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.






59 responses to “Why Vicious Online Comments Are Like Killing”

  1. Shmuel Avatar

    I think you’re on to something. A fellow blogger davens in my shul, and since having met, our online exchanges have taken on a completely different character (not to mention that most of our conversation caries over into ‘real’ life, eschewing the online format for more serious, in-depth give-and-take).

    I don’t think anonymity plays that significant of a role; especially as our social-media profiles has become integrated into commenting sites like Disqus, etc. we can no longer hide behind our alter egos. It’s like you said: the unknown quality, the perceived distance of the blogger in the ivory tower (or musty basement) lends us much more impunity even if our identities are open…

  2. Rivka Izme Avatar
    Rivka Izme

    Sensitivity of subject is also tantamount.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      It’s easy to be vicious when a topic is close to our hearts. We can justify it based on our point of view. In fact, that’s one of the way they trained soldiers in Vietnam and World War 2: they taught them that they were fighting for a good cause and simultaneously dehumanized the enemies. Feeling justified definitely helps.

      That doesn’t change the facts, though, when it comes to communication. Just because we feel justified in our emotions or our thoughts, or think a person’s views dehumanize them, doesn’t mean that it hurts any less for the receiving party when it’s communicated in a vicious way. How we communicate matters, even when it’s a topic we are very sensitive about.

      1. Rebecca K. Avatar
        Rebecca K.

        Actually, one of the things that perpetually surprises me is that sometimes a troll, verbal abuser, what-have-you will take a seemingly innocuous subject and turn it totally around to vent about a completely tangential issue. When you write something you know is controversial, you expect the trolls to come and play, but when you write something not at all edgy or political and you get attacked, it’s a little shocking.

        However, I think I get more upset by trolls attacking other people than when they attack me. Once, someone labelled one of my Tablet articles: “so poorly written.” I told my husband, “Guess what? I’m the one who gets paid to write, not them.”

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          Yeah, it’s pretty nuts. And it shows just how easy it is, psychologically, to get nasty on the internet, and why it’s so important for bloggers to make sure their audience understands that there is an actual person on the receiving end of the comments.

      2. Rivka Izme Avatar
        Rivka Izme

        I cannot speak for Vietnam except to say that it is common in all encounters for the human mind to think of the other side as less than and wrong minded. That is what being an enemy is all about. It only takes one or two battles or the witnessing of one or two atrocities for such an attitude of seeing the enemy as ‘less than’ and thus ‘the cause’ as being justified.

        As to WWII, if this premise is to be brought up I would like to remind you that the US was brought into the war by an act of aggression by the Japanese. Japan had signed an agreement with Germany and Italy that if any other country declared war on one of the signatory countries then the other signatories to the treaty would also take up arms. This was called the Axis Alliance.

        We declared war because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A tragedy which has only been outdone by the number of victims by 9/11 for a singular attack. At the time we declared war on Japan we were NOT prepared for war. We had no munitions factories and the military was not using the draft. Additionally, our military tactics and materiels were from WWI.

        In WWII, we were fighting for a good cause. Both Germany and Japan were fighting for world domination. In fact, both countries had documentation stating that as soon as the rest of the world was under their control they would annihilate the co-signatories to the Axis treaty.

        I would hope that the social and political philosophies of Nazi Germany are well known to the readers of this blog. However, it is little known that Japan also had a philosophy of superiority running through their society. As proof of this I would suggest you read about what happened in Nanking or about the use of Koren women as prostitutes. In fact, the International Courts heard a case against Japan concerning 24 Koren women who were still alive and had never been given the opportunity to return to Korea. That was in the 1990s!

        WWII was much different in its inception and history than Vietnam. Vietnam was not to stem the progress of communism, as was touted in publicity, rather it was a war of economic domination.

        You are absolutely right about equating speech with murder but the road goes both ways. When one makes statements about things which others hold dear to their hearts or are critical of their conduct the response is going to show defensiveness and anger which may come across as hostile and abusive. That is what happens when you criticize or attack a standard of behavior, opinion, minhag, action etc. The proverbial can of worms starts with bringing up the topic in the first place – not with their response.

        I am a blogger too. However, I blog about personal care and healthy habits. I have never received a hostile response. I know those who blog about other topics such as animal rights (a controversial subject to say the least) or home decor or a myriad of other topics and recieve no hostile remarks. There may be a response stating disagreement but none which could be deemed as abusive.

        I would posit because of the nature of your blog developing the hide of a rhino might be warranted. You are talking about religion and standards of behavior. People are bound to become hostile and nasty. I don’t think it is just the internet either. I have seen hostility and abuse face to face when someone approaches the same topics. I am told it is common amoung talmadei chohim. It is very common among not only historians but economists as well. However, many of the discussions which I have witnessed result perhaps in temporary anger but I have yet to see one myself in which their is a treatise or theorem developed based on hurt feelings. That is not to say it does not but it is very rare.

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          To be clear, I wasn’t arguing that what was done during WW2 and Vietnam were wrong. I was simply using them as analogies. I agree, war is necessary and those strategies to convince people to kill were probably necessary. I was in no way trying to imply that it was wrong to do. My point was only in showing how people can be motivated to be vicious with the right motivation. And since commenting on blogs isn’t war, and there’s no reason to be vicious, in this context it IS wrong.

          And just because a topic is sensitive does not mean people cannot talk about in a calm way. It is absolutely incorrect to state that a topic inherently will lead to abusive comments, or to imply that because I or other bloggers write about a topic AT ALL that we’ve, in some way, brought the abuse on ourselves.

          Everything is a two way street, I agree. A blogger can be just as (if not, much more) abusive as a commenter. There are plenty of bloggers that are like that, as I pointed out in the post. But what distinguishes a person who tries to rise above that and someone who doesn’t isn’t the topics he talks about, but the way in which he talks about those topics. Sensitive topics, if anything, require more restraint, more calm. Not the opposite. HOW we talk about things isn’t a side issue: it’s the entire issue. When we allow the topics we discuss to become a justification for talking violently, for talking abusively, for hurting others, we are letting go of our own responsibility. And as for people who talk about sensitive topics: they should be judged for HOW they talk about those topics, not whether they talked about them.

          1. Rivka Izme Avatar
            Rivka Izme

            However, in your response you use different boundaries for yourself than you do for your responders.

            Some of us are very passionate about some subjects or, at least, sensitive about our standards of practice. When you strike these cords there will be a response. Often, people feel their boundaries have been violated. They will try their best to violate your boundaries in return.

            Granted it is, at the least, not appropriate for people to respond in such a manner but we DO live in an era in which the last 50 or so years polite conversation is a lost art. In this era (not this specific generation) we operate on letting it all hang out. Opinions are not kept close to the vest. All of us are quite relaxed at voicing our opinions and even judging those who differ from our own opinions, stances and attitudes.

            I come from a generation which was taught not to discuss religion, politics or sex with anyone. Now days it seems as though these are the topic of discussion for many conversations. I was also taught not to ask about a woman’s age and weight but those attributes have become criteria that are openly discussed. (I refer you to Dustin Hoffman’s latest interview concerning a character he played years ago – Tootsie.)

            My grandmother also taught me never to sit on the edge of a bed, wear eyeshadow during the day, always wear a hat outside and to services, button all the buttons on my outfit, never put a hat on a table or a coat on the bed, wear stockings at all times and always have the house neat as a pin, dinner ready and ‘prettied’ up when my husband arrives home. Suggest that to today’s woman and go put on your rhino hide because you will get a response.

            For calm, respectful conversations/replies to happen one needs to go back to the early part of the 20th century. It will not happen in today’s age.

  3. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    Yes. It is far too easy to attack online. I’ve been moved to tears from interactions online, both on Facebook and on the blog. If it were a face-to-face conversation, I doubt the same level of vitriol would have been released. While face-to-face, we can see the damage wrought by our words. But when we’re just typing on a keyboard, safe behind our screen? Oy.

  4. Tzipporah Avatar

    Yes, this is a small part of why I don’t share everything online anymore. I’m not tough enough to handle attacks. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve also seen some truly vicious comments online to others and it’s UGLY.
    That said, I dealt with someone online just yesterday was was spewing racist nastiness and I was furious. I said my piece and it was getting heated and I chose to back off. Because even I was tempted to forget there was a face attached ot this person and me spewing nastiness back at her wouldn’t have been much better than what did said. Yes I disagree vehemently, but it’s still my job to maintain my emotions appropriately. You can’t just go around attacking people–online or in real life. Hiding behind the protection of the internet is cowardly.

  5. penes Avatar

    lol kill urself

  6. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar
    Nancy Lebovitz

    A blogger writes about the emotional effects of receiving emotional abuse–


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