Saturday, May 8, 2010


Do you want to be really, really frightened? Deeply and truly terrified about the state of the world? Do you want to experience the long, dark, night of the soul, paralyzed with fear for the future of humanity? Forget global warming. Put nuclear terrorism out of your mind. Worry thee not about declining potable water supplies. If you want to be truly afraid, spend an hour trolling through posts on Internet message boards, the ones that follow virtually every news-story or video clip. Then consider: these people have the right to vote. Here is the electronic community’s infinite equivalent of obscene scrawls on the inside of a public bathroom stall: people at their most nasty and cowardly and illiterate and crass. In a recent column, the outgoing editor of the local newspaper gushed that reader input of this kind could “democratize the news”, as if what’s factually true and worth presenting was a matter of majority opinion. Can you imagine? “Next on News Now, the stars of Twilight discuss why they think Bush planned 9/11.” It would happen.

But the most subliterate, irrational, and mean-spirited message boards anywhere are to be found on Youtube. People there find ways to start vitriolic (but illiterate and uninformed) fights about Obama on clips of otters holding hands.
Just to see, I selected a video at random from Youtube’s main-page. It turned out to be a clip of a UFC fighter, “talking trash”, as they say, about his opponents. You can imagine the kinds of messages that followed. Even the profanity is spelled wrong. So it’s not necessarily to click the following link. But, if you do, be aware that there’s swearing and racist epithets being thrown around:

Now, admittedly, there was some selection bias here. Click on your typical link of, say (I sense the sports fans starting to rise from their seats already), a UFC video or an NHL game or a even Tiger Woods these days, and you’ll get decidedly less literate commentary than if you clicked on a link of, for instance, a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C or a replay of a famous chess match.

Anyway, it’s of no particular consequence what the average person thinks of last night’s game or who is a better fighter in the UFC (or what they think of the Great Mass, for that matter.) It is of importance what the average voter thinks about politics, and the posts in response to events of actual importance on most Internet message boards actually leave me rather thankful that most people don’t vote.

Issues such a climate change, the threat of fundamentalist religion, the global economic downturn, etc., are extraordinarily complex problems. Understanding them requires study and careful consideration. Solving them will require serious people who have a clear mandate to act on behalf of a properly informed citizenry. Reading message boards on, Youtube, Slate, and, well, almost anywhere, one gets the sinking feeling that tens of thousands of people are totally ill-informed but, what’s worse, nonetheless think that they’re right. They are exemplars of Russell’s famous adage that the whole problem with the world is that smart people are full doubt while the stupid ones are sure of themselves.

So what is going on here? I mean, apart from the fact that the most educated generation in the history of the world has apparently resolved itself to do nothing with that gift? I have a theory, and it has to do with human nature.

After World War Two and until the 1980s at the earliest, many cultural anthropologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, feminists, and others, argued that the World Wars had demonstrated that the problem with humankind was not a lack of civilization, but civilization itself, or at least the racist, sexist, militaristic, environmentally destructive civilization we’d built over the last 10,000 years.

By contrast, prehistoric humans, they contended, including various indigenous peoples prior to European contact, lived noble lives in harmony with nature and one another. The biological anthropologists tended to argue that this was the natural outcome of our evolutionary heritage. Just look at our nearest biological cousin, the chimpanzees, after all: they’re fun-loving creatures who spend their days cuddling and grooming one another and learning sign language.

Well, it’s not that simple, of course. Today many anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the death rate from violence in hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist societies (including those of most pre-contact indigenous peoples) was probably about 25 or 30 percent. Just by way of comparison, about 4 or 5 percent of Germans died from violence in the first half of the 20th century, and that was after losing two worlds wars and suffering through one genocidal dictator. For Canadians, the figure is probably something like a quarter of a percent.

An important Israeli political scientist, Azar Gat, says that the reason for all this is simple. Contrary to what was once believed, our natural, evolutionary predispositions are exceedingly violent. Consider those cousins of ours. In the early 1970s, Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees do, in fact, wage war, commit murder and rape, and that nearly every female chimp who survives to adulthood loses at least one offspring to infanticide. That’s what evolution conditioned us for, Gat argues. We’re a grisly species that likes to fight. Fortunately, we don’t just obey the dictates of our genes. Civilization, is, well, civilizing. It encourages us to build hospitals and give Mother’s Days cards and write symphonies and get to work in rush hour without killing anybody. Our weapons are more lethal, true, and there’s more of us to kill these days, but in proportional terms the average European — even accounting for Hitler and Stalin — or North American living in modern times, is far less likely to die in war or by violence than the average person in medieval Europe, antiquity, or prehistoric times, when wars were smaller but far more frequent and death by murder was an everyday event. Life back then was, as Hobbes famously put it, nasty, brutal, and short. By historical standards, modern liberal democracies are practically Heaven. Today, the average Canadian can expect to be murdered about once every 54,000 years, and more Canadians die from accidental falls every year than have died in war in all the years since 1945.

And what on Earth has this to do with Internet message boards? Well, it’s simple, really. Civilization – and liberal democratic civilization in particular – encourages us to restrain ourselves. But the Internet is an uncivilized place. It is not liberal and it’s not a democracy – it’s anarchy. The restraints of human solidarity that keep you and me from pelting each other with bananas (or arrows or spears or stones) are not in place when people log anonymously onto Youtube or And night after night, on the message boards, the chimps return to stake out territory and fight. You can read their grunting for yourself.

In fact, I admit that some primal part of me desperately wants to go to that Youtube clip of Mozart’s Great Mass and leave a message saying “Mozart sux. Beethoven rulez” just to see what would happen.

1 comment:

Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by some primal urge to start an argument.