Why the Internet is Better than Donald Trump
So Donald Trump. Ugh. I hate that this guy even takes up any of my brainspace. But I think the rhetoric he’s using, and encouraging his followers to use, is really relevant to my research. I examine people being pretty nasty to each other online. Not exclusively – there’s a wide range. But still, people say stuff online that they might not say to a stranger’s face. A lot of people see this as “disinhibition” – that the relative anonymity of the internet removes the need to be civil, and reduces us to our baser selves. There’s some truth in this. But there’s also a flip side – that by communicating textually we have to be more revelatory by necessity. We can’t use facial expressions, gestures, or body language to communicate–only words. So we have to be clearer and more direct to be understood.
Lindy West wrote a great piece for the New York Times on how Trump supporters feel this sense of liberation when Trump says what they’re thinking. So when Trump says something racist, or sexist, or makes fun of a handicapped person, he’s saying something that they’ve thought.
Here’s the thing. We all have ugly thoughts.
Brains and Impulse Control
Our brains are weird places, and we don’t have a whole lot of control over our thoughts. People with PTSD understand this particularly well, but it is true for everyone. But when I have an ugly thought about someone based on a stereotype I’ve internalized, I don’t feel angry that I can’t say it out loud to the person who I’m judging unfairly. I don’t feel persecuted because society prefers I avoid being a rampant asshole. Instead, I feel ashamed that I’m passing judgement on someone I don’t know. Then I try to examine the assumptions or internalized schema (stereotypes) the judgement was based on and unravel them a little bit. Over a lifetime, this makes me less judgmental and more compassionate. It also makes me more aware of the ways I judge myself on behalf of a skewed power system and let some of that shit go.
Robert Reich posted this morning about Trump and his supporter’s violent rhetoric. Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist – the particularly virulent kind with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One of the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder is a persecutory complex. So when Trump makes it sound like he and his supporters are victims of the violence at his rallies instead of the instigators, it fits right in with his world view. This is also apparent when he incites hate and bigotry towards Muslims yet claims it is because of some imagined impending threat. At the heart of bullying, of bigotry, and of narcissism is fear of helplessness. Thus the violent see themselves as victims, and their victims as violent. It’s terrifying to see this being played out on a national stage. Not only must we ensure that this man never becomes president, we must strengthen and enforce our laws against hate crime, hate language, and hold people who incite racial and religious violence accountable for their actions.
Being human can mean one of two things. We can use our intellects to rationalize acting on all our impulses. Our hindbrains are not pretty. All they care about are safety and survival, at whatever cost. They are not interested in community, connection, or love. They serve an evolutionary purpose, but allowing them, or as Freud would put it, the Id, to run the entire show makes us lizards with vocabularies.
The other option is using our intellect, our higher brains, to mediate the impulses from the id and make decisions that take into account the past and future–something the id/hindbrain can’t do. Psychological repression (or Suppression in Ego Defense language) is not a bad thing. It is not persecution. We all have the ability to mediate between our impulses and desires (id), and the expectations of society (superego). That’s what the ego is for. (Again, this is in Freudian/psychodynamic terminology. Substitute terms of your choice.)
Sometimes my kid makes me CRAZY angry. Kids are narcissists because their brains haven’t fully developed and they lack experiences. So sometimes kids are assholes. And part of me wants to be an asshole right back. I would be really good at it. I know the most hurtful things to say. I’m physically stronger and could inflict damage. I don’t. Not because I might get in trouble for it, but because I love my kid and doing any of those things to her would be cruel, abusive, and damaging to her own psyche and to our relationship. So I suppress the baser impulses and try to deal with her in a more productive way. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun, but her mental health is more important than my fleeting impulse to be mean. This is called parenting.
When millions of people in our country are chomping at the bit to release all impulse control and are calling it freedom, we have a big problem.
Thus Spake the Internet
So why am I thinking about how this relates to my research? On the surface, the Trump disinhibition phenomenon and the Online Disinhibition Effect look the same. Trump says it’s okay to be a violently racist asshole, so people are being violently racist assholes. The internet allows people to hid behind screen names so they can be assholes more freely if they want.
But on the internet, they must use words to do so. Not only that, but they must use words in a forum where everyone else uses words too, and can disagree with them with the same level of anonymous freedom. And then these people all read each other’s words. So while the comments section on YouTube may not look like a civil, thoughtful conversation, it is still a conversation between people with differing viewpoints in an environment where words are the only recourse. No yelling, hitting, pushing, guns, or other means to escalate beyond name calling.Interestingly, I rarely see direct violent threats on the forums I study. Occasionally I see indirect threats. But it’s still all just words.
I believe that intentionally exposing ourselves to alternative viewpoints comes from the developmental drive. Developmentalists (and I’m one) believe that we naturally move towards more adaptive behaviors and self-awareness as we age. When you read opposing viewpoints, you become aware that they exist. Your thoughts and feelings about the topic are not universally agreed with. It may take a while, but you’ve exposed your brain to this stuff and you can’t un-expose it.
I believe that your unconscious is driving you to become more aware of your impulses and integrate them consciously. Huge social progress has been made in the last decade because people eventually came to see and then accept marginalized groups who made themselves visible on the internet. Were they welcomed with open arms and fresh puppies when they violated social norms to become visible? No. But over time, knowing your cousin or aunt or friend’s dad was gay became normalized, and it stopped being such a thing. Yes, we still have a long way to go with LGBT rights in this country, but if you look at where we were before the internet (Don’t ask don’t tell, no marriage, no adoption rights) it’s pretty stunning.
People having conversations on the internet, regardless of how icky they may seem, is a totally different behavior than letting a raging narcissist with a pulpit tell you that it’s okay to be a violent asshole, and then acting like a violent asshole.
My suggestion? If you have the stomach for it, provide the opposing viewpoint. Retweet, repost, or get into a conversation. Your homophobic Aunt Ethyl may not like it, but over time, it may change how she sees the world.