It's a new year, and I'm trying to take a more generous view of things I'm tempted to dismiss. This year's resolution — less easy contempt, more humane curiosity — is an attempt to resist an increasingly powerful tendency of our culture.
Contempt is the technologically assisted path of least resistance available to us, the deep-grooved downhill route to 21st-century normalcy. We think — and we're told over and over in ads that try to glorify going through life alone with your nose to a screen — that electronic connection brings the world closer, but it often has the opposite effect. The prodigious reach we enjoy courtesy of laptop, phone, tablet and the like may seem to bring everything within our grasp, but often at the cost of pushing our fellow human beings further away. The more we're seduced by the false sense of intimacy with others we get when we reduce life to information on a screen, the easier it is to dismiss what all these strangers do — who they are — as simple to understand and unworthy of respect.
Exhibit A is the reader comments posted after online news stories. They prove over and over that shouting anonymously from a virtual crowd frees people to play a character unworthy of them, a stunted online persona that indulges their laziest, nastiest impulses. The point of the exercise seems to be to heap as much contempt as you can on the people the story's about, the author of the story, other posters, the pigeon-holed classes of humans they all represent, anyone and everything within electronic range. This is a stupid story about stupid people. LMAO. Liberals suck. No, conservatives suck. ROTFL. Total pwnage!
I will confess that I take breaks, during my workdays in front of a computer, by reading the reader comments posted after stories on Yahoo!. Mean, foolish, often subliterate, they may well be the closest thing to a lowest common denominator of our culture.
Those comments are never more dispiriting and infuriating — and therefore never more interesting — than when a child has been the victim of a violent crime. Many commenters dwell on the suffering that the perpetrator should endure: he should be shot, burned, flayed and so on. You start to get the feeling that outrage and sympathy for the victim are an excuse to air fantasies better left suppressed.
Other posters confidently blame the parents, the police, the media, black people, white people, immigrants, rednecks, the usual suspects — all idiots, all beneath contempt. Even the comments that express sympathy for the family seem rote and insincere in this setting, more like mini-infomercials for one religious tradition or another. The poster who says that the child is an angel who has flown up to heaven is just as detached from that child's humanity as the one who blames the president or his critics for her death.
Most abject of all are the bouts of naked panic posted by people who apparently confuse "Criminal Minds" with the news. Here's some of a comment on a story about the murder of a 7-year-old girl in Georgia: "and this is exactly why i never never ever let my 8 year old even go out back in our yard alone. i hold her hand everywhere we go ... i won't even let her lag behind me when we walk right out in public on the sidewalk with no other person in sight. you just don't know who could swoop in and take ur kid ... it would be nice if it were still like it was for beaver cleaver and we could let our kids all roam free like cattle or something, but you simply can not do that these days and i don't know how it is ppl ignore that. how are other parents NOT as paranoid as i am, LOL!"
LOL.Nobody's as paralyzed by convention as this poster appears to be, so the real question is: Why would someone want to play a character this clueless online? Reading such comments is like watching "The Jerry Springer Show." The question isn't, How can people sink so low? It's really, Why do people like to watch other people pretend to sink so low? Which leads to the question I should really be asking myself: Why do I even read the comments?
The answer, I think, is that I'm after what I'm usually after: a glimpse of what people are up to out there, what they're thinking, how they make sense of their lives using the equipment ready at hand. What I try to remember, when I'm tempted to recoil from what I find, is that the dimwitted, enraged, panicked, hugely contemptuous characters people play online are ritual roles. They play such fearful, angry clowns because the world makes them genuinely afraid and angry. Moral reason, analytical rigor, and all the other human qualities I admire are still back there somewhere, behind the flat electronic facade of online roleplaying. It's good to remember that because, for better or worse, these seemingly opaque online comments are one way that we express ourselves in the 21st century.
The challenge is to resist the temptation to dismiss all this online expression as worthy of nothing but contempt.
Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.