Lately, I’ve been having some thought-provoking discussions on Twitter about internet anonymity, mostly in the context of the infamous RPG Codex. I’m someone who teaches and studies rhetoric, which is essentially the art of effective discourse (pretty much any type of communication but straight out formal logic–and some would even count that). Naturally, I have an interest in how a factor like anonymity affects what we’d call the “rhetorical situation.” All else being equal, if Speaker A is wearing a mask, does that make him more or less convincing than Speaker B, who is clearly not afraid to show his face? More to the point, does wearing a mask make you more or less honest when giving your opinion?
Perhaps I’m in a better position than some to contemplate these things, since I am from Louisiana. Throughout the deep south (and, I’m finding, up north as well!), there are people who like to put on bed sheets and get together to talk about how much they hate blacks, Jews, gay folks, etc. They’re called the Ku Klux Klan. While sometimes it may seem obvious who is in the klan and who isn’t (i.e., someone with a six-foot Confederate flag on his truck may or may not be–maybe he’s just really into history), there’s always the suspicion.
And that’s what really concerns me–anonymity cuts both ways. On the one hand, it protects assholes like the KKK. On the other, it makes everybody else look suspicious. When I tell people I’m from the deep south, I’m instantly suspect. Am I racist? How do you know I didn’t just call the KKK assholes as a clever ruse to disassociate myself from them, protecting my secret membership? I am from Louisiana, after all, you may think we’re all just a bunch of closeted racists. It’s not a pretty picture.
I decided to see what others had said on the topic of internet anonymity. John C. Dvorack did a good job summing up the debate back in 2002, and pretty much everything he says holds up well today. I’d like to think that everyone who says “F*** you” and tries to take me apart in an online forum is in reality some guy who’d probably, at worst, turn quickly and walk off if I approached him in public. I’ve experienced (as I’m sure many of you have) the type who really seem to get off on hurting your feelings, and go to great lengths to make sure they’ve stung you. This is nothing new to me.
I was relentlessly bullied all throughout my “formative years” of high school. I’m used to the idea of someone hating and wanting to hurt me for no reason other than to make themselves feel good.
I guess as we get older, we may like to laugh about the bullies who tormented us, but do we ever really get over it? At Winnfield, we had quite an assortment of bullies, and I was the stereotypical 98 pound weakling. Some of these creeps were just outright psychopaths, guys who walked around with murder in their eyes, like they just couldn’t wait to bash your skull in–in other words, the guys who make your spider sense tingle. One such guy was named Tyler. One day, just as class is starting, he walks up and asks if I’ll read the paper he wrote for the class. Uh, ok? So, I start reading. Suddenly, he slaps me so hard the side of my face explodes in fire (or, at least, that’s what it felt like). I just stood there, staring at him, stunned. There was no reason for the violence; at least none that I could imagine. But there he was, giving me his crazy eyes, I guess hoping I’d retaliate (in retrospect, I definitely damn sure should have, ass beating or no). He finally just stormed off. He threatened me several other times while I was there, usually along the lines of “I’ll be waiting for you after school,” but thankfully never acted on these. This guy is either in prison now or should be.
In any case, after that classroom slap, it was open season on me.
Most of the time, this bullying was just verbal. You’re walking down the hall, and somebody yells out, “Hey, faggot!” and him and a lot of other folks laughing at you. Then there are the folks who’ll slap you on the back of your head when you’re not looking, shoot you with spitballs…One popular sport at Winnfield was shooting at people’s head with rubber bands loaded with carpenter’s staples. These felt like wasp stings and would bring tears to your eyes, no matter how stoic you tried to be about it.
I guess the worst bully I can think of was named…I actually can’t remember his name. Perhaps I’ve repressed it that much. But this dude had talent for humiliating people, His favorite shtick was to run up behind me when I was getting books out of my locker and run his hands up and down my legs, moaning like he was in a gay porn video. Everybody thought this was hilarious, of course.
Sometimes I ask–if I hadn’t been the victim, would I have found it funny? I remember seeing a bully picking on a retarded kid. The kid had been describing how he’d seen some deer licking a salt lick, and was sticking out his tongue to demonstrate it. The bully kept asking him to show us again and again, and was getting sadistic joy out of making the guy look stupid. Everybody, including me, laughed at first, but then the retarded kid laughed, too. I was shocked–I looked at his face, and saw that he was just happy–happy that he was making people laugh; he thought they liked him; that he was doing something good.
I felt sick…I still do now, even as I write about it. I’m not a religious guy, but I can sympathize with those Romans who were tormenting Jesus right up until they found he really was the Messiah, and he forgave their sorry asses. They must have felt like shit.
None of these bullies were anonymous, of course. I could have turned them in to the teacher, though at Winnfield, I suspect I’d have gotten a lecture about not being a tattle tale instead.
My strategy had been the old “ignore them, and they’ll go away,” but that simply didn’t work. The hyenas prey on the weak, and the only way to stop them is not to be that person. My personal hell finally ended when a hyena named Adam decided to slap me in the back of the head before geography class. I don’t know what it was, but something inside me snapped. I leaped to my feet, stormed over to his desk, and started yelling at him to stand up. He just stared at the wall in front of him during this episode. Finally, I returned to my desk. Nobody ever said anything about this. But I never got slapped on the back of the head (or anywhere else) ever again. They say violence never solves anything, but that’s just not true. People have to at least think that you’re no easy mark–that, if they mess with you, you’re not going to take it.
But what if I hadn’t known who it was that slapped me that day? What if all of the abuse, the wounds and scars I carry with me to this day–had all been done by people in masks? What if the same people you see everyday and trust were daydreaming about later that night, when they’re going to “get you good?”
Sure, there’s a flip side. What if, for example, I could have “gotten back” at the bullies secretly. I was into something called h/p/a (hacking/phreaking/anarchy) back then, and some of the files I downloaded from BBSs were called “The Anarchists’ Cookbook.” I’m sure anyone with these files would be jailed as a terrorist today, but back then it was only mildly creepy. Most of the stuff was just ways of screwing with people, such as signing them up for a bunch of embarrassing magazine subscriptions, messing up their cars, or making long distance calls on their dime. I never did any of this stuff, and, in retrospect, I’m glad I did not. Doing this stuff might have made me feel better for awhile, but, sort of like masturbation, it just isn’t as satisfying as the real deal. Standing up to a bully and gaining everyone’s respect is priceless. Slashing a bully’s tires and making everyone suspicious of everybody else is shameful. I think one of my friends put it best–“An ass beating hurts for a day. Being a wussy hurts your whole life.” I would add to that–delighting in causing anybody pain, for whatever reason, hurts you in the afterlife, too. Don’t cross the line between standing up to a bully and becoming one yourself, especially if it means donning a mask.
But, anyway, Many of my friends on the RPG Codex come from much different backgrounds than me, especially those from Eastern Europe. They’ve told me that in their countries, just saying some bad things about the government can easily get you killed. If they didn’t protect their anonymity, thugs in suits would be crashing through their door at three in the morning.
Even in these cases, I have to wonder if anonymity is really the only way to go. What if, instead of just keeping their views secret, everybody opened up about it. The secret police might get many of you, but what if that only incited more people to stand up? I’d say you’d end up with a revolution that way. Nobody ever said freedom was free, and somebody–unfortunately, it always seems to be people like you and me–have to be the ones to stand up first.
As for me, being free isn’t being able to say whatever I want with no consequences. Instead, it means being able to say whatever I’m wiling to stand behind. If I think your podcast sucks enough to the point where I just have to express that, I will. I’ll accept that you will probably not like me for it, and may even try to harm me. If, on the other hand, I don’t want to hurt your feelings or are afraid of the potential harm, then I just won’t say it. Saying the same crap, but calling myself the “Masked Rat,” is, if anything, even worse than just saying it outright. It’s like going behind your back and slashing your tires to “get even.” It doesn’t “get even,” it just drags me even lower into the cesspit.
If you want to get on an online forum under a pseudonym and say the most vile and abusive things you can think of to “get even” with your own bullies (real or perceived) OR to make life hell for your own wussies (real or perceived), I can’t stop you. But think about you’re doing and why. Is it really just fun, or are you allowing yourself to be dragged ever lower into the cesspit? It’s not good there, man. Go take a shower, scrub off the shit, and start living an honest life. Get rid of the pseudonyms. Life life openly. They’re not going to come for you, and, if they do, that’s just the price you have to pay for being a free man or woman. Hopefully, there will be plenty of other folks such as me around who will gladly stand beside you. After all, bullies only pick on the zebras they can isolate, the ones with no true friends.
One last story. There was (is?) a politician in Louisiana named David Duke. He ran for office a few times, most notably for governor. He was also a former leader in the KKK. My dad was a big supporter, and even bought a t-shirt. I asked him, “Are you going to wear that shirt to work?”
“Yes. But I’ll wear it under my coveralls.”
I’m Matt Barton. I have hundreds of awesome t-shirts. And I don’t wear coveralls.