playing chess with Schadenfreudians

playing chess with Schadenfreudians

San Francisco, California
October 30, 2012
227 days until the Arctic Circle journey

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

There’s an expression about futility that says “one shouldn’t play chess with pigeons”. The idea is that it’s an exercise in folly to attempt a refined, strategic interaction with an opponent who will simply scatter the pieces and shit on the board. But what about when you’re not attempting chess, but just reading the news, or looking for a used couch on Craigslist, or watching cute animal videos on Youtube?

Lately, the internet makes me feel like I am playing Halo with a bunch of 12-year-olds (which I’ve been actually doing lately). Only the random 12-year-olds I end up playing video games with are in general, kinder, gentler folk than those who seem to be posting relentlessly, fervently, and with greater and greater overt nastiness, disguised as “comments” on the internetz. And not just on sites where it might be expected.

Take the following examples of “commentary” from a very popular tabloid in the United Kingdom, on an article about recent devastation from hurricane Sandy.

“Of course nobody will correlate this storm with the recent antichristian blaspheming ‘art shows’ held in New York City.”
Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz, Tijuana, 30/10/2012


“GOD decides it’s time for a wake up call to New Yorkers….”
Beachboy, Penang, 29/10/2012 21:27

Now consider another “response” posted by Richard Dawkins, considered by many to be a champion of rationality, and whose website, Foundation for Reason and Science, says its mission is to “support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering”:

“Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

Sadly, Dawkins’ response is as intolerant as the commentary he would deem superstitious in the first two quotes. Mudslinging is not new, but it does feel as if participating in it has lost its context of shame. “Stooping low,” seems to have become status quo. When I was growing up, there was a common idea(l) that showing tolerance was a measure of good character, and that there was more shame in being egged on to retaliation than in a reflexive act of self-defense, as exercising self-control and tact takes both a certain level of discipline, and encourages the growth of empathy.

Of course, being a “cycle-minded” person, I always hold in suspicion the idea that any human behavior is “new.” But also being “cycle-minded,” I wonder if people do really seem to be delighting in one another’s pain more than they did, say 50 years ago, and if it has become more culturally acceptable, even amusing, to spew vitriol at strangers?

I want to believe, that like all behavior, there is some influence from nature, and some influence from nurture. I don’t think that there is less native empathy in the world, but I do think that there is less reinforcement out there to learn and model it. Why has this changed? I don’t think there is a simple answer, but I can point to some contributing factors:

-A growing loss of the idea of boundaries, and shared space: for example, I regularly enter the women’s bathroom at the university where I work, and hear a person talking on the phone while taking a dump in the stall next to me. Judging by the conversation (to which I am forced to listen), it is not an emergency being discussed.

-When I was in sixth grade, the bullies had a territory– school. Sometimes, they would lay in wait after school, which was a whole other barrel of joy, but at least when I went home, they weren’t waiting for me on my facebook page, or texting me, or taking videos of me without my knowledge and sending them around school.

-Work used to be where you worked. Home was where you homed. Now the bus is work and vacation is work and home is also work.

-Answering the phone was not an obligation. You could even take it off the hook. Turning the phone off was, until the last decade or so, not an exercise in self-control.

These are all issues of boundaries. Personal boundaries, and social boundaries. Not all boundaries are bad: take levies for example, or the earth’s atmosphere, or skin. Without them, there would a not-so-fun result.

We seem to be living the consequences of too much loss of social boundaries. But why is it that the nastiness emerges, the unthinkingness? Partly because it’s easy to be mean. It takes very little effort to destroy. Lashing out is rudimentary.

Another reason? I think because in our online interactions, we are are less “real” to one another. I once had a person cut me off in their car and then flip me the bird, just to let me know that not only did they not care they almost caused an accident, but they reveled in it. It turned out that this same driver was on their way to the grocery store where I was headed. Having forgotten me completely, they didn’t notice that I parked nearby and was not far behind them in the store. Later, standing in line at the checkout, this same person (still not recognizing me), saw that I had only a few items to buy, while they had a cart full, so she offered to let me go ahead of her in line. Not all people who give in to their lowest urges are like that all the time: it’s behavior of opportunity and context. When you are out driving, a person in another car is not really another person– they are another car. Another person on the internet, behind a blog, or on a message board, is not really a person– they are a blogger, or “some jerk.” They are not a person, but an idea we “interact” with. At least, this is the way we are teaching ourselves to think.

In a strange sense, the loss of boundaries that wireless, bodiless communication creates, also tends to blur what makes us real to one another: facial expressions, context, tone, body language– the deeper emotions that arise from physical cues that drive our behavior, like affection, protectiveness, patience, courtesy, and sympathy.

I’m hoping that we’re in an awkward stage in adapting to our breathtaking new inventions. I’m hoping that eventually, an equilibrium will be reached, where we keep the perks and break the bad habits. The only problem I see is that someone needs to model this behavior. Who is going to raise the new people with the idea that stooping to someone else’s inconsiderate level is, in fact, stooping? Who is going to teach all these brand new people that the game of becoming a better human is worth playing well and fairly, rather than scattering the pieces with our gorgeous wings and unthinkingly shitting on each other?