Online Jerks - 9 Causes and 9 Solutions

A friend of mine, Brian Blum, wrote a candid piece in the Jerusalem Post about his experiences with online "bullying," in the form of malicious comments he's received in reaction to his articles. (I put "bullying" in quotes not to minimize the problem but to distinguish it from children who are cyber-bullied to the point of being suicidal. Hence my use of the term "jerks" in the title.)

Steve Martin in "The Jerk"
After reading the article, I started reflecting on what causes people, droves of them, to engage in such gratuitous verbal cruelty in online settings. And it occurred to me that there are a myriad of psychological and social factors converging here. Here are a few that come to mind: 

1) Online culture is such that "strong" comments are rewarded with likes and attention - i.e. positive reinforcement. 

2) People identify way too much with their "opinions." When an article or comment challenges their opinion, offers a different idea, they take it as an attack on them, which puts them in a defensive and/or belligerent space. 

3) The urge to find fault, to critique, is very strong. It's so much easier to destroy than to build, and cutting someone down grants a sense of power and accomplishment to people without their having to spend all the time and energy creating. 

4) People's rapid-fire perusal of online material (and tendency to "skip" if they can't read it in 10 seconds) results in pithy, coarse and superficial exchange. One-liners and put-downs are favored over depth of thought. 

5) A certain shamelessness and even "pride" in cruel and unkind comments has become normative. People are increasingly comfortable using their real names when slamming others, because they want to be seen as unapologetic, valiant soldiers for the "cause." 

6) Even adults can possess a childish lack of tact and restraint. No filter. Negative emotions are put immediately to writing. 

7) We often become numb to humanity, to the fact that there are people with real feelings behind the ideas we encounter. 

8) We're highly impacted by our environment. Being around unkindness begets more unkindness. It lowers the bar for human interaction. 

9) Some people are simply jerks. They started off that way on the playground, and it continues into adulthood.

Okay, now that I've clarified and kvetched a bit about this, let me offer what I think might be a positive response - a sort of "tikun" - to each of the above points. 

1) Don't let rude, insulting, gratuitously cruel comments stand.
The verse (indeed the halacha), "You shall not stand over the blood of your neighbor" (Lev. 19:16) comes to mind. That is, you should not watch idly while one person intentionally inflicts pain and suffering on another. When you see a hurtful comment, say something. No, don't yell or insult back. Tell them that you oppose that kind of talk. Where applicable, suggest to the moderator/person posting to delete the comments or at least warn the commenter. And voice your support to the person attacked - even if you don't agree with their opinion. Because this isn't about opinions. It's about being a decent human being. We need to negatively reinforce unkindness - make it unpopular, unacceptable.
2) Have a little humility about your opinions.
Our opinions change. They're highly influenced by our peer group. And what's more, our opinions are not us. Yes, part of life is thinking about issues and championing what we think is the best approach. But recognize that more important than being "right" is creating a decent world. And berating people, belittling them, because you think they're wrong is creating a worse world. Period. I'd much rather be surrounded by kind, thinking, decent people with whom I don't agree than a bunch of loudmouthed bullies who happen to share my political or religious beliefs. People are more important than ideas. Humanity trumps opinions.
3) Think about what you're doing when you offer criticism.
When you encounter work that someone has done - an effort that they put their time, energy, heart and possibly their money into, think twice about how and whether you critique it. Yes, you could have done it better, said it better. But did you? Nope. And yes, there are mistakes in it. There are always mistakes. People will invariably find something wrong. How many times have you not put something "out there" for fear of all the naysayers, armchair critics, and eviscerating comments? Then why would you possibly feed that system? Sure, there's a place for thoughtful, intelligent critique. That's called "feedback," and it's essential. But maybe try this on for size: Think about it as "giving" feedback, "offering" something to the person. You don't want to "harm" them, after all - you want to "help," so why would you possibly say anything insulting? Let's take it further: Even if you disagree, find a way to appreciate something they've said - whether it's a point they made, a fact that they got right, research they did. Anything. Not only does it create a more conducive atmosphere for creativity, for constructive feedback, for positive human interaction, but it also lowers the person's defenses and increases your chances of actually being heard when you offer your feedback.
4) Invest in some depth.
The fast pace at which we consume online content is a very real impediment to reading longer, more nuanced, balanced and reflective thoughts. There's only so much content we can "invest" in per day. (Even as I write this post, I'm conscious that you're investing your time, so thank you for that!) Which is partly why insults work. They get the message across in just a few words, and they do a splendid job of catching people's attention. 
You complete moron!

I apologize - I really don't think you're a moron. But it works. Your eyes went right to it, partly because "less is more," and also because insults stand out. And it probably gave you a tiny "jolt" of a negative feeling. It did something to you, stirred something within you, just like it does to people who fly through comment threads, causing them to take notice. That's what we're up against here - statements that "work" in terms of capturing attention but which hold no substance whatsoever. And they're everywhere. What do I suggest then? a) Be thoughtful anyway. Don't get sucked in. Just because something "works" doesn't mean we should do it. After all, theft "works." Extortion "works." b) Be concise. It is possible to be thoughtful without being "linguistically overindulgent." Besides, it's your readers' time you're taking. Be considerate of that. c) As a reader, instead of focusing on "breadth," racing through gobs of posts and comments, try for a little more "depth." Learn to identify thoughtful expression, and invest your time and thought-energy there.
5) Be a soldier for civility.
Don't hide behind anonymous comments. Unless you're talking about personal privacy issues (e.g. speaking about topics you'd be uncomfortable discussing under your real name, which is a perfectly appropriate use of anonymity), use your own name. Be willing to take responsibility for the type of speech you use. If you're unkind behind a mask, it's no less of a soul-sucking endeavor for you. You're training yourself, one comment at a time, to be unkind in real life. It starts with anonymous comments. You then get emboldened (i.e. shameless) enough to say these things under your real name. And if you can be rude to complete strangers to their (online) faces, that doesn't bode well for your real-life intimate relationships. Instead, take "pride" in being decent and kind. Let that be your calling wherever you go, online or offline. Absolutely, continue to "fight the good fight," but above all be a soldier for decency, for reasonableness, for civility. Remember, there's a name for a person so zealous about advancing their cause that they're willing to harm as many people as it takes along the way: a terrorist. Be a hero instead.
6) Think before you write.
It's that simple. When you read something that gets you riled up - and that includes negative, hurtful comments! - take a breath and notice what it's doing to you. Feel it. Pause for a moment and tune in. It's basic "mindfulness." If you stop, you allow yourself the space to decide what kind of thoughts you want to express in the world. Even if you still want to voice some of that "feeling," you may decide to be more measured and even-keeled about it. The goal is to interrupt the instinctive "lash-out" drive and give yourself a choice. It's about honing the mature adult within. We don't have to be so reactive. We can set the tone of our lives and our interactions. We can be the "Kung Fu masters" of our own emotions. Yeah, Kung Fu. That's what I'm talking about!
7) Know there's a real person behind the name.
Every person you see, whether you're walking in the street, in line at the supermarket, stuck in traffic - everyone, everywhere - they're all mired in challenges. Unbelievable, heart-rending challenges. They've known tragedy. They've known misfortune and disappointment. They've loved and lost. They've tried and failed. They're struggling in a zillion different ways - could be money, health, family, self-esteem, trauma, loneliness, weight issues, addiction, anxiety, or they're just totally overwhelmed with life. My gosh, how could my default be anything but compassion to everyone? "Com-passion," in the literal sense of "suffering with each other," being with people in their struggles, wanting to make their lives that much better. And it goes without saying: How could I possibly ever want to add another ounce of pain into that equation? Well, behind that article you just read is a "someone," a real person. Behind every name and icon you see on posts and talkbacks, there's a person sitting at their computer or pecking on their phone - someone also trying to find their way in life, with untold struggles and challenges. So be easy on each other! We're all, after all, people. Yes, even those who are mean and cruel. Even the bullies. In fact they're probably suffering the most. They just lack the tools to be able to deal with life the way you can. Point being, we can't be so focused on "what" we're arguing over that we forget the fact that there's a "who" on the other side.
8) Seek out healthier environments.
Find groups where thoughtful, civil, good-spirited discourse is the norm. By exposing ourselves to sludge, we get... sludgy. By exposing ourselves to light, we become "enlightened." There's only so much time in the day, and in our lives. So if you want to help yourself and do something good for the world, choose your neighbors wisely. If you lament the fact that the "bar" for what passes as acceptable conversation seems to be dipping ever lower, be the person who raises the bar!
9) Let it go.
This last point is definitely a "note to self" - just let it go. Yes, there are jerks in the world. There are bullies. You don't have to "convert" them all. You don't have to "punish" them. You don't have to "react" to them. Just focus on doing your positive thing in the world. Do it with as much energy and passion as you can, and don't get bogged down with all the darkness. Because doing your thing is going to do a heck of a lot more good in the world than anything else. Your energy is a precious and limited commodity. Don't let the jerks of the world suck the life out of you. They don't deserve it!