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.


I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

Reading vs. Consuming

One can’t help but laugh when going through old magazines, especially those “best of” issues that boldly predict the most innovative trends to emerge in the near or distant future.

Cover of Smithsonian MagazineIn the August 2010 issue of Smithsonian, for example, the magazine celebrated its 40th anniversary by listing “40 Things You Need to Know About the Next 40 Years.” The list includes automobiles that run on salt water, organs and body parts made to order, and world peace finally manifesting as the result of our global population reaching old age en masse.

Some of these predicted events may, indeed, turn out to be prescient. In fact, the last item on the list is already taking place: new habits in personal literacy. The proliferation of mobile technology, with its smooth surfaces requiring swipes and taps to operate, have created a modality in which reading has become more dextrous. Meanwhile, smaller screens minimize the amount of content that can be consumed in one session.

Reading and writing, like all activities, are subject to dynamic influences that shape how written material is created, distributed and received. In 15th-century Europe, only 1 in 20 males could read, and writing was an even rarer skill. The advent of the printing press allowed content to be mass-produced at greater volumes, allowing for less “scholarly” works to see publication (the first romance novel was published in 1740). When it comes to formulating a public aesthetic, technology is not neutral.

Words today have migrated from bound paper pulp to 4.5 billion tiny screens worldwide. We see them illuminated on darkened commuter trains. We gaze absentmindedly at them while standing in line at the supermarket. We sneak quick glances at them while stopped at a red light. We aren’t reading for knowledge or enrichment; we’re filling a moment until the next thing happens.

Illustration by Erik Carter. Screenshots from Vine users Alona Forsythe, Brandon Bowen, Dems, imanilindsay, MRose and Sionemaraschino.
Illustration by Erik Carter for the New York Times Magazine. Screenshots from Vine users Alona Forsythe, Brandon Bowen, Dems, imanilindsay, MRose and Sionemaraschino.

But what are we reading that’s so riveting that it removes us from the present moment? As it turns out, nothing. There is a whole industry around the idea of “borecore,” a term used by Jenna Wortham in a New York Times Magazine article this month. She describes how video-sharing apps like Vine and Meerkat operate like a firehose, constantly releasing a voluminous stream of vapid, self-indulgent content more appropriate as time-filler than value enrichment:

“Rather than killing time at the mall, in a Spencer’s Gifts or the food court, young people are filming themselves doing the incredibly mundane: goofing around in a backyard pool, lounging on basement couches, whatever; in other words, recording the minutiae of their lives and uploading it for not very many to see.”

Kindle Fire deviceA similar trend is taking place with non-video content. We don’t read the written word, as we do a book or periodical literature; we consume it. Screens are always on, and we never stop peeking at them. The digital material we consume is highly visual and interactive, requiring a series of finger gestures and precise tapping sequences. Pop-up windows with tiny “close” buttons and interstitial moving images compete for our attention, and every selection we make is recorded by someone, somewhere, for some data-driven purpose we’ll never understand.

Reading off a screen requires a user to rapidly formulate a pattern of behavior that rewards distraction. Sitting down with a long narrative, told in a singular voice, just doesn’t have the same element of persuasion during instances when we need a quick blast of information (such as checking the customer reviews of a product while we’re standing in the store, deciding whether to make the purchase) or just want to waste a few minutes at the airport until our flight is called.

People standing in line, looking at their smart phones.
Photo by Greg Battin of Autodesk University.

Some might argue that technology has even influenced the quality of content we choose to consume. At its “best,” reading from a tablet screen is no different than turning the pages of a book, because good writing will always transcend whatever medium by which it’s delivered. At “worst,” though, we scan words off a screen between the moments of our lives, like sneaking an unhealthy snack into our mouths when we think no one is looking.

Whatever our opinion on the quality of digital material being consumed, one cannot deny that our retrieval capacity has enhanced our role as content aggregators. We reside in constant, curatorial flux regarding the world around us, and the screen is the first place we look when we need answers. It’s also the vehicle of choice when we want to put something out into the world, even if the end in mind is a book printed on paper. Otherwise, this blog wouldn’t exist.

Understanding Digital Dualism

“If you create the Internet as false, then you create the not-internet, which gets to be real.” So says sociologist and writer Nathan Jurgenson in a piece written last week by Kyle Chayka for Pacific Standard. Mr. Jurgenson introduced the term “digital dualism” in 2011 to describe the gaps that exist between how we depict ourselves online, and how we present ourselves when all the screens are turned off.

For the most part, we’ve become so accustomed to the online space that the personas we present retain at least some fragment of our real selves. Furthermore, it’s likely that we have contacts with whom we’ve never actually met face-to-face. With 71 percent of online adults having used Facebook in the past ten years, it’s not impossible to have a reasonably high number of “friends” whom we wouldn’t recognize on the street. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, just an interesting anthropological detail.

Where things get tricky is when the persona we put forth online is markedly different than our real life selves. A friend of mine is an avid gamer. As a random experiment, he switched the gender of his character to see what sort of reaction would take place. The female avatar’s level of play was not well received by other players (especially when he/she was winning), even though my friend’s game tactics were exactly the same as when he represented himself as a male character.

male and female avatars of an online game

Those who believe the online gaming world to be saturated with masochistic tendencies will not be surprised by the above account. That being said, there is a bigger issue at play. Digital dualism exists as a belief due to one’s personal assumption that online and offline worlds are separate, and thus distinct, realities. However, technology is now so engrained into our daily lives that the overlap between the virtual and physical worlds are indistinguishable, almost to the point where one is expected to reflect onto the other.

I believe this is why my friend was on the receiving end of so much anger, even beyond the rote “boys will be boys” stereotype that permeates online gaming. Maybe it was less about anger than betrayal; what they saw was not what they got, and this digital duality had a significant impact on their appreciation of my friend’s performance during the game encounter.