Whatever our religious, political, or leisurely persuasions are, it is common to encounter mean-spiritedness on social media, in discussion forums, and other regions of the Internet. This is not to say that there aren’t any belligerent encounters offline, or that public discourse was always polite—the gleeful satires of ancient Greece and the angry polemics of Roman essayists come to mind. However, we must not pretend that everything deserves equal consideration. The idea of finding common ground or compromising simply to avoid disagreement on big issues is also not an ideal path, as it tends to muddle compromise with harmony.
It is also true that the phenomenon of “trolling”—making deliberate insults and provocative statements to get a negative reaction, while masking such statements and insults as sincerely held beliefs—has been around for a long time. It has been a phenomenon ever since it was possible to hide behind an anonymous letter or computer screen and get away with insulting others without social censure and repercussions.
Nevertheless, this does not quite explain why there is so much malice in online discourse today, or why so many get a rush from pushing people’s buttons. As the Internet has become more central in our everyday lives, confrontational comments on discussion forums have become more and more common. Trolls send targeted insults and threats to (easy targets?) vulnerable people, celebrities, and public figures. Entire websites pushing sexist or racist thinking popped up, reveling in controversy and attention.
One explanation is that some people really do believe in the opinions they voice. In that case, the best response is to correct their notions and exhibit the emotional intelligence (and self-care) to know when to let go, regardless of whether such corrections are accepted. People coming from a troubled place might also enjoy posting mean-spirited online comments, whether or not they take extremist or violent ideology seriously. We should take their sense of social isolation and alienation seriously. For various reasons, some people have an impoverished view of others’ subjectivity and needs, especially when they are in a troubled place themselves and might be able to interact with them through messages and public writing but do no know them personally.
Yet this is not an excuse to waive moral responsibility for anti-social behavior. Indeed, a third possibility is that some people hurt other’s feelings simply to demonstrate feelings can be hurt and sentiments can be offended. The ability to raise others’ hackles intentionally is somehow a mark of imagined intellectual superiority, in contrast to the so-called “snowflakes.”
This is not simply a repudiation of political correctness, but an anti-social idea of online conversation and interaction: castigating, ridiculing, and insulting others become not unskillful acts done in moments of personal weakness, but a morally distorted vocation.
Here we make no judgment on the causes that drive misanthropic attitudes. The conditions are manifold and commentators have blamed all kinds of trends: digital alienation, postmodernism, secularism, extremist thinking, a media centered on celebrity and selfishness . . . the list goes on and on. While Buddhist psychology teaches that for every context there is a cause, it is not easy to identify them. Experts have already spilled much ink exploring the experiences and mindsets that lead to misanthropy or anti-social behavior online.
Yet this online free-for-all is the new frontier of Right Speech and the exercise of compassion and wisdom. While there are major questions about implications of censorship of ideas or discourse in the hands of a small group of tech magnates, the ethical question of how the Internet maximizes Right Speech at a technological, algorithmic level remains. There is also the need to keep sight of the subjectivity of the insulter, even if they have lost sight of ours. People lash out because of something that has happened, perhaps deep in the past. We may never know what that was. As our columnist Shveitta Sharma has argued, “A person in pain is capable of sharing only pain. The trolls also need our empathy, as they are truly hurting. They have no way of expressing their pain except through making others experience the same pain. The next time you encounter a nasty comment, know that it was written by someone in extreme pain; send them love and compassion in return.”
It can be jarring to encounter the nastiness of some netizens. However, the truth is that the Internet needs us to be netizens of noble conduct, to be arya in the way the Buddha meant—in ethical mindfulness and spiritual insight. Our personal example is often the only chance we have to help others see that they can break free from the negative cycle of being hurt and hurting others.