British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins -- he of "The Selfish Gene" Fame -- was pondering recently on Twitter: “Curious about Twitter nastiness. In conversation, we say 'I don’t agree because...' On Twitter, 'you vile piece of shit' replaces 'because...' Why? Has it escalated like loudness of talk in crowded room? Starts quiet but escalates till all yell to be heard. Nastier than thou?”
Dawkin’s hunch, which is fairly self-explanatory, makes sense. It aligns with my own suspicion that in a world of hyperbolic noise, we are increasingly becoming desensitized to “normal” and drawn to messaging that is “jagged” and polarized enough to go viral.
But Dawkin’s tweet prompted speculation on some other possible hypotheses, which he summarized in a follow-up tweet: “Thanks for interesting responses. Many favour 'road rage' theory, a version of the 'anonymity protects cowards' theory. Some support my 'Nastier than thou' escalation theory, perhaps reinforced by (I hadn’t thought of this) hunger for Likes. But who likes nastiness & why?”
There is a third possibility that also emerged, a tribal “us” vs “them” chant where the tweets are a way for tweeters to virtue signal to their tribe and, in the process, self-identify their position in the strongest possible terms.
At the end of the day, all these theories point out an interesting tipping point in social discourse: We are now doing it with some physical distance between participants, and we are doing it for an audience. Both of these factors can lead to social behaviors that are new for us.
Let’s begin with the question of distance. Our most noble instincts were built on the foundation of proximity. Empathy and caring began as a tribal exercise. We came prewired with a hierarchy of humanity -- a ranking of whom we care most about.
At the top are those we share the most DNA with. Next come those we share our time and physical space with. One rung down are those that look most like ourselves. Everybody else falls somewhere under that.
We are not locked into this hierarchy, but we have to understand that it is the hair-triggered reaction that naturally fires before our brain gets a chance to mindfully ponder what an appropriate behavior might be. Much as this may not be the “woke” thing to admit, we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging it.
That brings us to the “audience” part of the new normal: We now broadcast our beliefs to our social network. Much of what we do online is done for the benefit of our audience. And when we become “de-individualized” as part of a group, our behavior changes. We rely less on our individual belief of what is right or wrong and more on what we believe the social norms of the group define as acceptable. We are bonding with our tribe and seeking acceptance.
If you combine both these factors, you have an environment where it is not only okay to be nasty to someone, it’s expected and encouraged. We say and do things to people that would be abhorrent to us if we were face-to-face with them. All three of Dawkin’s proposed explanations can and do arise.
The most discouraging part is that this is a Pandora’s box now open. There is no closing it again. This is the new normal, the new standard for discourse and debate. Behavior stripped of any innate instinct for face-to-face civility is setting the stage for elections, governance, public debate and ideological alignment. It is defining our laws, our media and our culture. It is now part of our society.
I don’t know where it will lead. I only know there is no turning back.