Why Vicious Online Comments Are Like Killing

There is a famous book called On Killing which describes the way people psychologically view killing others.  And the results are powerful.

People, it seems, will do just about anything to avoid killing.  Even in war.  Even if it means putting themselves in danger.

Using data gathered from the battlegrounds of the Civil War he claims that, “at least half of the soldiers in black-powder battles did not fire their weapons, and only a minute percentage of those who did fire aimed to kill the enemy with their fire.”

And even when the American army overcame this “problem” during the Vietnam War, and trained their soldiers to kill mindlessly, the country was suddenly faced with a huge population of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: 1.5 million by some estimates.  The soldiers had killed, but their minds couldn’t handle it.

I bring all this up because I believe that the psychology of killing is similar to the psychology of verbal abuse.

Most people try to avoid verbally attacking someone else. It is rare to see someone go out of their way to verbally hurt another. It happens, of course, but it isn’t what any of us would consider “normal”.

Most of us would rather get hurt ourselves than hurt another.  It’s simply how we’re built.

And when we do attack someone we tend to regret it shortly afterwards.  We feel scarred from our own actions.  Just like the men who kill, it’s hard for us to believe that we could have gone out of our way to hurt someone.

Of course, the degree is not the same.  But either way, most of us are creatures of peace.

The only people who don’t have any qualms with killing or verbal abuse, who don’t feel guilt or remorse for these actions afterwards, are psychopaths.  And indeed, On Killing claims that there are some psychopathic soldiers (2 percent of the total) who have no problem with killing.

There is an exception to the rule, though.  A situation in which any one of us could kill without any remorse.

In On Killing he described men who flew bombers and operated other methods of long range killing.  He noted that very few people felt the sort of internal pain that someone who killed another person up-close did.

It makes sense.  We’re programmed to feel the pain of the people we hurt, but if we can’t see them getting hurt, we’re much less likely to feel guilty.

And just as progress in technology has allowed us to kill from afar, the invention of the internet has allowed us to verbally abuse others from afar.  And, as we all know, these sorts of attacks are all too common online.  We’ve all seen how seemingly normal people can turn into angry, violent monsters online.  And unlike the prevailing assumption, that people feel free to attack because they are anonymous, the findings of On Killing, show that most people are willing to verbally abuse online because their targets are so distant.

As a blogger, I am painfully aware of this.  Since practically the beginning of writing for an audience online, I’ve been subject to these attacks.  Every blogger I know has experienced exactly the same situation, even if the topic of their writing is fairly innocuous.

The assumption in these situations is that bloggers only care about attention.  They love the hits and shares.  The popularity of their writing is their armor.

But just as the analogy of the bomber applies to the attackers, so does it apply to their targets.  The attackers are distant from the effects of their verbal bombs, but there are still people getting hit by them.  And those people are just as in pain as if the attacks had happened face to face.

Most of the bloggers that I know don’t just write to get hits.  Of those, many have learned to get over lots of internal fears to begin writing in public.  They are rarely excited by the attention vicious online attacks give them.  Instead, they often come away from these moments traumatized.  Very few of those people have continued to write with the same strength after being subjected to these attacks.  Some have stopped writing online all together.  And even the ones that have learned to soldier on will always live with the scars.

The result of all this is that the writers that remain are the ones brazen enough, insensitive enough, not to care about being attacked and attacking back.  A few of the sensitive ones remain, but the environment inevitably rewards the same 2% that can kill without remorse in war.

And, worst of all, so few people acknowledge this reality.  Even the ones who are against online verbal violence just say things like, “Well, that’s the internet for you,” as if there’s nothing we can do.

But it’s not that simple!  If bloggers and writers were more open about the kind of pain they felt from angry online comments, and if the general population was more aware of the amount of pain they feel from others they’ve interacted with online, we could educate the world to understand that words of abuse, words of anger, words meant to hurt, end up doing just that.  Words have power, whether they’re launched from a distance or whether you’re right up in someone’s face yelling at them.

If we made this clear, if we made it obvious, I think people will respond.  As On Killing showed, people don’t want to hurt others.  Their physiology and psychology fight against it.  So, when people attach a face to their targets, and when people understand the power of their words, things can change.

We don’t need to accept an online world of anger and cynicism.  It can become a place of beauty and elevation.  But first we need to confront the reality of our power when we inhabit this world.