This, my friends, is a question that all of us have surely pondered. When I say “other people” I don’t mean you, of course, esteemed reader. I know that all of us here today are not stupid in the least. We are all smart, reasonable people. It’s those others I’m talking about. You know the ones I mean. Just what the effing fuck is wrong with them?
Here I’m going to share a theory of mine.
All theories need to start with an axiom, or basic assumption. Here’s mine: other people are not (usually) stupid. Sure, a few are. But in general, no. Even those hairy web-trolls who dwell in the comments sections of blogs and forums can typically learn a vocabulary of some 30,000 words in their native tongue. They can solve a wide variety of problems. They can recognize other people and store memories of people, places and events. These are all signs of a high level of intelligence.
But if people are not stupid, why do they often appear to behave that way, especially on the internet?
“Haterz gonna hate” is a popular explanation for the phenomenon of web rage. It’s simple to understand, with deep predictive power. But can it be true? There may be some haters around – damaged individuals with insoluble personal issues – but I don’t think this is the real explanation.
There’s a well-documented social phenomenon called the “echo chamber.” It’s what happens when most of the people you know belong to a narrow group. You tend to have the same social, religious and educational backgrounds. You live in the same place. Your jobs are similar. You share the same political opinions.
Within the echo chamber, everyone agrees with you. It’s a comfortable place to live, and not very challenging. When you say something to the group, everyone agrees, reaffirming your belief that what you believe is true. Narrow beliefs are reinforced and amplified through repetition. Since people in these groups are not accustomed to having their ideas challenged, anyone who challenges the entrenched belief system is regarded as hostile, and countered with aggressive behavior.
I know people like this. I have seen it happen. These people are not stupid, and they are not haters, but they very often act like stupid haters towards outsiders.
Now the people here are not like this. We’re broad-minded folk. We’re used to discussing all kinds of topics with friends and colleagues, in person and on the internet. We don’t regard challenges to our beliefs as personal affronts. We can engage with issues, consider opposing viewpoints and deal with new facts. It’s what comes from travel, from education, from having a diverse set of friends. It’s rewarding; it’s enriching.
But it might not be normal.
Perhaps most people have spent their lives cocooned in echo chambers of one kind or another. Suddenly the internet has arrived, and barriers have started breaking down. People who were not used to free and open debate are suddenly confronted with every opinion you could possibly think of. They are reacting to those opinions, sometimes in the only way they know – by verbal abuse.
Perhaps this is a learning phase. Maybe we will move beyond this era into one where the world really is a global village, and ideas will flow freely through the datasphere, opening everyone’s minds to new and exciting possibilities. That’s what I’m hoping for.
But those of us who are not closed-minded have a part to play. We have to demonstrate through our actions that everyone is welcome online (although certain actions may not be), and we have to be inclusive in our own behavior. So if you believe that other people are simply stupid, or vindictive, I’m challenging your beliefs here. I’m confident you can handle that with an open mind.