Monday, August 15, 2022

Roxanne Gay, Hammers and Nails

I just discovered this Roxanne Gay essay from last year (NY Times):

When I joined Twitter 14 years ago, I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, attending graduate school. I lived in a town of around 4,000 people, with few Black people or other people of color, not many queer people and not many writers. Online is where I found a community beyond my graduate school peers. I followed and met other emerging writers, many of whom remain my truest friends. I got to share opinions, join in on memes, celebrate people’s personal joys, process the news with others and partake in the collective effervescence of watching awards shows with thousands of strangers.

Something fundamental has changed since then. I don’t enjoy most social media anymore. I’ve felt this way for a while, but I’m loath to admit it.

Increasingly, I’ve felt that online engagement is fueled by the hopelessness many people feel when we consider the state of the world and the challenges we deal with in our day-to-day lives. Online spaces offer the hopeful fiction of a tangible cause and effect — an injustice answered by an immediate consequence. On Twitter, we can wield a small measure of power, avenge wrongs, punish villains, exalt the pure of heart.

In our quest for this simulacrum of justice, however, we have lost all sense of proportion and scale. We hold in equal contempt a war criminal and a fiction writer who too transparently borrows details from someone else’s life. It’s hard to calibrate how we engage or argue. . . .

My online following came slowly, and then all at once. For years, I had a couple hundred followers. Those numbers slowly inched up to a couple thousand. Then I wrote a couple of books, and blinked, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were seeing my tweets. Most of them appreciate my work, though they may disagree with my opinions. Some just hate me, as is their right, and they follow me to scavenge for evidence to support or intensify their enmity. Then there are those who harass me for all kinds of reasons — some aspect of my identity or my work or my presence in the world troubles their emotional waters.

After a while, the lines blur, and it’s not at all clear what friend or foe look like, or how we as humans should interact in this place. After being on the receiving end of enough aggression, everything starts to feel like an attack. Your skin thins until you have no defenses left. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish good-faith criticism from pettiness or cruelty. It becomes harder to disinvest from pointless arguments that have nothing at all to do with you. An experience that was once charming and fun becomes stressful and largely unpleasant. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. We have all become hammers in search of nails.

I don't participate in those parts of the internet; I left Facebook to get away from angry political ranting and just use Twitter to follow war news. But I think there is something to Gay's argument. I agree that the horrible stuff that happens online is in expression, an emergence, a breaking out of the boiling awfulness that people carry inside them. Some people think this is because of something uniquely bad about our own time, but of course that is not so. Online violence feels shocking mainly because in most ways our society has become so polite. I have read a lot of oral history from the early 20th century and one thing that sometimes amazes me is the level of violence: most parents beat their children, kids fought each other all the time – I remember one man saying that he got into fist fights every day coming home from school – grown men and some women also got into regular fights. Labor disputes almost led to some level of violence. In many times and places riots have been regular events, and often the main limit on the power of the government to collect taxes and enforce laws has been the violent resistance of the people. (See here on all the kinds of violence in Britain around 1800.)

But although we behave much more politely in person, we feel the same things as our ancestors. Back then, boys consumed with frustration got into fist fights; now they become online trolls. It is, morally speaking, the same act, the same surrender to what is base.

We live in a different world from out ancestors, but have the same bodies and the same brains. We face the same struggles: to be polite despite our anger, to keep our dignity in the face of frustration and failure. What to do with our monstrous feelings has long been a central concern of ethics; what to do after they burst forth a central social problem. Stoicism is one sort of response. Remember the famous words of Marcus Aurelius:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness.

I have tried to take that as my watch word: not to be implicated in ugliness. Sometimes, I guess, the only response to a punch is to punch back. But I find that giving vent to anger only breeds more anger, spiraling toward who knows what. Better to go in some other direction.

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