Making Online Less Ugly: Our Avatars Are Reprehensible
"Online is uglier."
I've read through the New York Times' "A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland" at least four times now and that three-word sentence impacts me the most.
"Online is uglier."
I didn't initially see the article, but one of the few strident rage profiteers still in my 'Borg feed linked to it in outrage that the NYT was "normalizing" Nazis. The eyeroll in my head strained. The idea that any coverage of these issues that isn't a full-throated "LET'S BURY THESE FUCKERS!" (whomever 'these fuckers' are) is so often met with a third grader's grasp of nuance that I have to take a moment, burn something plastic (Tupperware?) and bemoan the fate of public education in this country.
More thoughtful reactions came later but most were of the “Here’s how I would’ve written it” variety as if personal ideology and fractured belief systems prevent seeing more than one aspect of a piece of journalism.
"Mr. Hovater, 29, is a welder by trade. He is not a star among the resurgent radical American right so much as a committed foot soldier — an organizer, an occasional podcast guest on a website called Radio Aryan, and a self-described “social media villain,” although, in person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother."
Throughout this piece, the description of outward normalcy (whatever the fuck normal is in a country of shifting definitions in identity and status) is immediately undermined with the idea that Hovater is one thing in person—polite, normal, eats at fucking Applebee's—and another online—declared racist and Nazi who carelessly flings his hate-turds out to fester in the ether.
"Ask him how he moved so far right, and he declares that public discourse has become 'so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve white people.'”
It's been said before and by far more intelligent folx than me but it remains a truth: social media is theater. It's a performance of one kind or another. It's fake names and posturing. Posting "Men are Scum" to prove a point about the injustice censoring of women's voices online that Faceborg employs. And subsequent "Not ALL Men" whining that misses and misdirects the point. Russian 'bots proliferating existing propaganda and Donald Trump's thousands of fake Twitter followers.
Online is a fiction we create to project the things we don't really want out in our day to day and a performance of who we want everyone else to see.
Does Hovater go into his local 7-Eleven wearing swastikas and a brown shirt? Unlikely but his online persona does.
Back in 2007, I wore a ball cap every day. The habit came from college when, as a lark, I shaved my head (not in a skinhead sort of way but in a WTF kind of exercise) and it turns out, I have a pretty unattractive bald head. So I took to wearing a ball cap to hide my ill-shaped noggin. I never thought about it, I just wore it and went about my days.
When I started at WBEZ, I continued the practice. I almost never took it off except to sleep. One day, I got a nice haircut and forgot to put it on as I left for work. The reaction was surprising.
It turned out that for three years, no one I worked with had seen my head and assumed that I was bald underneath. Some were just a bit shocked. Others were thrown off-balance and were almost annoyed that I had hair as if I had pulled one over on them. Completely without intention I had fooled them into believing I was bald and, in one moment, shattered that misconception like a three year practical joke.
Even earlier, I had the "Angry White Guy in Chicago" blog and would routinely get into flame wars online with theater-makers all across the globe. It never occurred to me that all of my AWG posturing and juvenile rhetoric—name-calling and stridency—could be received as anything but my online persona. When I would meet someone in public who only knew me from the internet it was always sort of a shock both to them—I was nicer in real life than their perception—and me—I hadn't said or done anything to these strangers who already had formed an opinion of me.
The ball cap was a costume piece that I didn't see from outside of myself. The AWG persona was a mask that I assumed most would see as that. I no longer wear the ball cap routinely and I got rid of the AWG persona when it became apparent that the nation was suddenly considering Donald Trump as a viable candidate for president.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
The article about Hovater and his wife is not a normalization of a pair of white supremicists. White supremacy is normal. If you don't see that these innocuous seeming people with horrifying beliefs are everywhere, it is likely that your echo chamber is in a major American city with lots of diversity in the surrounding population. The real question asked is: which of the masks are the real people, the couple who has pop culture tattoos and make pasta, or the white nationalists who make justifications for Adolf Hitler?
We all have these masks, these online avatars. A friend of mine is a complicated, intelligent man who loves his wife, works two jobs, and tells stories on stages. If I only knew him from his online persona—strident, angry at Trump to a point that it's almost funny, and constantly self-promoting—I probably wouldn't like him much.
I know that belief is malleable. That ideas I believed fervently in decades ago I find horrifying today. Change is inevitable. The story I see in the NYT piece is not how normal this couple is but a tale of how a 25-year-old American male went from "vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist."
I'm left with the dilemma of how to first prevent that from happening, and second how to reverse that trend. I know that yelling him down won't work. I know that bemoaning the work of the NYT won’t accomplish anything except perhaps discourage more journalists peering into this societal abyss.
Online is uglier. Maybe that's the start. Making online less ugly.