanity, but ourselves as individuals, too. In order to morph someone into a caricature, into a non-person, into nothing but a Bull’s-eye for the arrows we launch from the moral high-ground, we need to ourselves erode what makes us normal, often pleasant, often good people.”
       
      For further reading on the destructive power of anonymity, I highly recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s “Program or be Programmed” and Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” The latter makes a very compelling case that anonymity has been a foundation of Internet culture because of its underlying technical architecture, which was coded at a time when both the American political Left and Right were extremely distrustful of government. He takes the reader inside the mindset of the programmers who created the Internet, and shows how their (understandable) bias toward anonymity has led to a dangerously pervasive embrace of anonymity across the Internet today. Rushkoff, for his part, makes “comment online under your own name” one of his Ten Commandments for the digital age. While he recognizes the importance of anonymity for whistle blowers and dissidents, he too argues that anonymity makes healthy social interaction almost impossible.
       
      This is a problem offline, too. Last year, when I went downtown to speak to people at Occupy Vancouver, I met a lot of interesting folks from a variety of backgrounds. We shared opinions, disagreed on some issues, found common ground on many others. But some people felt it was better to show up at Occupy with masks on, or bandannas over their faces. Why would I want to have anything to do with them? Why would I want to associate myself with people who will not even show me their face? And how could they possibly hope to change the world for the better if they prevent potential allies from even seeing their faces, making it impossible to build relationships and gain trust? The “black bloc” kids are a joke, and have no idea what they’re doing. Like online trolls, they DEHUMANIZE themselves by putting their masks on.

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