Was reading an article about the recent suicide of a celebrity, and the article was followed by many comments from readers, some of which were thoughtful, many of which were not. A few of us shared some ideas on why some people seem drawn to make grotesque, hurtful, and cruel comments in an online environment. Below was my contribution to the discussion, which I realized would probably be appropriate for this blog. I'm still thinking through this phenomenon of online cruelty for no apparent purpose and how to respond to it. Mostly, I just try to avoid reading comments sections in general. When I do read comments, I try to keep the following ideas in mind (emphasis on *try*; I often fail). If any of you have thoughts about the best way to engage/think about such things, I'd love to hear what you have to say as well.
Anyway, FWIW, here it is:
On the issue of the tone of many of the comments, it's true we don't put a collective value on empathy, intelligence, and just basic politeness (e.g., we downgrade politeness as a virtue these days because it is somehow antithetical to being "real").
That said, when I encounter these sorts of comments, I try to remind myself of a few things. One, people make these comments for reasons that are all about them, not about anyone or anything else. It's a chance to offload anxieties, frustrations, pain, etc. A second, related, point is that age-old observation that people treat others the way they treat themselves. No matter how smug and self-satisfied they might try to come across, people who are cruel and insensitive are people who treat themselves that way as well (often unconsciously).
None of this excuses the behavior, but it might explain what is otherwise utterly insipid, idiotic behavior. It speaks to an underlying degree of pain in a society in which we feel disconnected. And it also helps me move from a place where I feel a need to skewer these people or explain to them exactly how stupid they are being to simply acknowledging that these people have been damaged and hurt on a profound level themselves, and even more tragically, they don't know how to heal. Instead, they just try to offload the pain and frustration in an attempt to purge it from themselves. It never works. Let's hope they can learn that.