Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

“If I come back to this earth, I’m coming back as an animal,” rock musician and television celebrity Ozzy Osbourne told Spin Magazine in 1986. “People in this world do far more good for animals than they do for people. If a guy is stuck up a tree, they’ll leave him there.”

Cecil the Lion and Dr. Walter PalmerFast-forwarding nearly thirty years, an American dentist named Walter Palmer recently killed a 13-year-old protected lion for the sum of $55,000. A beloved member of the local community, Cecil was a major attraction at the Hwange National park in Matabelelland North in Zimbabwe. Prior to his demise, Cecil’s movements had been tracked by researchers from the University of Oxford as part of a larger study on animal behavior (attempts to destroy Cecil’s GPS tracking collar after decapitation were unsuccessful), and the hunters claimed his skin as a “trophy” following the hunt.

Dr. Palmer’s slaying of the cherished animal drew international media attention, sparking outrage among animal conservationists, politicians, businesses and celebrities. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was moved to tears during his monologue, Piers Morgan suggested mounting Dr. Palmer’s head on a wall, and a cohort of airlines put a ban on transporting game trophies on their planes. The Zimbabwean government is seeking extradition for Dr. Palmer, as of this writing, and two other men have been prosecuted for the roles they played in planning and carrying out the hunt.

The consequences for Dr. Palmer’s actions have extended to within the borders of his home country. Recent acts of vigilantism evince a relentless urgency to condemn everything related to Dr. Palmer, his River Bluff Dental practice and his personal life. The practice’s Yelp page is swollen with negative reviews; Dr. Palmer’s credentials are the subject of online satire (“now kids are asking their dentists if they plan on murdering Bambi or the Easter Bunny”); cyber shaming threads continue to pile up on Reddit and Imgur news feeds; and persistent threats of physical violence have led to the removal of River Bluff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts (including one attempt at a temporarily renamed Facebook page).

Memorial And Protest Held At Office Of Minnesota Dentist That Killed Famed Lion In Zimbabwe
BLOOMINGTON, MN – JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer’s River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Today, the River Buff Dental practice is closed and Dr. Palmer remains in seclusion, his only communication taking the form of a written statement of apology issued through a Minneapolis-based public relations firm. Crisis management experts have largely minimized their involvement in the case, however, for fear that the Internet backlash would soon pulverize their own livelihoods.

Whatever our individual views on hunting in general, there’s a lot to dislike when examining the intentions of Walter Palmer. There is no lens of logic through which the slaying of Cecil can be viewed as anything but gratuitously cruel. The lion was tracked for 40 hours and purposely led away from the sanctuary before he was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot on the Zimbabwean landscape. Brutality is ugly business, and it’s not difficult to see how quickly escalation can occur via social media. One day we’re using the “#WeAreCecil” hashtag to generate support; the next, we’re issuing a public call for digital mob justice.

Amid the #WeAreCecil vitriol, however, emerged a single tweet that perhaps served to embed a more reflective (if acerbic) viewpoint. Author Roxane Gay made it very clear what she meant when she announced on Twitter that “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ms. Gay forces us to consider an uncomfortable dichotomy, one that questions our ability to mourn the passing of human and non-human lives on equal terms:

Cecil the lion was a majestic creature and a great many people mourn his death, the brutality of it, the senselessness of it. Some people also mourn the deaths, most recently, of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, but this mourning doesn’t seem to carry the same emotional tenor. A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost. He certainly doesn’t have to. He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.

The human brain has a constant need to form order from disorder, to find patterns of logic where there are none. We search for signs of premeditated instigation in one instance, because it helps us to rationalize the fear we have against our fellow humans—especially those who look different from us. In another scenario, one in which a sole human is the evil-doer, we are able to mourn the senselessness of the tragedy without any such assurances. Ms. Gay suggests that while both events are tragic, only one appears to warrant the tears of a late-night talk show host.

When we stand together against something generally agreed to be egregious (9/11 comes to mind), social media can be a conduit to emotional catharsis: an almost celebratory experience in human interaction. At its worst, however, social media is a vehicle for excessive cyber shaming; it devolves our capacity for etiquette, self-awareness and decorum when and where such reactions are appropriate. We prioritize our level of engagement according to our values at the moment of exposure, ready to erupt at the slightest impulse. It’s randomized empathy kept at a low boil.

Not many people know that Zimbabwe is currently facing a food shortage crisis, the result of a botched government intervention forcing experienced farmers to relocate to less fertile territory. Questionable land reform bills have similarly degraded the nation’s economy, leaving more than two-thirds of its population facing acute electricity and water shortages. Given the circumstances, Zimbabwe residents admit to being distracted by other problems than the unlawful killing of a wild animal. It’s not the sort of thing that generates a celebrity response on Twitter, perhaps, but to paraphrase Roxane Gay: we did at least cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.

Anxious Objects

According to Suzi Gablik (author of the excellent book Has Modernism Failed?), the term “anxious object” was first used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe modern art that forces us to question whether or not the work is genuinely intended to be art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

The earliest example of  the anxious object is a 1917 piece by Marcel Duchamp called Fountain, which is nothing more than a signed porcelain urinal. Today the work is considered by art historians to be a landmark of the avant-garde. At the time of its exhibiting, however, the piece left audiences feeling bewildered and disturbed.

This is typically the reaction we have in the presence of anxious objects, because the uncertainty we experience demands some limit to the artist’s credibility. Duchamp himself later admitted that placing a urinal in an art gallery was something of a joke. If something is not instantly recognizable as art, then how do we reconcile the creator’s intent as anything but subversive?

Duchamp t-shirt with urinal on the frontInterestingly, the cultural estrangement sought by Duchamp resulted in an unexpected outcome: a new dialogue on how we interpret aesthetic beauty. Some critics, in fact, have favorably compared Fountain to the sculptures of Brancusi and Moore. When it comes to anxious objects, we miss the point while simultaneously (and often tragically) reinforcing it.

This comes to mind because of two stories appearing last week about Twitter, one of them involving the always provocative Kanye West. Mr. West, already known for controversial boasts proclaiming his power and intellect, declared himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” after his set at Glastonbury. The response on Twitter was swift and judgmental, not unlike the vitriol observed when it was leaked that Mr. West had “discovered” a rising new talent named Paul McCartney.

Kanye West on stage at Glastonbury, boasting that his is the greatest living rock star on the planet

What is the social motivation that arouses people into action and gives direction to behavior? While the kudzu-like expansion of Kanye West’s limitless ego may provide wonderful fodder for the TMZ generation, the rationale dictating his behavior is not as easily explained. Our metric for evaluating social motive is often distilled to bizarre justifications. While employing such labels as narcissisticdelusional and outrageous, we openly wonder if Mr. West has a personality disorder and pick apart the structure of his upbringing to explain the inexplicable.

The opinion here is that Kanye West, and his accomplishment as an artist, is simply a manifestation of the persona he intentionally cultivates. In today’s Buzzfeed fueled media landscape, the public life he chooses to expose takes the form of an anxious object. The same motivations that drive all elements of fantasy—magnificent achievements, sexual striving, recognition of power by others—are fundamental to the uneasiness we feel as his story unfolds. The ambiguous and unstructured nature of his outbursts contributes to a growing suspicion that deliberate, cultural resistance is what the calculated art of Kanye West represents.

Subversive tendencies run both ways; if one can maximize higher meaning from something that is not actually a work of art, then it must be possible to reduce artistry from the intention to create. This appears to be the case with a series of Twitter posts reportedly tweeted by the CEO of Frito Lay this week.

According to a story on Medium, the CEO meant to type his tweets into the Google search bar of his browser. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was actually releasing his search queries in a public forum. The result was an amusing (yet unconfirmed) snapshot into the mind of one of the food industry’s top executives.

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What is a Frito?

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: How to be a chips company CEO

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What's the lowest you can pay a potato farmer

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: buy chips on iPhone

It’s possible that the story isn’t true (and it’s difficult to confirm, given that the tweets have either been deleted from the Frito Lay Twitter account or never existed in the first place). If true, however, it can be viewed as a brilliantly self-referential example of an anxious object. Although the tweets are uncomfortably close to being a parody, our archetype of the technophobic, egocentric business leader permeates the suspicion that this story just might be authentic. It might even be good marketing for the Frito Lay brand, given the otherwise stale environment of corporate social media.

All forms of art have the same inherent challenge: determining how much effort is required on the part of the artist to be taken seriously, and to what degree we as an audience are rewarded for pursuing the journey. A culture’s durability often rests upon the interpretive balance between the two, and blurring the lines has never been easier or more immediate.

Artists throughout history have played our tendencies as a social agent, thus promoting their conceptual output in order to suit the demands of the era in which we live. The caricature of celebrity is a textbook example of the indistinguishable demarcation between creator and concept. “We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions,” said sculptor Carl Andre. “My ideal sculpture is a road.”

Update: according to Boing Boing, the Frito Lay CEO tweets have been generally confirmed to be satire. When the above post was written, the word “satire” did not appear on either of the two articles reporting the story. One might argue that shrouding the line between satire and reality is, in execution, an anxious object depicting another anxious object. Modern art goes meta.

Murder in Soft Words

Participating in a spelling bee is an academic rite of passage that just about every child undergoes at some point. Those who are able to master the gentle art of spelling such words as necessary, occasion and hemorrhoid have the opportunity to advance their skills against more rigorous competition.

Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. | REUTERS
Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. Reuters photo for The Japan Times.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship took place last week at National Harbor, MD just outside of Washington DC. For 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 prize has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage, who make up one out of five competitors from all 50 states.

In 2014, the Spelling Bee ended in a tie between Sriran Hathwar of upstate New York and Ansun Sujoe, who lives in Texas. Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, while Sujoe’s word was feuilleton. Stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialog in Greek theatre, characterized by brief exchanges during a scene of strong emotional intensity. A feuilleton is the part of a European newspaper containing material intended to entertain the general reader. In the US, we might refer to a feuilleton as a “fluff piece.”

The term online troll once referred to users who disrupted Internet chat rooms, often with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response. An example might be someone who makes an inflammatory comment about religion or politics, solely to minimize another person’s viewpoint and garner a reaction.

More recently, trolling has been closely associated with other aspects of online harassment, such as cyberbullying and public shaming. A troll might deface an online tribute site commemorating a loved one who passed away, for example, with no purpose other than to cause unnecessary stress to the grieving families. Or in the case of trolls’ response to last week’s National Spelling Bee, it’s to spread xenophobic commentary about the ethnic backgrounds of a group of kids aged 9 to 15:

“One year I wish an American kid could win.”

“Not to be offensive .. but how do kids from India dominate the American spelling bee?!?”

“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”

Perhaps the most volatile example of troll behavior is in the social crucible of online dating, where women risk inadvertently provoking dismissive and hostile remarks made by rejected males. Except in many cases, the behavior instigating the trolling might be something as innocuous as failing to respond to a text message. Alexandra Tweten created an Instagram account called Bye Felipe to catalog the creepy (and often scary) results that happen when women deign to say “no thanks” to a male suitor.

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a bitch for telling him she's not interested in dating

screenshot of online chat where female says "no means no," and male responds with "to me, no means yes"

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a "stuck up cunt" and advises her to "learn to take a compliment" before recommending she kill herself

It’s not difficult to detect the social influences that compel this sort of behavior. The relative anonymity of online postings often precipitate an increased disinhibition among Internet users. Tom Postmes, professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Individuality and the Group, suggests that trolls are inspired by “the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.”

However, this doesn’t completely explain the level of psychopathic narcissism exhibited in the Bye Felipe examples above. While most forms of trolling can be categorized within an uneasy miasma where free speech and personal accountability overlap, there is something more darkly sadistic in telling someone to commit suicide because she won’t respond to puerile vulgarity. The Machiavellianism at display here is arguably more alarming, implying that the perpetrators might actually feel entitled to the motives behind their actions. The more beautiful and self-assured their target, the more deserving it is of corruption.

Whenever Orson Welles was interviewed about his epic radio broadcast War of the Worlds, he often dismissed suggestions that perhaps he should have toned down his approach in order to spare the widespread panic that ensued: “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.”

In some ways, trolling is really about the power of language. It’s an experiment to verify the schoolyard comparison between “sticks & stones” and “names that never hurt.” It’s a game of identity deception played without the consent of its players, a public exhibition of antisocial tendencies, a form of bullying in which the villains never actually show up to demand their lunch money.

Rex Morgan MD comic on Facebook trolls

Researchers who study the effects of video games often cite the interdependence of experience, in which feelings of arousal can apply beyond a single activity. Playing a game transfers excitement from the digital space to real life, though not always consciously, which generates a level of emotional coactivation. Learned concepts are retained more effectively into the part of the brain known as the effective domain, where long-term memory takes place, and the body produces endorphins accordingly. It is here where we form the basis of our activities involving judgment, consequences, actions and ethics.

It could be that there is a cognitive bias taking place in the minds of today’s trolls. In order to accentuate a moment in their lives in which they derived pleasure, it’s necessary for them to recreate the circumstances in which that moment took place. During childhood, we’re taught that kids pick on other kids in order to bolster their sense of self-worth. We’re expected to mature past that point, ideally, but evidence demonstrates the assumptive path to enlightenment is turbulent at best.

What we do know is that there is an inherent unity to the online body, comprised of many “selves” in which the depiction of information is a commodity. We set standards for what we deem to be acceptable, then adjust our level of resentment or appreciate accordingly. It could be that trolls simply have no filters that prevent unwanted behaviors from intensifying, their physical relevance marked solely by how effectively they’re able to denigrate those who fall below their standards.