Hurting People While Being Self-Righteous

Obviously people have many desires, and food and shelter, etc., I’m not disputing. But I want to talk about another desire, a life goal, one we don’t bring up very often. Well, I bring it up all the time, but I admit this is idiosyncratic.

I’m just going to come out and say it, and then I’ll backpedal a little after.

Our goal is to hurt other people while being self righteous about it.

I’ve been told this is a cynical take on humanity, but it doesn’t mean that we’re monsters. We clearly feel powerless, and so we go seeking tiny places where we can exercise little bits of power. It just turns out that hurting people is the easiest way to demonstrate power. There are other ways, of course, but they’re more subtle and less sure, so we tend to go for hurting people when we can. When you’re stomping on someone’s face, it’s hard to imagine that you’re powerless.

But going around hurting people makes you a bad person. How can we get what we desire without feeling bad about ourselves? The solution that we collectively seem to have come up with is to make sure we pass off all injuries we inflict as virtuous injuries. What is best in life, Conan? To crush your enemies in such a way that the very act of crushing them makes you feel like a better person.

Also, not just your enemies, but your friends etc.

This isn’t anything new. In the 1980s, for example, America decided to pretend it believed in a Satanic conspiracy just so it could have the opportunity to throw its neighbors in jail for no reason. But the internet has allowed us unprecedented opportunities to hurt strangers, and unprecedented opportunities to signal our virtue while doing it.

I am here to tell you that if you start looking at online behavior as a series of gambits to hurt others while being self-righteous, everything makes a lot more sense! So much that seems inexplicable is suddenly clear.


I don’t think this was the image in question

Why did Steven Universe fans try to persuade a young woman to commit suicide? They say it’s because she drew a pony in Native American garb, but that doesn’t make much sense. Maybe they have another motive…

Why did people make a comet scientist cry as he groveled before them?  They say it’s because he wore a Liefeld-y T-shirt, but that doesn’t make much sense. Maybe they have another motive…

Why do people keep sending death threats to Zoe Quinn? They say it’s because she cheated on a guy they’ve never met, but actually it’s about ethics in gaming journalism. Ha ha, no of course it’s not. Maybe they have another motive…

Look, any idiot could spend all day digging up Justine Saccos and offensive Halloween costumes and Colleen McCullough’s obituaries and the twitterstorms that followed. Of course, it’s possible that any one of these is a case of virtuous citizens standing strong and speaking truth to power. Maybe they even did some good, raising awareness, for example, of the troubling lack of suicides among unpopular fan artists.

When Adria Richards stirred up an internet mob against two guys for making juvenile jokes, how did she justify it? “Yesterday the future of programming was on the line [she blogged] and I made myself heard.” See? When she hurts strangers, she’s a hero! (Later someone decided to get her fired, self-righteously, because it never stops). But do you believe the future of programming was actually on the line? Or do you believe that the frisson Richards experienced from shaming two confused-looking doofs was made all the sweeter by pretending that she had saved the future, like Kyle Reese?

The internet has made me suspicious of these self-styled heroes, but it’s important to note that sometimes we, the self-righteous, really do go after bad people. Everybody knows about the Racists Getting Fired tumblr (I won’t link to them because they’re scary), and it might even sound like a good idea, if you don’t think about it too much. If you don’t think about it too much you can persuade yourself that people with bad opinions do not deserve…jobs? And that vigilante mobs should make sure they don’t have them? Actually, I think this is probably a bad idea (and not just because like all vigilante actions it is subject to abuse), but we’re not talking about whether hurting people is a good idea. We’re here to talk about the delight we get in hurting people. “Racist getting fired is such a beautiful sight to see, this is so amazing I’m in tears” is a typical comment on the tumblr when the mob successfully claims another victim. I suppose you could interpret that as meaning “I am so persuaded my cause is just that I am joyful in bringing so much good into the world.” But that’s not how I read it. I read it as schadenfreude for the unashamed. I read it as a sigh of relief that we can still convince ourselves that the targets of our righteous wrath are bringing it on themselves.

xxoffendedMy challenge to you is to try reading the internet for a few days with this in mind, that everything you read is an attempt to exercise power and harm while cloaking the writer in the armor of righteousness. I guarantee you, things will make a lot more sense. Every blog post that is a lecture about why you should be lectured more later will make more sense. Every thinkpiece about why only certain people should be allowed to have opinions, which people to be determined by the blogger, will make more sense.

And it’s not just the most toxic parts of the internet that will snap into focus. Here’s one quick example, a viral parenting article about a mom who stands up for her daughter against the sexist world. What a good mom! you probably thought as you read it. And I’m not saying that reading is false. But now we can see another reading. This writer has created a justification for micromanaging the behavior of everyone around her. She has managed to paint things so that she is a better person because she demands the library throw out any books that do not serve her own agenda. She may be right; but I am also right.

This is the internet at its most benign, a writer standing, arms crossed like a petulant child, insisting “I’m in charge here!” But we are always one step away from the pitchforks and torches.

I insist you read things with my thesis in mind. I AM IN CHARGE HERE!

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