I am all for teachable moments, but Maureen Dowd and the tut-tut, tsk-tsk bloviators are connecting the wrong dots following Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt and the fooforah that followed. Dowd starts by taking aim at Nir Rosen, whose unfeeling and reptilian comments led to him losing a fellowship at NYU, and probably his relationship with The Nation, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. But she winds up demonizing the web.
Maureen Dowd, Stars and Sewers
On Tuesday, he [Nir Rosen] merrily tweeted about the sexual assault of Logan: “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.”
He suggested she was trying to “outdo Anderson” Cooper (roughed up in Cairo earlier), adding that “it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.”
Rosen lost his fellowship. He apologized in a whiny way, explaining that he “resented” Logan because she “defended American imperial adventures,” and that she got so much attention for the assault because she’s white and famous. He explained in Salon that “Twitter is no place for nuance,” as though there’s any nuance in his suggestion that Logan wanted to be sexually assaulted for ratings.
He professed to be baffled by the fact that he had 1,000 new Twitter followers, noting: “It’s a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight.” It’s been Lord of the Flies for a while now, dude, and you’re part of it.
The conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel smacked Logan from the right: “Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this ‘revolution’ by animals. Now she knows what the Islamic revolution is really all about.”
On her LA Weekly blog, Simone Wilson dredged up Logan’s romantic exploits and quoted a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”
Online anonymity has created what the computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls a “culture of sadism.” Some Yahoo comments were disgusting. “She got what she deserved,” one said. “This is what happens when dumb sexy female reporters want to make it about them.” Hillbilly Nation chimed in: “Should have been Katie.”
The “60 Minutes” story about Senator Scott Brown’s revelation that a camp counselor sexually abused him as a child drew harsh comments on the show’s Web site, many politically motivated.
Acupuncturegirl advised: “Scott, shut the hell up. You are gross.” Dutra1 noted: “OK, Scott, you get your free pity pills. Now examine the image you see in the mirror; is it a man?”
Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” told me Twitter creates a false intimacy and can “bring out the worst in people. You’re straining after eyeballs, not big thoughts. So you go for the shallow, funny, contrarian or cynical.”
Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” says technology amplifies everything, good instincts and base. While technology is amoral, he said, our brains may be rewired in disturbing ways.
“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.
“I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he said. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”
Just to review the bidding:
- Lara Logan is sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo.
- Idiots of various stripes make comments about the event, like Nir Rosen, based on ideological or even pathological motivations. Some of them use the web to make these comments, or they make the comments elsewhere and those comments are sucked up into the swirling maelstrom of the web.
- Dowd and Morozov play blame-the-web, implying that web, itself, is like the devil at our ear, making us — or others — do evil.
There is buried network of spurious arguments underneath all the comfortable hatred of incivility, here. There is an assumption that the web is supposed to be a force for good, and only good. Who says? And secondly, that those that use the web are in some way a collective entity, a global society with shared beliefs, including various democratic ideals. These unstated assertions are deeply and profoundly wrong, but taken as a given in anti-web circles.
The web is more like one of the squares that Egyptian, Tunisian, and Bahraini activists have been occupying, recently. Demonstrators move in, perhaps displacing the using bicyclists, traffic cops, and fruit vendors. Later on, riot police or the army show up, and conflict may ensue.
But the fact that these different groups or individuals are occupying the same plaza does not equate to shared beliefs, necessarily. The same is true online, except it is an enormous plaza, encompassing all groups of all positions and persuasions.
[Note: This doesn’t undermine my belief is an emerging social culture, as a consequence of the rise of a post-industrial world. Indeed, the unrest in the Arab world is a distant echo of the same forces — including the social web — that will come to transform the future. But that is another, even longer post.]
Carr’s suggests amorality on the web is rewiring the human mind, and worsening society. On the contrary, many sorts of cognition are employed when we interact on the web and in the world. Fear and distrust of strangers — those that we perceive as not part of our clan, tribe, or ethnic group — is a human universal, deeply wired into our minds. This bias can lead to devaluation of others’ humanness: the ability to think of outsiders as being less human than us, and undeserving of human treatment, like the rioters’ behavior toward Logan, or the trolls that attack in blog comments.
There are other, more hope-inspiring universals of human character, though, such as the belief that justice should prevail and that the strong have an obligation to help the weak. The human mind is an enigma, driven by both love and hate, and capable of soaring insight and irrational fears.
We have built the web to connect to ourselves, and it’s not designed to filter any demons out of our minds.
What the web does do, and what leads to Dowd and Carr’s web-bashing, is to relax the strictures imposed by social order. Carr, Dowd, and other professional finger-waggers were raised in an era when professional, corporate media controlled public discourse. They determined what was fit for the front page, or got into the classifieds. They decided what ‘balanced and fair’ meant. They determined whose voices were authoritative, which positions were legitimate, and what stories should be squelched.
That has been undone, and now all sorts of perspectives can rise to our attention. Rape can be positioned as a reasonable response to an attractive western journalist’s presence in Egypt’s boiling street scene during the unrest there. But saying so doesn’t make it so. And the fact that it appeared — was transmitted — over Twitter does not mean that Twitter is somehow tarnished by that statement.
The real issue here is not, the web. It is the conflict inherent in liberal western society between the freedom of speech and the tendency toward censorship of hate language. In principle, we state that people should have the right to express any belief, and that they are free to do so. At the same time, in many western countries, speaking hatefully in ways that could lead to violence or discrimination is illegal. But the borderline between these principles is highly variable in different countries.
We won’t see the end of this anti-web rhetoric, because the motivation for it is itself a cognitive universal. People naturally believe that touching something or someone unclean makes you unclean. So, a medium that is used to transmit evil is naturally thought to be, by extension, evil itself. Human cognitive preferences lead us to feeling disgust and avoidance when confronted with things that we have been socialized to think are dirty or evil.
So, Carr and company are acting profoundly human when they recoil from a web that can pass along such messages, or makes it easy to come into contact with people professing unacceptable and personally disgusting beliefs.
However, words appearing on a computer screen are not like spit flying from the author’s mouth. And while we may understand that intellectually, the non-rational part of our minds still thinks magically, and might come to hate the medium that carries the words. That’s why the bearer of bad tidings was so often killed in the dim, dark past.
Still, throwing away the web because you don’t like what you see is like breaking a mirror because you don’t like your own reflection. It is us we are staring at in that mirror, on the web: and it is us looking out, too.